Monday, July 5, 2010

Life is tough at 24 with Us and Them

Jul 5, 2010

Young Singaporeans too are discomfited by huge foreign presence here

By Rachael Chang

MY SISTER was back in town this past month for the first time since moving to Tanzania, in East Africa, a year ago.

During an idle conversation on property prices, she made an offhand comment that hung in the air with a note of finality: 'I cannot live here any more, it's too crowded.'
She sounded just like, well, me.

Nine months ago, I returned from a four-year study stint abroad, resigned to returning home to start work. The country that greeted me had transformed in my absence.

Singapore has been developing at breakneck speed for close to five decades now; it can sometimes be both thrilling and despairing in equal measure to find familiar alleyways gone, old shopping malls razed in a day.

But this time, it was different. It was the Chinese national frying up char kway teow, the Malaysian bus driver who had never heard of 'Clarke Quay', the Indian nationals dancing up a storm to Bhangra music in nightclubs, and the conspicuous Caucasians dotting MRT train carriages and in the heartlands. These were the things that jarred.

And it was really, really crowded.

This topic of conversation has been a perennial one among my peers for close to a year now. A recent Institute of Policy Studies survey revealed that we weren't the only Singaporeans in our mid-20s preoccupied by the issue. My sister is 27, I am 24.

Of the over 2,000 polled, the sentiment that the presence of foreigners made them economically worse off was highest among those aged 21 to 29 years old - 31 per cent of this age group felt this way, compared to only 22 per cent of those aged 50 and over.

The numbers puzzled some observers I spoke to. Shouldn't this young cosmopolitan generation be the most amenable to foreigners? Globalised and raised on a steady diet of Taiwanese pop music and American movies, surely we were comfortable with the new sights, smells and accents in our midst? And shouldn't this well-educated group better understand the economic argument for needing immigrants in a baby-strapped country?

Yes, and no. There are a myriad of reasons why young Singaporeans can tick all those boxes and still feel vulnerable about the influx of foreigners.

Some are utilitarian concerns that Singaporeans are known for - like the size of the sliver of pie that is our lot, and the strength of the rice bowl. But much of the source of our discomfort is intangible, revolving around generational angst and concepts of Singaporean identity.
But first, a caveat before anyone cries 'spoilt' and 'entitled': It is true that foreign workers do some jobs Singaporeans eschew - like build malls and clean toilets.

Some argue that Singaporeans would never stoop to certain menial tasks; others counter that these jobs pay too little to make a living, and the fount of foreigners willing to take these wages keeps them at that level.

Putting that perennial argument aside, I believe that the foreigners who irk those survey respondents - and my friends - are a different category. These are the ones in direct competition for places on the Dean's List, or who take up starting managerial positions for less money than we would have. These are the ones we are told time and again are 'hungrier' than us and therefore more likely to succeed.

Our mixed feelings towards this group spring from uncertainty and identity.

There is the sheer fact of being young. The 20s is the 'generation of angst', as political observer Eugene Tan puts it. We are thrust into the painful reality of adulthood without the internal resources, which age inevitably endows, to cope. We worry about affording a Housing Board flat and getting that promotion. We fret over whether our lives are going according to plan, having not yet accepted that they never do.

Our parents went from Third World to First, with every decade surpassing the last. Born into the First World but expecting rising affluence, we find our heads banging up against the ceiling of a country fully developed.

In school, we got used to foreigners beating us in examinations. Grown-up, it's all too easy to point the finger at them for inflating the prices of HDB flats, and stealing that promotion while 'I was away at reservist', a complaint I have heard.

Some argue that this is a misperception; that even if the foreign population had not swelled to a third of the total resident population in a decade, we would find something else to blame for the hardship - economic and otherwise - that is a part of young adulthood.

Perhaps. But Singapore society is already coping with the pain of transitioning from developing to developed. It may not have sufficient sociological ballast to withstand the shock of a sudden, intense influx of foreign labour over several years. Even if not a cause, the influx certainly deepens the stresses of an evolving nation, and intensifies the uncertainty of my generation terrified of what the future has in store.

In other words, foreigners feed our sense of insecurity. If that sounds like a poor reason for our mistrust of foreigners, we can lay claim to the second: Foreigners, through no fault of their own, cannot partake in a strong and pulsating Singaporean identity.

Our immigrant parents went to either English or Chinese schools. My generation went to school under one education system. Where some of our parents spoke crisp English with no second language, and others knew only dialect, my peers speak that lovable yet vilified Singlish, a unifying patois that means my Indian friends use Hokkien phrases and vice versa; that allows a Singaporean to be plucked out of a crowd in a foreign land by another attuned to the same cadences of speech.

Whether a sneaking fondness for package deals or a love-hate relationship with the ruling party, it is difficult to define exact components of a Singaporean identity, but its presence cannot be disputed.

We feel Singaporean enough to feel keenly the impact of those different from us, in our homeland. Instead of calling this anti-foreigner, perhaps we should cheer what this means for national identity: There's apparently enough of 'us' to generate an 'us versus them' mentality.
No, I'm not anti-foreigner. But as one friend noted, 'I like foreigners who try their best not to be foreigners.' Childish? Perhaps. But what's wrong with that?

[A rather balanced article. I can sense the writer trying not to be churlish about her, well for want of a better word, insecurities. These are insecurities, or anxieties that many Singaporeans feel. That is why the govt has realised that the influx of foreigners have to be reduced. If there are too many of "them" there won't be enough "us" to hold onto our identity.

That said, I wonder if in a sense our brand of multi-culturalism is responsible for our current predicament. Our "distinct" multi-culti approach is to respect and keep distinct the various cultural identities in our society in contrast to "melting pot" multi-culti where it doesn't matter where you come from, but you're in America now so assimilate. So New York is a melting pot multi-culturalism.

Because we don't pressure our diverse groups to "melt" together or assimilate, there are distinct cultural identities, and because we have these distinct identities, it removes our moral right to require new foreigners to assimilate.]

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