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Publication Date : 21-02-2013
Those who speak up for and against policies on foreigners drawing flak
Over the past week, the continuing conversation on the Population White Paper has taken on a new buzzword: xenophobia.
At least three individuals critical of the government's immigration policies have been labelled anti-foreigner.
Most recently, Workers' Party chief Low Thia Khiang has had to defend himself against a charge of inciting xenophobia in his speech during the parliamentary debate.
So has Gilbert Goh, the organiser of what has been touted to be the biggest protest rally in Singapore since Independence, and a young man who attended it in punk attire and was seen holding up a sign saying "Singapore for Singaporeans".
Several speakers at the protest last Saturday also took pains to make clear that they are not xenophobic, which is an intense dislike or fear of people from other countries.
But accusations continue to be lobbed at various personalities on different media platforms.
The thorny topic of foreigners continues to dominate online and offline conversations two weeks after Parliament held an intense debate on the White Paper.
In the latest twist, those who voice strong opposition to foreigner-friendly policies find themselves risking being called xenophobic even if they are not.
Those who fear that closing the door on foreigners could hurt Singapore are also getting hit by those who say they are not pro-Singapore enough.
The growing divide bears watching, said observers like Dr Leong Chan-Hoong of the Institute of Policy Studies (IPS).
"We're becoming more polarised and politicised than ever on immigration and integration," he said.
Dr Leong added that it is dangerous to "present issues in a dichotomous way because you will overlook the complexity of the challenge".
At the centre of the storm is Goh. Critics said he should not be xenophobic given talk that he holds permanent residency in Australia, where he spent a few years in the past decade.
But he denied this, and said he remains a Singapore citizen. His ex-wife and daughter are living in Australia.
In a Facebook post yesterday, he said: "I merely had a four-year work permit and it has expired."
The charges of xenophobia began last Friday - a day before the "Say NO to 6.9 million" protest - when an article he had written two years ago describing stereotypes of different immigrant nationalities went viral.
The timing could not have been more unfortunate. It sparked online debate on whether attending the rally meant endorsing what appeared to be his anti-foreigner stance.
One of the 12 speakers, Dr Vincent Wijeysingha of the Singapore Democratic Party, wrote on Facebook that the article was regrettable.
"As citizens, we must be very clear that xenophobia is not the way to react to population policy. Foreigners are human beings and deserve respect and dignity," he wrote.
The National Solidarity Party, whose members Jeannette Chong-Aruldoss and Ravi Philemon also spoke, released a statement to say neither the party nor the pair endorsed the views in the article.
Goh himself apologised at the start of the rally. He told The Straits Times yesterday: "I'm human, I make mistakes. But this event was not about xenophobia. It's about being against the government's policies."
Participants were not spared. Photos of signs held by some have circulated online, raising questions of whether they were promoting anti-foreigner sentiments.
The sign which sparked the biggest uproar read "Singapore for Singaporeans" and was held by a young man wearing punk-influenced attire. Some drew parallels with right-wing nationalist punk subcultures in Europe.
Sociologist Tan Ern Ser said the language of inclusion "can easily connote exclusion" and come across as xenophobic even if unintended.
But he felt the protesters wanted to send a strong message to the Government rather than drive out foreigners.
The man, who goes by the online name Daryl Nihility, also wrote on Facebook that his sign simply stood for "putting Singaporean first and not to lose our national sense of identity". He added: "There is nothing nationalistic or xenophobic about that."
On what the recent events suggest about Singaporeans, some academics like IPS' Dr Leong cited his think-tank's survey findings showing that Singaporeans are largely inclusive and recognise the contributions of immigrants.
Professor Tan agreed that Singaporeans are not xenophobic, but cautioned that having a significant number of foreigners deemed to have a negative impact on citizens' interests could "reinforce the boundary between being Singaporean and non-Singaporean".
Away from the rally, WP chief Low has also had to fend off accusations of inciting xenophobia.
A new citizen from China, Li Yeming, wrote to Lianhe Zaobao and suggested that Mr Low and the WP fanned anti-foreigner sentiments in the White Paper debate, and drew a line between native-born and new citizens. Li has clarified that he wrote in his personal capacity.
On Monday, Low refuted Li's claims, saying the latter had selectively interpreted his speech and that he had called for equal treatment of all citizens.
On how Singaporean-foreigner relations can be navigated in these sensitive times, experts said it is important to be clear on the issue.
Anthropologist Lai Ah Eng said it was a good start that those involved in the protest were reminded of what it was against: policies, and not immigrants.
Singaporeans should also not be too quick to cry xenophobia. "There are individuals who say 'go home' but instead of labelling them as xenophobic, can we ask why are they saying 'go home'? Context is crucial," she said.
Former Nominated MP Siew Kum Hong pointed out that netizens and citizens can set the tone by speaking out strongly against xenophobic views, like in the aftermath of Goh's article.
Dr Lai also hopes the discourse will shift away from labels of xenophobia.
"The focus should be on whether Singaporeans are reasonable in asserting their rights to citizenship over population issues amid intense globalisation and competition, in which rapid and massive immigration is used by the government to solve problems."