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Xenophobia, or is it more?

I am not a xenophobe. Let’s get that out of the way. In recent months, the word “xenophobia” has been used to describe Singaporeans on the issue of immigration.
The Oxford English Dictionary defines xenophobia as “an intense, or irrational dislike or fear of people from other countries”. Dictionary.com adds that this extends to “an unreasonable fear or hatred of strangers, or of that which is foreign or strange”.

I used to live in Bahrain, where Indian immigrants like me lived in our communities and interacted with Arab neighbours and colleagues only when necessary. I was eight when we moved to London.

There, I regularly got shoved off the pavement after school by 16-year-old female bullies who told me, “Smelly Paki, go home!”

As an innocent child, I told my mum, “They think I’m Pakistani. But I’m Indian. They’re stupid. They can’t tell the difference.”

It did not end there. In Singapore, neighbourhood secondary school students insulted and ostracised me because I spoke with a different accent and because they thought I acted superior to them.

Years later in Canada, I met racists who told me the Chinese and Indians should be kicked out of Canada because they were taking over the world. I mastered the Canadian accent and tried to pass for something other than Indian, to stay safe when I travelled.

Everywhere I went as an immigrant, I understood that I was different: An outsider who had not yet won the trust of the locals. I understood that “difference” is often perceived as a threat.

But I have come to appreciate another important detail: One or even 10 racist encounters do not represent a nation as a whole. I have loved living in each of these countries. I am fairly certain Canadians and Britons would not want to be described as xenophobes.

There are 3 other issues

Let’s first dilute the explosive nature of this debate on immigration and integration in Singapore by establishing that not all Singaporeans are xenophobic, small-minded people. I do not think the vast majority are. So what is this debate about?

Housing, transport, National Service and employment, commentators have said. But there are also a few other issues.

First, it is also about class differences. People are aggrieved by how the rich perceive and treat poorer people.

In the article “It’s time for China’s newly rich to reflect” (China Daily/Asia News Network, May 30), Mr Gao Zhuyuan made a case for the nouveau riche mainland Chinese to behave with more humility and grace because money cannot buy everything.

But there are both poor and rich Singaporeans and foreigners residing here. We know of many cases of Singaporeans treating migrant and domestic workers as chattel. We also now see instances of wealthy foreigners treating Singaporeans like second-class citizens.

Second, it is about access to information and the space available for reasonable debate.

In the countries I lived in, despite the problems associated with ethnic enclaves, racism and hate crimes, or maybe because of that, avenues existed for foreigners and citizens alike to discuss these issues.

There were town hall meetings, public forums and civil society groups who dealt with racism and culture shock and even academic curriculum that focused on this.

While I applaud the creation of the National Integration Council and the many studies published to better understand the need for immigration and integration, I feel that non-partisan and independent grassroots-initiated forums are missing from the big picture.

We need this. If we were cautious of this before, we cannot afford to wait any more. Otherwise, the racist, anonymous vitriol written online would only worsen.

Third, is it time for Singaporeans, both new and old, to rethink the effectiveness of our efforts towards multiculturalism, given our current circumstances?

I have met Chinese-Singaporeans who never had Indian-Singaporean friends before me. The last time most of my educated Indian- and Chinese-Singaporean friends had a Malay friend was in primary school. Where is our vision of multicultural harmony and integration?

Integration of new waves of immigrants presumes that we are already free of prejudice and that multiculturalism works. But like everything, it must be reviewed and rewritten as circumstances change.

Harmony among different people is possible only if we have the space to first look at ourselves and understand our prejudices, anxieties and needs. Otherwise, we will forever remain fearful of what is “foreign or strange”.

The writer is co-founder of non-profit organisation Access to Justice Asia. She migrated here in 1990, became a citizen in 1999 and now calls Singapore her home.

Vinita Ramani
Jun 6, 2012, TODAY
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