Friday, November 13, 2009

Uniquely Singapore, Specially Sinophobic

Sinophobia. It is the fear and dislike of China, its culture and people. Given the idea of Chinese is nationalist, cultural, racial/ethnic and aesthetic in nature, a sinophobe would qualify as racist and xenophobic.

According to Wikipedia, the secret lover all of us hide away in the study, sinophobia is rooted in socio-economics. In the case of Southeast Asia, Chinese migrated to the region and established their own economic and political regime. Wikipedia probably sums up it:

A tradition of trading and clan-style self-reliance enabled the Chinese to control much of the capital in these countries. This clannish attitude among the immigrants and their descendants and the ethnic group's disproportionate control of wealth encouraged Sinophobic sentiment.

If income disparity is coloured by race and culture, it is more inevitable that sentiments will be increasingly negative, especially if you are on the wrong end of the disparity.

Sinophobia in Singapore is especially interesting, given we are predominantly ethnic Chinese, although we are not reproducing ourselves at the rate the government wants us. Perhaps the Chinese elite see this as a threat to their superiority and life-long (and beyond) ambition of wealth accumulation. So stereotypical it warms the heart. For the stereotypical Chinese elite, he/she will believe that it will take the leadership of a Malay or an Indian to screw things up, because he/she probably believes the ethnic minorities know less.

The make-up of the local Chinese elite is mostly Christian and Chinese religions (Taoism and Buddhism). Even the least religious (or non-religious) Chinese elite will somehow subject themselves to Christian-centric rhetoric and ways of thinking, given how the propagation of Christian ideology flows freely within the English language (especially in Singapore). It is the difference in religion and faith that drives a wedge deeper between the Chinese elite and ethnic minorities in Singapore.

Far too often, on the street and even in the government, we cannot deny ethnic Chinese Singaporeans reproducing racist rhetoric of lazy Malays and smelly/drunk Indians, and the occasionally glorification of Ang Mo superiority. Maybe it's Ang Mo superiority or Ang Mo lingum-worshipping. Macham colonial times sial!

And more often than not, we ethnic Chinese extend our racist love to China and Chinese nationals. I guess racism is indeed colour-blind! Since you have a 'phobia' of one race, might as well have a 'phobia' of another - 2 for the price of one, and your stereotypical ethnic Chinese will never pass up on this deal.

We are repeating history again. Chinese nationals are migrating to Southeast Asia, affecting wages, education, etc., basically causing real and perceived changes to our social and economic systems. And we, the natives as we would like to call ourselves, feel angry and repulsed by the Chinese.

And then we have the Chinese myths too. What is a witchhunt without the mythologisation of the witch? We've got the bloodsucking moneyfaced "China bride" who will cheat your Singaporean man of all his money and then disappear among the millions back home in China land. We've got the uber-hardworking Chinese international student coming to your school and spoiling the market with high workrate and top grades. We've got the Chinese labourers who always seem to talk too loud or smell too much. And how about the Chinese national who are perceived to be inferior in terms of hygiene and manners? And more.

Being an ethnic majority in Singapore probably takes away some degree of perceptiveness and introspection, and most of us yellow-skinned Singaporeans will probably never know what it is like to be a minority, and not that most of us would want to any way, because we would like to think of ourselves as economically rational.

I think the Singaporean dream is the typical ethnic Chinese dream. We want material and wealth accumulation and a healthy, happy life with loads of money to swim around in or dab our oily faces with. Unfortunately, times are bad, people stuck in dead-end jobs, can't pursue their dreams and so on. It really does not help that we have a free flow of foreign talents, seen as a cultural and economic bane to us Singaporeans.

And here you have the local ethnic Chinese, choosing the nationalistic side of their identity and "teaming" up with the other Singaporean ethnicities they used to (and probably will continue to) diss and ridicule, and expressing their disapproval of immigration and influx of foreign talent. Our colour-blind racism extends to Indian and Chinese foreign talents (in all sectors of the industry and economy), but of course being ethnic Chinese, you will probably have more jokes up your sleeves for the South Asian foreign talents. Confess!!!

Well, Singapore is having a happy hour. Free-flow of foreign talents. And when bodies move, there will be cultural clashes. And that makes for an unhappy time for local Singaporeans.

We've had our CMIO classifications, our speak Mandarin campaigns, imported teachers whose native tongue is Mandarin, been Suzhou-ed in the buttocks, and infrastructurally (not economic, but social/cultural) we are not ready for this transnational dialogue with the Chinese. Like how we Singaporeans attempted to Melayu-ify ourselves in the 1950s for a merger with big brother Malaysia, we have laid down the necessary works for a liaison with the tiger of a lover that is China - well, not in sexual way (Singapore will probably be a 'bottom' if you know what I mean), but in an abstract kind of way where you have the union of China and Singapore witnessed by the divinity that is money. Don't deny! Don't act shy, okay?

We try to prepare ourselves as a cosmopolitan country, at least the Chinese elite try to prepare Singapore as a cosmopolitan country. Despite all our efforts, we do not seem to be culturally prepared to accommodate other people. The habits and idiosyncrasies of people of different cultures never fail to hit a nerve in us, especially when the economic situation is not at its prettiest.

But what is it about China, Chinese culture and Chinese people that we dislike or fear? I think it is a combination of many things. To name a few, we are uncomfortable with "foreigners" (a function of our discomfort with globalisation, perhaps), we do not identify with their general work ethic and attitude towards money and life, and maybe we do not like the way they think about (their) culture.

We as Singaporeans are living not in a country but in world now. It is such a conflicting feeling. On the one hand, we have our government wanting us to identify as Singaporeans (and later according to our "races"), on the other hand, we are promoting our city as multicultural and cosmopolitan. So obviously, there are trade-offs and implications.

The sinophobia we have is not merely based on the fact that we probably cannot tolerate the behaviour, aesthetics, habits and idiosyncrasies of the Chinese, but also due to the fact that we are probably not a very adjusted people. Our comfort zones are packed to the brim with hearsays, stereotypes and prejudices, the kind of stuff that reduce lived experiences to mere caricatures of themselves, whether true or not so true.

Sometimes it is difficult to explain why we have a prejudice. That is why we go by elimination, and it is always good to find out why we feel a certain way about a certain person or people.

For instance, I am very irritated with local Chinese popular culture. It influences behaviours and mannerisms of speech. Subjects, I mean, people will act in an exaggerated fashion, obviously inspired by manga, as if they are living in a world where there are special effects to accentuate specific actions. They think they are living emoticons. :(~~~... ^_^" -_-"""

So the source of my irritation is probably my dislike of local Chinese Singaporeans who have their healthy dose of Chinese pop culture. But the thing is, like any other human being, I have my prejudices, because there is obviously a cultural form I subscribe to, which I believe is superior. I prefer subtlety and absurdity for humour, and not of the Chinese kind. It is just a matter of taste/preference.

But when you have like-minded people coming together, each person will find it difficult to keep his/her prejudices to himself/herself. All the more if you have impressionable children to spread your prejudices to - some say teach, some say socialise, some say rape the minds.

And sinophobia is communicated at every levels of society. The mass media does it subtly by using "China" as an adjective to refer to Chinese nationals instead of "Chinese" because 70% of Singaporeans probably already identify as Chinese themselves. The differentiation is necessary before you can sensationalise something.

People have a problem with working class, middle class and elite Chinese nationals coming to our shores, and the respective "problems" they create in their respective spheres. It is quite ironic that an aspect of globalisation that includes the movement of people across borders is causing people to want to have a stronger and defensive national consciousness.

Singapore is interesting because most of us do not have a strong sense of belonging to this little booger (the Taiwanese, I mean "Chinese renegades", called us that), yet we invoke the rhetoric of nationalist discourse in an attempt to arrest the invasion. Indeed, there is nothing else we can hold on to. In a globalised world, what's the point of nation-building and the development of an exclusive national consciousness? We are decades and centuries behind other cultures and nations, so we cannot possibly follow their good nation-building practices.

We use other means like architecture and multiculturalism to mask our shallow history and divided cultural consciousness. Nothing wrong with that. But I think we are a bunch of peoples who feel a loose sense of connection to this country and flag. Most of us may love Singapore as a home, but we find it difficult to think of something that will be uniformly recognised as Singaporean - low press freedom index, any one?

It is most unfortunate we are sucked into the discourse that countries are defined by borders, culture and economy and each nation can be identified by a fixed set of symbols, each having its own cultural and historical value.

You need to have an influx of Chinese nationals to bring the racist out in all of us, and along the way, we start creating a sense of identity for ourselves. We are pushed to locate common denominators in the Singaporean context, just so we can distance ourselves from the Chinese.

Prejudices, rational or irrational, cause us to determine where the denominators begin and how we select them. After all, a majority of us derived from transnational movements of peoples. But the actual experiences we have now have invalidated this reasoning. Maybe we do care for our fellow Singaporeans, maybe there is some instrinsic nationalistic pride and sense of belonging. And it is ironic that amidst all the efforts to cultivate love for Singapore by Singaporeans, we need foreign talents to 'teach' us that. Maybe that's the chink in our armour! (punny sial!)


george said...


I am surprised by your lack of perception and sensitivity in this piece of yours.

I am decidedly more generous in my view. I think the average Singaproean reaction to the foreigners, be they Chinese nationals or nationals from other countries, is basically very natural. Even in the animal world, you can see such basic natural reaction/behaviour towards an outsider. I recall the chimp and lions behaving in like manner to an intruding 'foreign'member of the same kind. It is only natural if you perceived a competitor. But you seem to expect ordinary average folks to display some sort of noblesse oblige towards outsiders who are now crowding you at every turn - from the buses to the train, to the public toilets, eateries and even jacking up the prices of yuor homes! Mind you, I have personally experienced the same sort of anxiety overseas when a group of Australians actually thought that I was a potential migrant when I was merely curiously browsing the photos of properties for sales at an outlet in a mall. I was also told how a nephew of a friend who had migrated was beaten up by his new compatriot because he refused to be part of the norm by working very hard at his job!

Sam Ho said...

sorry to surprise you that way.

i'm just very interested in why people feel threatened. and sinophobia amongst ethnic chinese singaporeans is an interesting thing to look at.

such an observation makes me wonder about my own prejudices about chinese nationals as well as towards local ethnic chinese cultures.

i don't think sinophobia is right or wrong or justified or not, as the article doesn't bother much about that argument.

it's more important to see what different views we may have on this, whether culturally or from the perspective of evolutionary biology when we start comparing humans to chimps and lions. for me, i see how sinophobia in singapore is situated.

any way, saying we are not "ready" doesn't mean i'm expecting singaporeans to be obliging. i've to defend myself here: i don't think i'm making any demands or expectations. i'm just explaining a situation i think exists, as well as its implications.

i'd like to think that i'm very sensitive and respectful enough. do let me know what lines have been crossed.

Jo said...

I like your writing.

It's incisive, it's honest and it's bold.

Will tune in again :)

sibylla said...

Ironically of course, in the eyes of white people, all yellow people are the same, i.e., they see no difference between Chinese Singaporeans and PRCs. So we are seen as being the same as what we hate and fear. Whereas in reality, Anglophone yellow Singaporeans have most in common with a)Anglophone Singaporeans of any colour b)in a general sense, anybody living in any big, cosmopolitan city in any part of the world.