Of wrongful pride and prejudice


— ST ILLUSTRATION: LUIS MISTADES

Local-foreigner relations can be dicey, to say the least.

I see this in my work as a Member of Parliament. It is not unusual for residents, complaining about noise or litter created by their neighbours, to whisper to me in lowered tones: “You know, they are foreigners.” Sometimes they are; frequently they are not.

Any community dispute where one party is a Permanent Resident or a foreigner is likely to have an invidious dimension. It takes all the tact and skill one can summon to keep both sides focused on the actual problem, and not let identity conflict cloud the issue. That is easier said than done, and I for one don’t always succeed.

Recently, I was asked to adjudicate between two households quarrelling over corridor space.

It was clear that one household – let’s call them Mr and Mrs C – was being unreasonable. Their shelves, potted plants and other belongings took up so much space along the walls that their neighbours were left with only a miserable corner for a small shoe rack. And now their things were advancing into the middle of the corridor too. “Our plants need more sun,” explained Mr and Mrs C.

Mrs D, from the flat next door, pleaded with me to speak to Mr and Mrs C. According to her, prior attempts at reasoning with them had failed. I was glad to try. Handling neighbourly disputes is bread-and-butter work for any MP.

There was, however, a slight hitch. Mrs D’s Mandarin accent was almost local, but I could hear remnants of an unfamiliar lilt. When I asked, she told me she came from a province in southern China. On the other hand, both Mr and Mrs C were true-blue locals.

Uh-oh. An alarm bell went off in my head. Visions of imaginary online headlines spewing vitriol flashed across my mind. “Pro-foreigner MP sides with PRC woman in corridor dispute!” or something nastier.

Mrs D must have noticed my hesitation, because she quickly added: “I have been living here for many years.”

I caught sight of a man inside Mrs D’s flat. “Is that your husband,” I asked. “Please ask him to come out and speak with me,” I said.

As it turned out, Mr D is a Singaporean, born and bred here. Let me be honest – I was relieved.

He was not as articulate as his wife, but I insisted on dealing with him. It became a mediation involving locals: Mr D, Mr and Mrs C, facilitated by me.

This scene has been replaying itself in my mind lately. I have asked myself whether I did right not to include Mrs D in my effort to mediate. I could not help wondering if Mrs D’s foreign origins had something to do with the fact that they could not settle the dispute amongst themselves. More than anything else, I have asked myself what I would have done if it had turned out that both Mr and Mrs D were not local-born.

I share this personal experience to make the point that local-foreigner relations are real issues on the ground. For those of us whose jobit is to maintain peace and harmony in the community, it is something we wrestle with constantly. But we also know there are so many potential pitfalls whenever the subject is raised, that few are motivated to talk about it.

This is why I was particularly moved by Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong’s decision to speak about this issue in his National Day Rally speech last month. It was an example of moral leadership.

Addressing the soul of Singaporeans, the Prime Minister asked us to choose the “better angels of our nature“, to quote Abraham Lincoln, and not give way to prejudice or intolerance. He did so even though he had nothing to gain politically in speaking out on this issue.

Just as visions of hateful headlines had flashed instantaneously across my mind as I stood on that cluttered corridor, I had no difficulty imagining the howls of protest from netizens who would not hesitate to use the Prime Minister’s statement as a stick to beat the Government.

The Prime Minister chose to make his statement nevertheless because it was the right thing to do – morally.

What sort of people do we Singaporeans want to be? Open, generous and tolerant or closed, surly and intolerant? These are important questions that need to be asked.

The vast majority of Singaporeans understood the PM’s message and agreed with it, according to a Reach poll.

The pot shots, however, did come. But I have to say, I was surprised by some who hurled them.

I read for example an article by Mr Gerald Giam, Non-Constituency Member of Parliament of the Workers’ Party, published in the Straits Times last Saturday. It was disappointing, for I had expected better from Mr Giam.

According to Mr Giam: “Anyone who examines the online comments about foreigners will realise that much of the anger is actually not directed at the foreigners, but at the Government for its liberal immigration policies.”

Hang on a minute, Mr Giam.

As the Prime Minister acknowledged, people have every right to express their view on the Government’s immigration policy. Indeed, the disquiet some feel about the spike in immigrants is understandable. As with all other policies, the Government will make adjustments on this front. The flow of immigrants has been tightened, and I support the shift.

The Government welcomes further debate on how we might fine-tune our population policies. The ongoing process leading to the proposed White Paper on population is precisely about consultation and discussion.

But online comments that clearly spew hate and prejudice against individuals or groups are simply that – hate speech. All of us, politician or netizen, need to take a clear stand against hate speech. Abuse of foreigners, or any human being for that matter, is not acceptable, whether it is verbal or physical, online or offline. Interpreting such vile comments, as Mr Giam does, as misdirected anger intended originally for the Government is deeply questionable.

It also strikes me as disingenuous, for Mr Giam’s party only six months ago criticised the Government for tightening the availability of work permits on the grounds it was hurting Small and Medium Enterprises.

Above all, it raises the question of choice and responsibility. Mr Giam’s article suggests that the online vitriol is ultimately the Government’s fault; what is more, the vitriol is justified, for the foreigners, abetted by the Government, have made our lives miserable. It boils down to “don’t worry, be nasty,” – a suggestion that is no doubt appealing to those seeking an excuse to hate.

I choose to say No to that. I say No because I believe we all have a choice in deciding how we behave. Hate speech online or in person is wrong, no matter who the target and whatever the alleged provocation. As moral beings, we can and should choose not to indulge in hate speech. That was the Prime Minister’s simple point.

I say No because I do not think it is responsible to argue that the minority among us who choose to behave badly are helpless victims of the environment.

I say No because I believe my fellow countrymen, whom I have pledged to serve, can weigh right and wrong – and we can choose to do right or refrain from doing wrong even when confronted by seductive voices suggesting wrong is right.

The Prime Minister appealed to our better natures: Singaporeans, let us treat foreigners as we would want to be treated ourselves. And immigrants, whatever the difficulty, learn Singaporean norms and become better integrated into the larger Singapore family.

How we choose to respond to this simple message, too, would be a reflection of ourselves.

For my part, I choose to respond with new resolve. I resolve to carry out my duties on the ground fairly, always with compassion and, if necessary, with firmness. I resolve to uphold social harmony and community relations in my country. I resolve to support vigorous and honest, but civil, debate.

And I also resolve to speak up against vitriol and hate – and excuses people may make for them.

by Sim Ann, Sep 7, 2012
The writer is Senior Parliamentary Secretary, Ministry of Education and Ministry of Law, and a People’s Action Party MP for Holland-Bukit Timah Group Representation Constituency.

Source : SingaPolitics – Of wrongful pride and prejudice

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