One year ago, an Indian man got shouted at near my house for not wearing a mask. “We (Singaporeans) don’t owe you anything,” said the wannabe vigilante, talking down to a man who was out of breath from exercising.
“This won’t happen to us,” I thought to myself. We have red passports and I have a 11B.
Six months ago, an immigrant cousin of mine had an awkward conversation with her neighbour. “Are you an Indian?” she was asked. “How many hours do you work?” This had come as a surprise to my cousin, who regularly interacted with her neighbour.
“This won’t happen to us,” I thought to myself. We have red passports and I have a 11B.
Three months ago, my friend and her father were taking a taxi back home from the hospital. Her father was weak and had been admitted multiple times due to cardiovascular complications. As such, she requested that the driver drop them off at their block instead of the carpark. “Hiya, you Indians are always like this. Troublesome and pampered,” the driver said.
“This won’t happen to us,” I thought to myself. “We have red passports and I have a 11B”.
This week, a Singaporean-Indian woman had racial slurs thrown at her for lowering her mask below her nose. The assailant even kicked her in the chest, even though she was exercising.
“This could happen to us,” I thought to myself. “Even if we have red passports and I have a 11B”.
The thing about racism is that it’s pernicious. It drips and it seeps, masquerading under disguises of economics and policy preference. At first, it seems distant, you convince yourself that you aren’t the ‘other’. You’ve been here for so long that legally and culturally, you don’t even identify as an immigrant anymore. You hope that your Singlish and your army small talk will get you out of uncomfortable conversations about where you’re from. But then you realise that your parents, who love this country as much as you, don’t have those luxuries. My father goes jogging on the same Park Connector as the elderly man who got shouted at. My mother also pulls her mask up when she’s exercising.
It could have been them.
Racism and xenophobia doesn’t respect what or who you identify as, and that’s why we need to talk about it.
Let’s talk about CECA
The last few years have seen an increase in xenophobic sentiments against Indian immigrants in Singapore. While the economic conditions and lockdowns of 2020 have only catalysed the situation, its roots have existed for a while. In 2019 for example, a protest in Hong Lim Park was held, urging Singaporeans to say “no to CECA, Ramesh and a 6.9 million population”. Some of the event’s publicity material even featured Donald Trump’s election rallying call, albeit contextualised. It was time to “Make Singapore Great Again”, according to the organisers.
The CECA they’re referring to is the India-Singapore Comprehensive Economic Cooperation Agreement – a Free Trade Agreement signed by the two countries in 2005. Since then some have taken exception with the terms of the treaty, particularly those that have to do with immigration. Provisions that give business travellers 5-year multiple entry visas and employment passes for intra-corporate transfers have been cited as examples of the government favouring foreign talent at the expense of locals.
CECA as an excuse for racism
While any government’s first responsibility is to protect its citizens, and while there might be a genuine debate to be had about the benefits of free trade agreements like CECA, this particular one has been hijacked.
CECA is now being used as a vector for racism and xenophobia by many. In the world painted by some, Singapore is being flooded by Indians, who are inherently barbaric and are destroying the social fabric of the nation.
The tropes and caricatures are abhorrent. Changi Business Park is being turned into Chennai Business Park, being filled with professionals who come in with fake degrees, every single one of them lazy, incompetent and arrogant.
At the fringes of this discourse, on places like Hardwarezone, there is blatant racism. There are users making jokes about how food courts and offices occupied by CECA smell like curry because of their sweat.
This raises a few issues.
Firstly, when you make a value judgement about 1 in 7 people on this planet, it says more about you than the people who you are judging. Obviously, making blanket statements about the character and physical attributes of 1.3 billion people cannot be called anything but discrimination and prejudice. Mind you, my red passport doesn’t automatically make me genetically smell less like curry or have a higher IQ. The point here is that there is a fine line between xenophobia and racism, and it isn’t hard to cross (not that either are justified).
Secondly, by portraying Indian immigrants this way, you invalidate the contributions of the community to nation-building. The island has always had deep and historic ties with the subcontinent, stretching back to the 13th century. Many of Singapore’s first generation of political and community leaders – S. Rajaratman and J.B. Jeyaretnam, for example – were born in the subcontinent. Would we be okay with describing them in the same way we describe our Indian immigrants today? Probably not.
The saddest part about the recent rise in xenophobic sentiment is that it isn’t that recent at all. In the past few years, political parties and media outlets have been weaponizing the CECA discourse to suit their needs. On one hand, you have politicians being administrators of Facebook groups filled with overtly vitriolic and racist rhetoric. When the Singapore Police Force posted pictures of a 16-year-old Indian boy who had gone missing, members of the “Abolish CECA” group speculated disparagingly on the boy’s nationality. “If Ceca then nvm let it be,” said one comment as if the child was stealing Singaporeans’ jobs. The feeling of pure horror only compounded when I found out that a local politician – Lim Tean of the Peoples’ Voice Party – was an administrator of the group. Though the original group has since been shut down for racism, another offshoot group is still active, being run by another individual who is associated with the Peoples’ Voice party. Considering that Facebook’s algorithm only shows you a steady diet of posts that reinforce your already existing worldviews, we can see why many of these people think that the xenophobic rhetoric is fine. The world painted by their newsfeeds probably portrays Indian immigrants in the worst possible light – an echo chamber of sorts.
On the other side of the spectrum exists something equally insidious. You have politicians who use CECA as a dog-whistle. They will say that they aren’t racist or xenophobic, but then turn around and talk about their issues with the pact in the vaguest possible terms. Merely asking to “review CECA” without specifying why or how is as much a policy proposal as “review the death penalty”. By that do you mean that you think we aren’t executing enough people? Or are you saying that ethically you don’t agree with the idea of the death penalty? Meanings of dog-whistles are inherently ambiguous and contextual. Thus if you claimed xenophobia or racism on these statements, you could be gas-lit into thinking that you’re too sensitive.
This doesn’t mean that debates around CECA can’t happen at all. Like any mature democracy, we should be able to question the government in power and the policies it has implemented. But considering that the discourse around CECA has been hijacked by a substantial number of people, there is a responsibility for politicians to not only be careful of what they say, but also how it is perceived by their audience. Take the Workers’ Party’s Jamus Lim, for example. While he too talked about his concerns with CECA, he was precise with his critique. It was inequalities in demographics and economic development between the two countries that could make CECA potentially harmful. He then went onto reject bigotry by lauding the “enormous contributions” that immigrants “who are typically industrious, motivated, and unassuming” have to offer. He had lived in numerous countries around the world as an immigrant himself and said that he could at least partially comprehend the types of discrimination immigrants face. What he points out here is that in debates about CECA, claiming that you aren’t xenophobic or racist is not enough. Politicians have to actively disavow, distance themselves from and reject these sentiments – something that many of them aren’t doing at the moment.
While the Prime Minister and other ministers condemned the attack on the Singaporean-Indian lady, they too initially seemed cautious about their response to CECA-fuelled xenophobia. Yes, the PM had talked about the importance of Singapore staying open to foreigners in his opening speech to parliament, and yes the trade minister had previously corrected falsehoods about CECA. But what was lacking was the kind of unified and moral condemnation that we saw after the assault. Perhaps the government thought that by discussing the subject they would be emboldening it – many of the people who weaponize CECA are also anti-establishment. Or perhaps they thought that heightened tensions would pass with the pandemic and the recession it induced. Nonetheless, being the government of the day, it should have intervened more decisively, considering its moral and legal influence.
Part of the blame might also have to fall on young people like me. The tell-tale signs of xenophobia and racism were apparent years ago, but I refused to believe that it was real or to say anything about it. I was more comfortable with expressing solidarity with movements such as Black Lives Matter and Stop Asian Hate as compared to discussing the issues that exist in my own backyard. Yes, by no means are they analogous – the experiences of the minority in Singapore are very different to those in America. But that doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t talk about racism and xenophobia at home, especially if we believe in the ideals of multi-culturalism and multiracialism. Ian Kershaw, one of the world’s leading experts on Hitler and Nazi Germany, said in one of his books that “the road to Auschwitz was built by hate, but paved with indifference”. Yet again, while not completely analogous, the quote nicely encapsulates the responsibility that average Singaporeans have when confronting hate and bigotry. It’s really up to us in our daily lives to correct and call out discriminatory behaviour of all types and not assume that it’s an anomaly or a one-off incident.
Because if there’s anything that the last year has taught me it’s that first the ‘other’ might seem distant.
Then it might reach your friends and family.
In the end, it might even be you.