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Xenophobia is xenophobia November 29, 2011

Posted by laïcité in Life in London, Singapore, Society.
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I don’t even know how to introduce this video. Just take a look.

Now tell me: how is that sentiment different from this? (From facebook)

Xenophobia is xenophobia.  Whether you are complaining about the smell of foreign workers, or blaming them for taking your “rightful” place at Universities, or telling them to go back to where they came from,  you are no better than that horrid woman on the tram in London. Xenophobia is ugly, hateful, and disgusting, regardless of whether it is spouted by a British chav or a Singaporean beng.

Thankfully, in my time in London, I have never personally encountered a xenophobic attack (verbal or otherwise), and neither have most of my black, brown, and yellow friends who were born and raised in Britain. I wonder if the same can be said for the average foreigner living and working in Singapore.

Protected from the anti-science brigade November 22, 2011

Posted by laïcité in Education, Life in London, Science, Singapore.
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Having grown up in Singapore, the one thing I am most thankful for is my excellent education in science. It was tough, it was rigorous, and I probably took it for granted. But I’m now starting to see that the quality of science education is not so universal. It may sound ridiculous for me to say this, but I am so glad that in Singapore, kids are taught that science is a good thing.

I’ve been living in the UK for more than a year now. And I got the shock of my life when I walked into a pharmacy one day about a year ago, to discover that they sell little bottles of sugar pills for more than S$10 each. Not just any old sugar pills. Sugar pills that have been dipped into water containing a “homeopathic substance” at a 10-60 dilution (For those of you without a calculator at hand, that’s one molecule of the original substance per 1034 gallons of water). In other words, sugar pills dipped into water. Pills that have been shown in hundreds of clinical trials to be no more effective than a placebo. Now, I had heard of homeopathy before, but I didn’t think that anybody actually took it seriously. How was I to know that that pharmacies would sell plain water and sugar pills as medicine, and that there would even be a hospital devoted to homeopathy, and that even the NHS recognizes it as a form of alternative medicine1? I see that not only as a huge failure of the promotion and understanding of science in the general population, but also a flagrant disregard for the scientific process and evidence-based medicine by the authorities.

Perhaps even scarier than the acceptance of homeopathy is the worrying fact that in some neighborhoods around London, measles has become endemic among children. Measles is not a nice disease at all: it is extremely infectious, has a not insignificant fatality rate, there is no specific treatment, and it can result in serious complications and sequalae. Measles is hardly a problem in Singapore because all children are given the MMR vaccine, which confers good resistance against measles, mumps, and rubella.

So why is the incidence of measles so high in a civilized city like London? Well, some people choose not to vaccinate their children because they believe that the MMR vaccine is linked to autism. This belief started due to a paper published by Andrew Wakefield in 1998. Wakefield’s research methods were poor, he made up a new syndrome (“autistic enterocolitis”), he manipulated data, and his claims were downright dishonest; but the media lapped it up anyway, sensationalizing his paper and broadcasting his lies. Despite the fact that his paper was eventually retracted by The Lancet, despite new reports that his claims were fraudulent, and despite at least 4 (that I know of, at least) subsequent studies on the subject denouncing the Wakefield’s MMR-autism link, this was all ignored by mainstream media. We cannot blame the parents who didn’t know any better (Or maybe we can blame them for turning to tabloids as their source of health information?). The resurgence of measles in the UK is single handedly the fault of the unregulated salacious tabloids willing to spout outright lies to sell copies. While I am disappointed by the absence of press freedom in Singapore, I am at least thankful that until now at least, even our tabloids have not sunk low enough to promote anti-science nonsense just for profit, whilst risking the health and lives of thousands of people. Free press or not, there is a line at reporting scientific untruths.

I guess it could be worse. I could be living in the US, where the anti-science sentiment exists even louder and prouder amongst a significant proportion of the population.  We should count ourselves fortunate that creationists have no influence over our education system, and our kids can learn scientific facts about evolution and the age of the earth, untouched by the blatant scientific untruths of 2,000-year-old books. We should be glad that the terms “genetically modified2”, “chemical”3, “stem cell research”, or “cloning” are not dirty words that immediately provoke a kneejerk reaction of disgust and suspicion. And I sure as hell am happy that science is not used as part of a political agenda in Singapore by portraying the acceptance of science as a form of oppression of the “average Joe”. It seems as though the Republicans not only shun science, they have a burning disdain for it, a hatred of intellectualism, and a distrust and scorn for members of the intellectual elite: scientists, academics, and the educated class as a whole. This is a party that uses the word “professor” as a smear to discredit people who they deem to be too educated.

Of course I’m not saying that every Singaporean is a glowing example of scientific thinking and rationalism. We do have our share of people who believe in baseless pseudoscience, superstition, and dubious medical claims. But one thing we have going for us is that we are taught to respect intellectualism and revere knowledge. We appreciate that knowing more about the world around us is always a good thing. As someone who is just starting a career in science, I am always grateful that my scientific curiosity was nurtured instead of discouraged, and my education in science remained factual, not censored.

Footnotes

  1. I wouldn’t say all alternative medicine is bunk. It’s just untested, unverified, and unproven. I just wish that “alternative” medicine would be subjected to the rigors of (statistically sound, large sample size, randomized, double-blind, controlled) clinical trials and safety testing in order to weed out the nonsense, and so the treatments that actually work can actually be upgraded to be called medicine.
  2. For clarity sake, genetic modification of crops is not bad because it is bad for health, it is bad because of economic and ecological reasons.
  3. Just because something is “chemical”, it is not necessarily bad for health – sugar, salt, amino acids can all be defined as chemicals. Similarly, just because something is “natural”, it doesn’t mean it is safe. Snake venom is a perfectly natural substance. “Artificial” does not automatically make something bad for health either.

Confessions of a foreigner March 31, 2011

Posted by laïcité in Life in London, Politics, Society.
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I know many Singaporeans are not afraid to display their hostility towards foreigners. My days in university have taught me that; snarky comments, nasty nicknames and resentment against “china students” were anything but uncommon. Bur recently, after viewing a video posted by Yawningbread talking about the influx of foreigners becoming a chief concern in the coming elections, and after coming across a petition for employers to employ Singaporeans first, I’m beginning to sense that this antagonism is growing, or at least becoming a lot more visible and socially acceptable.

Or maybe it’s just me. You see, I am a foreigner now, so perhaps I have become more sensitive about these things. As a Singaporean student living in the UK, never in my life have I felt more conscious of how a country’s locals treat its foreigners. It’s not because I’m treated any differently here. It’s because I’m not treated any differently here. Unlike how we used to treat the students from China back in NUS, talking about how they screwed up the grading curve making it impossible for us locals to get As, letting them form their own enclaves and never really welcoming them into our own cliques, no one treats me like a foreigner here. No one complains about me stealing places that local students “deserve”, no one makes a big deal about my race or where I come from, and I can bet that no one actually blames me or other international students for congestion on the trains and buses (which I’m sure is actually worse than the situation back home).

That’s not to say that anti-foreigner sentiments are totally absent. But the key difference is that no one here can get away with blaming social and economic problems on immigrants without looking like a total bigot. Sure, you can criticize foreigners all you want here, but in everyone’s minds, that instantly relegates you to the likes of right-wing parties like the BNP, or salacious hate and fear mongering tabloids, or ignorant racist or homophobic countryfolk. You’d have to be pretty delicate and wise with your words here if you want to argue against foreigners and immigration. That’s a far cry from the brazen xenophobia that I sometimes see in Singapore, where foreigner-blaming is common to university students and busybody aunties alike.

Looking back on it, I feel ashamed of how nasty we were to other students simply based on their nationality. These students from India and China want success as much as any one of us, and they are probably more desperate to improve their lives than most of us privileged Singaporeans. Why should nationality make any difference? If they can qualify to get into our universities, then they have every right to be there. It doesn’t seem fair to me that we are more entitled to jobs or to places in primary schools or universities, simply because we had the privilege of being born in Singapore. Simply because by some stroke of luck, our grandparents decided to leave their villages but theirs didn’t.

Is it really fair to blame foreigners who want to work and study in Singapore? If you had the ability, the opportunity and the means to, would you pass up the opportunity to work or study abroad, thus improving your job prospects, increasing your potential earnings and broadening your horizons? Foreign students and workers are simply making that same logical choice for themselves.

I had a lengthy discussion with my British colleagues on this issue. I asked them what they thought of the growing unemployment problem in the UK and the opening of the “floodgates” to workers from all over the EU. My question was met with no anger, no hostility, and not a tinge of resentment. (I dare you to ask a similar question to a young jobseeker in Singapore and attempt to stop the xenophobic rant that would most surely ensue.) Many of the responses I got were startlingly applicable to Singapore. “It’s not like the locals would want many of the jobs that the immigrants take up, anyway.” “Where would our country be without the contribution of immigrants?” “They just want to be able to enjoy the high standard of living here that we take for granted.” My friend put it most aptly. In the most matter-of-fact manner: “We’re competing with the world now. That’s just the way it is.”

With all this talk of “competing with the world”, it’s easy to let a dog-eat-dog society take over. It’s easy to sink into a world where only the fittest survive, and the weaker members of society fall through the cracks. But this is not inevitable. Even as we welcome the talent and competition that immigration brings, there is no excuse not to have a safety net to ensure that all members of society – locals or foreigners – have a minimum standard of living, and this means minimum wage, affordable healthcare and bargaining power in the form of unions.

I’m pretty sure most Singaporeans really aren’t xenophobic; they’re just concerned about their livelihoods. I just hope they see that the solution lies in better welfare, better transport, and better schools, and not in demonizing foreign workers and students who are really just like us.

This is what freedom of speech looks like March 27, 2011

Posted by laïcité in International, Life in London, Politics, Singapore, Society.
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I woke up to the sounds of helicopters and whistles and drums in the distance. I had an inkling of what was going on – there were university union members handing out flyers to university staff and students to strike against the pension cuts earlier in the week. I checked the BBC website, and sure enough, there was going to be a protest in London – a huge one. One that would involve more than 200,000 participants angry with the government’s spending cuts to the public sector, causing a loss in jobs. Sure enough, I looked out the window and saw legions of people carrying flags and signs, walking from the tube station towards the embankment, and tour buses upon tour buses dropping off protesters arriving from all over the UK.

I had plans to do grocery shopping, but given the bus delays and road blocks due to the protests, that wasn’t going to happen. Instead, my boyfriend and I decided to follow the crowds.

Whilst we walked alongside the protesters, I was struck with a sense of pride and warmth. Sure, many of the policies that they were protesting against had little to do with me, and I’m not even British. But I was just so happy to be living in a country where the average Joe had such strong opinions about not only his own livelihood, but that of his friends, his family, and of fellow Britons, and was not afraid to speak up about it. Even more unbelievable (at least to someone who comes from a country where it is illegal to gather in a group of more than 5 people) was the wondrous fact that the city had blocked off its main roads and redirected its bus services, just so that these protesters could carry out their route along the river Thames to hold a rally in Hyde Park.

 

 

Waterloo bridge was closed to traffic to allow protesters to march

We walked across Waterloo Bridge (which was free of traffic because of this event), taking in the almost surreal sights: men, women, teenagers and seniors, holding signs and flyers and cameras, marching across the bridge, amid a backdrop of London’s iconic buildings. On the other side of the river Thames, protesters spanned the entire stretch of the embankment as far as I could see; their colourful flags and balloons making it appear as though they were taking part in a carnival.

 

Protesters spanned the embankment as far as I could see

 

I thought the crowds looked beautiful

There was music. And laughter. And painted faces, and costumes, and children sitting on their parents’ shoulders and many other sights I never expected of a political protest. These people weren’t bitter or volatile, neither were they hooligans trying to stir up violence. They are everyday citizens – teachers, nurses, professors, doctors, firemen and students – unhappy with the fact that their government has decided to cut their jobs. These are average people, concerned about what will happen to their schools and universities and hospitals and emergency services after all the job cuts. They just want their voices to be heard and changes to be made.

 

They were old, young, male, female, parents, grandparents, students. Not the type of extremist troublemakers that the Singapore government tries to train us to associate with politcal demonstrations.

Why is Singapore so afraid of all this? Why are our demonstrations (subject to approval) constrained to a tiny grassy patch at Hong Lim? Why is it illegal to air our unhappiness in public? Why does the government paint all protesters as troublemakers and radicals, when in reality many of these issues are the concerns of the average citizen? How can we be told to be satisfied with the approved routes of feedback – sitting at your computer and typing an angry letter to your MP – when issues like jobs, healthcare, civil liberty and economic injustice are real issues to be passionate about and whose scale can only accurately be expressed visually in the form of a demonstration?

Is Singapore afraid that protests may cause inconveniences or scare away tourists? Well I was definitely inconvenienced today, but that inconvenience is tiny compared to what hundreds or thousands of public sector workers would have to go through if their jobs were cut. And if one Saturday’s disruption is what it takes to show the ministers and MPs just how many lives are going to be adversely affected by their policies, then it’s well worth the disruption.  “Maintaining order” and “minimizing inconveniences” are shabby excuses for trying to restrict free speech.

Today I saw what real freedom of speech looks like, and it was beautiful.

N.B. During the protests, a small group broke off the main route and attempted to cause trouble at Picadilly and Oxford Circus. It is unfortunate that there are always a distinct bunch of youths whose only intent is to be a menace, but fortunately these were only about a couple hundred people out of the 250,000 peaceful protesters. Moreover, the police also exercised much restraint, without using unnecessary force and showing discretion when arresting these troublemakers.

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