There has been a lot said and written about the foreign influx in Singapore over the past few years, the majority of which have been negative. In fact some including political leaders here have labelled such remarks as xenophobic, racist or disgusting. So the question begets - Are Singaporeans Really Racist or Xenophobic?
A typical Singapore 'kampong' or village in the 1950s and 60s. Educated foreigners were looked upon as 'superior.'
I think I can answer the question having lived in a Singapore that was a newly independent country, kinda poor to start off with, to a developing nation, a regional growing economy, an improving Asian metropolis, a modern Asian city and finally to one of the richest cities or countries in the world. Much change has occurred in our land, the mindset of the people have also changed from rural or village based with limited education to a well educated, modern population connected to almost every part of the world. So have we turned racist or xenophobic in this era of globalisation? I am sure the answer remains No. We are proud of our roots, culture, of what we were and what we are now, we are proud of our achievements and we jealously want to guard what we have achieved, even if these traits are unique to us alone.
Modern day Singapore, where even the brightest and richest foreigner is no big deal as we have Singaporeans equal to them.
The foreign influx has hit Singapore hard. In fact it has hit many countries hard, even in the 1st world countries of the West. The issue there is the same here, we welcome foreigners, we appreciate the expertise they bring, we realise the importance of being globally connected and the need to understand how other countries work and what are the peculiarities of individual national cultures when we do business with them. We accept that as a more prosperous country, others want to seek their fame and fortune here, as we have done and some still try to do or did in other 1st world economies. We understand that we need foreign labour here in order to support certain industries or to replenish those where we cannot cope. But like in the West or other 1st world economies, we do not want the foreigners to compete with us, but work alongside us to each other's benefit.
Last year alone the UK has seen a 27% increase of foreigners arriving to work especially from poor EU nations like Romania. This has cast a pall on job creation and retention for UK citizens.
If one recalls when we were growing and taking the steps to modernity, Singaporeans too had to venture abroad to work and when we grew, we began to have the ability to travel abroad more frequently. As a consequence, being new in foreign lands, some of our own peculiarities and behaviour that we found so routine here, was not in agreement with the nature and way of life of our hosts. The label - 'Ugly Singaporean' was born. Our 'kiasu' (scared to lose) mentality is perhaps the most notorious feature of us abroad. Being boastful, demanding and expecting the same kind of efficiency we were used to in foreign lands are amongst others. It took some time before we learnt and realised that 'when in Rome, do as Romans do.' Although some of these negative traits still exist, I think the 'Ugly Singaporean' abroad is slowly becoming a dying breed.
A Uniquely Singaporean trait - 'Kiasuism.' Which wasn't well received in the places we visited abroad.
Now that we have achieved 1st world status and have become a major port of call for foreigners to work and do business here, it's only natural that we also have a right to call out the ugly behaviour of foreigners here. Like us, they too must learn to assimilate and to do things the way we do, and to remember that they, as our guests or even as future residents, must blend in and work with us. Below is a list of sorts of some of the ugly behaviour of foreigners here that Singaporeans hate. I realise it may sound as if I am stereotyping or blaming the behaviour of every nationality on a few, but I think it reflects the general feeling. Of course there are good people of every nationality and of course there are bad. This list is to point out the bad and hope it may serve to highlight the things that should change, not a finger pointing racist or xenophobic exercise to belittle the 2.5 million foreigners that currently live and work here.
I will start first with the Caucasians and begin with the group I believe are the best behaved - The Germans. German influence in Singapore has grown over the past 20 years. Take the upcoming 'Oktoberfest' for instance. It's a funfair to mark a period of hard drinking and merry making originating in Bavaria. We use to have just a Sunday in October to mark this, but now events are held throughout the whole month. German influence and investment in Singapore has risen and ties are warm and we have a healthy expatriate German community. But it's quite rare to find a German misbehaving. They have a reputation as a disciplined and hard-working people and such a conduct is repeated here. Because Germany is an industrial and economic powerhouse, it's rare for Germans to want to settle down here. They come, they work, do business and when the time is ripe, they want to go back home. They appreciate Singapore as a safe and modern country like Germany, and more or less conduct themselves as they would back home. They are the model for Caucasians living here.
Germans in Singapore formed a dragon boat team for last year's Dragon Boat Festival. They are usually very well behaved and set the standards in good behaviour for all other Caucasian nationalities.
We also have a large Australian and New Zealand presence here owing to the historical defense agreements. Because Australia and to a lesser extent New Zealand is at 1 corner of the world, it's natural for them to make Singapore their Asian regional HQ. Successive Australian Govts have realised that their future lies with Asia more than the West, and we are seeing a change in attitudes of Australians here. Previously they had the opinion of being far superior to Asians in general. But I sense a gradual shift to a more pragmatic approach - Asia must be their partners and sometimes even the dominant partner. The behaviour of Australians here have also generally reflected this. They are more down to earth and willing to engage with the locals. Of course some remain distant and standoffish, but the shift to a change of mindset has already begun and Singaporeans in general like the 'Ozzies,' although coming from a culture of hard drinkers, some of them take their drunken behaviour too far and become aggressive when told to simmer down.
The French have been in Singapore for a long time and are generally well accepted but they do prefer to mix among themselves owing to their pride in French language and culture. But as this chart suggests, they know how to laugh at themselves too.
The French have also been here for over a century. Generally the Frenchman is viewed as arrogant, mainly because they are quite proud of their language and culture. Try speaking in English to a Parisian in Paris and see how far you get. The French here tend to keep to themselves but it's mainly because of their language and culture, but they are not seen as trouble-makers or 'job stealers.' Their engagement here with locals might seem a bit distant but it's always polite and courteous. And we are quite happy with it.
We also have smaller communities of Caucasians from the rest of Europe like Ireland, Spain, Dutch, Canadians etc. By and large they are alright, they do realise it's a different culture and do not try and bring a superior mindset here. They keep to themselves mainly and small steps are taken to assimilate with the locals. Take the Dutch Club for example, they have opened their doors to everyone, Dutch and non-Dutch.
The Vietnam War had a lasting negative image in the United States, but here in South East Asia, it helped to stop Communism in its tracks when it was at its most dangerous in the region.
Finally to the 2 other main groups, beginning with the Americans. Like it or not, it's a fact that Singaporeans are very 'Americanised.' This has a lot to do with television from 70s to 80s through to the present day. Singaporeans have embraced the American revolution of fashion, music and way of life. Any latest fad in the USA will catch on here especially with the young. For a long time Americans, were looked upon here with respect and appreciation for their part in WWII. Growing up in the 50,60s, 70s and 80s, we looked to America as a protector of our freedom and sovereignty. It also helped that American movies tended to show them as the good guys. As much as the Vietnam War was looked upon as a failure in the USA, we in Singapore and the rest of South East Asia were grateful for their intervention. It put the brakes on a full Communist expansion in the region. Yes the Communist threat was a very real thing in the 50s, 60s and 70s. Perhaps not all and only a few of the people detained by the PAP Govt were diehard Communists and they used the label to deal with many a political enemy unfairly, but the fact remains that the Malayan Communist Party, the Vietcong and even the Chinese all had grand designs on Southeast Asia. Had the Americans not halted them, there was a distinct possibility that our growth and way of life today might have been different or taken much longer to achieve, and in much dire circumstances.
Despite the outpouring of widespread sympathy after 9-11, the American invasion of Iraq in 2003, made it very unpopular in many parts of the world.
So the Americans enjoyed a long honeymoon here. Americans were tolerated, even the bad behaviour of visiting US Navy sailors was excused. But all this began to change over the past 20 years. It has not been helped by the fall-out after the invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq. There began and remains a feeling here especially amongst Muslims, that the USA has a secret agenda to curb the rise of Islam throughout the world by labelling anyone who disputes their version as a fanatic or radical. Their unbending support of Israel even when they are seen as the aggressor has not helped either. There's also a growing sense among many Singaporeans here that the USA today feels that they are superior politically to Asians. Once when American influence was seen as protection, today a feeling exists that they want to dominate and get us to support their every position. And that is seen by the attitude of some of the Americans living here. They think that they know best. A Singaporean partner is accepted on the proviso he agrees with his American partner's point of view. It's not helped that the American community here lives in a cocoon. Singaporeans attending American functions are screened and only limited persons are allowed in.
The havoc routinely caused by Michael Fay and other American teenagers, made a lot of goodwill we had for them disappear.
The general loud and uncouth behaviour of American youth here has not helped. It was no surprise that American Michael Fay was caught for vandalism, it was a surprise it took so long before someone was caught. Americans in general also mock our laws and way of life. They say we are too 'mollycoddled' and live in a 'nanny state.' We don't understand democracy and freedom of speech. We have poor 'gay rights' and always need to be told by the Govt on what to do. Perhaps there's some truth in it, but the fact remains they are the 'guests' not hosts. If we went to the USA, they would expect each of us to adopt their culture, laws and way of life without exception. Despite requiring no visa to travel to the USA, we are almost certainly to be stopped by US Immigration and Customs and questioned at length for our reasons for going there. Yet the American, expects no such inconvenience here. There still remains a 'sense of superiority' among the many Americans here. It may not be in the class of 'racial' superiority, most Americans consider racism a taboo, but Americans still think they know best and their system is better than ours. But generally they are not rude and are probably the best 'tippers' amongst the Westerners, and they can reciprocate graciousness in kind. It's only a question of their attitude that must change and they must look at Singaporeans as the hosts, whom they, and not us, must occasionally bend and accommodate.
And so to the final group, the first Caucasians to arrive here - the British and in particular the English. There are generally 3 types of Britons here - 1) The tourists 2) The ordinary Englishman working here and 3) The richer, more aristocratic or 'old school' upper class Englishman.
The older or semi-retired British tourist is always welcomed here because they know how to conduct themselves unlike some of their younger peers.
The first are the most well behaved and liked. These are normally older Britons who come here to visit their children working here or those who stop by enroute to their holidays to and from Australia, New Zealand and the rest of Asia. They are amazed to see first hand how a former colony has progressed, how safe and clean it is. In most cases they are shocked to learn that contrary to what they had been told, Singapore as a city is actually a much better place than their own major cities like London, Glasgow, Manchester and Birmingham. They truly enjoy their visit here and are appreciated by the locals for their economic contributions. As far as Singaporeans go, they can come and go as many times as they like, the more the better.
An increasingly common sight - drunken Englishmen misbehaving in public.
The 2nd group is probably the most difficult and least well liked. These are usually young to middle aged Englishmen working here for some European or British based firm. The fact that many of them 'do not bring anything special to the table,' is not lost on the locals. They do not possess any superior degrees or special expertise, they are only here for the mere fact they are English or European. That is to say, their European firm here headed by one their own, hires their own, when a local could perform the job just as well, maybe even at lower salaries. But this is not the major bug bear. This group is what would be termed back home as 'yobs' (a slightly educated chap but with poor social manners) or 'chavs' (the socially uneducated with very poor social manners). Somehow or rather, we had the misfortune of hiring them or having them live here.
Another example of how much respect they have for the locals here. Who cares right? So long as they are having a good time at our expense!
It normally starts well enough, they come here being new, keep a low profile until they meet up with people of the same ilk who have been here longer. Then all hell breaks loose. They drink themselves to the maximum and behave like uncaged chimpanzees. They will shout and drink loudly and expect the local wait staff or other local patrons to put up with their antics. They couldn't give damn about local customs and expect us to feel happy and glad that they are enjoying themselves by being rude and obnoxious at our expense. Almost invariably they are the ones that get into brawls or are a menace, like a number of Caucasian cyclists who simply ignore our rules and become very aggressive when challenged on their anti-social behaviour.
The 'poster boy' of the so called 'upper class Englishman with a colonial hangover' - Anton Casey.
And then there is the last group - the so called 'posh, stiff upper lipped Briton.' They still think perhaps that Singapore is a British colony and they remain our Lords and Masters. Ordinary locals are 'beneath their station' and are expected to serve and pander to their every whims. We must only speak when spoken to and do as they instruct. Only 'selected' Singaporeans should be allowed their company in the posh clubs they are members of like the British and Tanglin Clubs. They refuse to accept colonialism as an act of enslavery and domination by a minority elite. We should instead be thankful that the British gave us so many things - a port, a system of Govt, education, built up infrastructure like airports, rail, the postal system and gave us our laws and democracy. This is exactly what I overheard 2 English gentlemen talking about at the British Club, when I had the misfortune of attending an event some months back. It's as if the British did all these things for free and for our economic benefit and they in no part, benefitted greatly from it!
Artist impression of the British enjoying the social life during the Colonial era at Raffles Hotel.
Perhaps they need to refreshen their history of colonial rule. Where Asians were kept at arms length, democratic freedoms were kept to a minimum and a country's wealth was plundered under the guise of 'trade.' True we did not have any natural resources, but they sure made use of the local populace to serve them at beck and call. And who can forget the mess the left behind in many of their colonies? The 'so called policy of conquer and divide.' They split many communities along ethnic lines by playing 1 side against the other, so they would never unite to oust them. And they only left because of a decline of British dominance following WWII. They knew they had to let go before being kicked out and in many cases hastily drew up borders without considering the implications. Just look at the troubles facing many former British colonies - Palestine for example. Giving Israel a state without consideration for the Palestinians, a problem that remains unsolved today. And the scenario is repeated in places like Iraq, Iran, India and Pakistan. Even in Singapore, they got it wrong. Playing 1 side against the other, by enacting draconian laws like the Internal Security Act and then urging Lim Yew Hock to use it to avoid blame. They also forced us into Malaysia, the only way they were prepared to let go. It's a miracle we somehow managed to survive after the mess they left behind and made it so far on our own.
Rule Britannia - a stirring nationalistic song made popular when the British were the dominant world power. Yes Britons never never shall be slaves, but it was alright for others to be theirs. And some of their descendants now, seem to think it still exists.
But these upper class Britons don't want to consider all this. They think we should be thankful to them for colonial rule and now in modern Singapore, for the 'expertise' and economic investments they bring. It's not a case that they instead should be thankful to Singapore for allowing them opportunity to come here, to do business and enrich themselves. It's we not them, who should be grateful. To them, it will always be like one of their anthem songs suggests - Rule Britannia, Britannia rules the waves!'
And so on that note, I will end the first part of the 'Ugly Foreigners' or the kind of behaviour they exude that we hate. It's hoped as we move on in the 2nd decade of the millennium, this kind of boorish behaviour or 'superior than thou' mindset will slowly but surely end. In the next part, I'll focus on the behaviour of the other main group of foreigners here - our neighbours from Asia, both near and far.