Friday, October 9, 2009

No guanxi please, we're S'poreans

Oct 9, 2009

The arrival of new immigrants from China has aroused much anxiety and angst among Singaporeans who believe they are snatching away their jobs and unable to integrate into the local community. Speaking Mandarin with varying intonations and lacking proficiency in simple English, they are often viewed with mistrust and suspicion. Lesser known, however, are the new citizens who strive to foster interaction and integration. Insight puts the spotlight on the people who make a difference.
By Cai Haoxiang

A NEW immigrant freelance writer triggered off a controversy in Lianhe Zaobao recently when she bemoaned the falling standards on the Singapore Chinese orchestra scene.

In an article based on interviews with musicians from China in the Singapore Chinese Orchestra, Ms Zou Lu commented that while the Government had been active in promoting and popularising the arts, the public still lacked a sense of identification with the music.

She asked if the music was entering a 'sunset phase' and if Singapore's young talented artists were being 'strangled' by an unappreciative society.

The immediate response was a flurry of letters from the local community defending the vibrancy of Singapore Chinese orchestra music and questioning Ms Zou's familiarity with the scene.

Ms Zou's critique in the Chinese morning daily was singled out by a new citizen from Sichuan, Professor William Yang Jian Wei, as an example of how new arrivals need to be attuned to the sensitivities of their host society.

As Prof Yang, who became a Singaporean in 2004 after working here for 11 years, put it: 'According to traditional Chinese teaching, the one who comes first is the master and the rest are guests. As a guest, there are rules for you: When the master welcomes you, you should pay due respect and be grateful. If you start to be picky and criticise this and that, the host won't be happy.

'I am not saying that one should not criticise, but rather that it should be done carefully. Otherwise the host will say, do not lay your finger on my rice.'

Prof Yang, 59, sits on the 17-member National Integration Working Group for Community, one of four groups set up by the Government since April to discuss and implement integration programmes.

The vice-president of business consultancy Asia-Link Technology addressed a group of 250 mostly immigrant Chinese in a dialogue organised by the Tian Fu Club, an association for Chinese immigrants, and the Amoy Association at the Singapore Chinese Chamber of Commerce and Industry last Saturday.

Prof Yang, an author of several books on investing in China, referred to the tendency among new well-educated Chinese immigrants to gripe, for example, about the use of Chinese and English in Singapore.

Rather than complain, he said, new arrivals should ru siang sui su - adapt to the customs of the place they are in. 'If you cannot change the environment, you can only change yourself. To want the environment to change for you is not practical.'

Talking about how Chinese immigrants could be better integrated here, he noted how many came to Singapore mistakenly thinking that Singaporean Chinese culture was identical to mainland Chinese culture.

[This is so true.]

He said that Singapore, after around 150 years of being a British colony, has developed a very different culture and operates on a system of laws and contracts rather than relationships, or guanxi.

Drawing an example, he said that if Singaporeans were pulled up for a traffic offence, they would go to the authorities to pay a fine.

'But the Chinese will tell the policeman, I think my brother's wife's uncle's son is a policeman, perhaps he can help? Chinese can't use guanxi here, that's why they get frustrated,' Prof Yang said.

The result is that immigrants, unused to the Singaporean way of life, end up mingling with their own circle of people, whether they are studying or working here. Not knowing the world outside their circle, and not interested in exploring further, he said, they stay different from locals in their way of thinking, culture and the way they interact with people.

As Prof Yang pointed out, immigrants also do not mix with the locals because they do not speak English. While Chinese immigrants mainly use Mandarin, English is the main language of communication in Singapore where even the local Chinese talk to one another in English, he said.

Most adult Chinese immigrants here - apart from a small professional group - do not speak English well enough to communicate with the locals. And that, in Prof Yang's view, is the key factor that explains why locals and immigrant Chinese do not mix.

A Speak Good English campaign targeted at immigrants from non-English speaking backgrounds can help, he said.

But ultimately the onus is on oneself. To integrate, new immigrants have to work hard at learning English.

'Listen more, connect more, criticise less, appreciate and praise more. Complaining every day won't buy you happiness, but regret. If you don't treat Singapore as home, Singapore won't treat you as part of its family.'

[A good overview of the problem from someone who has experienced some if not all the issues either first-hand or indirectly. ]

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