Embracing Otherhood

SINGAPORE prides itself on being multi-racial. But not many are aware of how multi it really is.
 
Everyone is familiar with the main races — Malay, Chinese and Indian — and that strange entity called Others.
 
Others, for the longest time, has meant Eurasians. But in recent years, that has no longer been the case.
 
The 2000 population census showed that more than one in four people in Singapore is a foreigner, with "foreigners" defined as permanent residents and non-residents such as students, foreign workers, expatriates and others without permanent residence. It excludes transients and tourists.
 
The jump in population, from 3.05 million in 1990 to 4.02 million in 2000, comes mostly from the influx of foreigners. Citizens now make up 74 per cent of the population, down from 86.1 per cent in 1990.
 
Of the roughly 3.3 million citizens and permanent residents here, about 2.7 million are Singapore-born. The remaining 600,000 were born outside Singapore. The countries of birth listed in the census are Malaysia, Indonesia, China, Hong Kong, Taiwan, India, Sri Lanka, Pakistan, Bangladesh, the United States and Canada. But there are also groupings in the form of "other Asian countries", "European countries" and "Others".
 
In 2001, Watson Wyatt, a consulting company, found in its survey of 363 companies that almost 50 per cent of expatriates here are from India, with China and Malaysia following closely behind. But while statistics say we are becoming more international in appearance, our collective psyche can sometimes seem stuck in the sleepy backwaters of the past.
 
For example, there are still whispers about Caucasians living in HDB (政府组屋) estates, as if these Singapore residents were circus freaks outside their natural environment of district 9 and 10: "See the amazing Ang Mo (红毛,洋人之意) in Ang Mo Kio (宏茂桥,据说以前是种了很多番茄 — 西红柿 — 福建话叫 ang mo kio,所以成了地名)!"
 
Yes, the Singaporean mind still finds it hard to imagine a white person as an integrated resident and not some overpaid expatriate sipping Pimms at the Tanglin Club. Similarly, it is hard to imagine a Filipino, Indonesian or Bangladeshi as someone other than menial help.
 
Much ink has been spilled in the last few weeks on the sorry state of foreign domestic workers here. They live in our homes, but they are far from being one of "us". If we did not need them so much, they could pretty much be invisible.
 
The same goes for the many foreigners who work on our construction sites. They do not factor into our daily consciousness unless we are stuck in traffic and are suddenly faced with 10 of them in the back of the pick-up truck in front of us. Their tales of woe do not generate as much interest as those of domestic workers.
 
Last month, the horrifying circumstances surrounding the death of Maung Soe Thein from Myanmar barely caused a ripple here. Maung, 24, was an illegal worker who fell to his death while working on a block of flats in Compassvale Walk on May 9. His employer, Chua Beng Lye, not only failed to report his death, but he also enlisted the help of his foreman, Mari Elangovan, to dump the body at a nearby carpark.
 
Chua was sentenced to jail for eight months, Elangovan for senven months. Chua’s son, who looked on but did nothing, was also jailed for eight months.
 
While Chua did not beat or kill his worker, his failure to provide him a dignified end is stunning. Yet the incident did not seem to register with the average Singaporean. There was no collective sense of outrage that this poor exploited worker ended his life as a footnote while building nice flats for us to live in.
 
It would be sweeping (and definitely wrong) to say that Singaporeans are racist or xenophobic. But perceived differences and slights go a long way towards making us mean-spirited, especially when it comes to sharing our personal space and opportunities. Also, since Sept 11, a sickness of isolation, fear and suspicion ha permeated, not only Singapore, but the rest of the world. And it goes beyond differences in race.
 
On a slightly different tack, it is not necessarily true that Asian immigrants integrate more easily into Sinagpore society. Sharing the same colour is merely a superficial connection. Not as many expatriates and immigrants from China are joining the traditional clan associations here, unlike  previous waves of immigrants. And there is the derogatory assumption by Singaporean Chinese that mainland women are all predators out to seduce old men of their CPF savings (公积金).
 
Elsewhere in the world, the recent riots in Paris and Sydney have underlined the importance of integration and unity, and the vital need to narrow the gap between Us and Them. The issues of belonging, nationhood, integration and unity are complex and multi-layered. Human nature is such that people will band together by virtue of race or background.
 
But as our country plays host to more people from different backgrounds and cultures, the need to recognise, understand and assimilate differences is all the more urgent. So, apart from recognising Chinese, Indians, Malays and Eurasians born in SIngapore, it is about time we identify and humanise the 25 per cent of Singapore resedents who were born elsewhere.
 
It is a two-way process, of course. Singaporeans must stop resenting foreign workers who take away their jobs while at the same time turning a blind eye to those who work in blue-collar jobs they would not even consider.We must learn to be compassionate and less prejudiced.
 
At the same time, the new guests in our country must also do their part to understand and appreciate us. If each side persists in hanging out with its own "kind", then we will be stuck forever in the little ghettos of our mind. As long as people remain Others in the collective mindset, they will never ever become one of Us.
 
~ by Ong Soh Chin, The Straits Times, December 17, 2005

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