By Kirpal Singh, Singapore Management University
Adelaide, Australia: March 1976
My first experience/encounter of xenophobia – I was shocked. Days later I write the following poem:
This man, immaculate, eloquent,
How could he say such things?
Excuse me, sir. Nothing personal –
The opening was polite
I had to listen –
Sir, nothing racial either, please note.
But cultural purity, sir, is top priority.
Immigration –unhealthy– contaminating–
The immigrant, too, suffers, sir.
Sir, you’re a nice lad;
But sir, please don’t make this your home;
We have too many already, alas.
I thank you for your patient, sir.
This man, immaculate, eloquent,
How could he think such things?
Chicago, USA: October 1997. I was sitting on a bench in the jazz(y) part of this amazing city whose skyline, to my mind, is the best in the world (I think our Singapore skyline comes a close second!). As I was truly enjoying myself just watching people go by, children playing, some musicians trying to get ready for a gig, this Afro-American woman came and sat beside me. After some silence, she said “U from here?” I replied, “No”. Good, she said and then went on to give me a short but sharp sermon on how Asians were really ruining the prospect of blacks in the USA getting jobs. The whites, she said, don’t give us good, top jobs and the jobs that the blacks like her can do and want and are able to are increasingly taken by Asians, especially Indians and Chinese. Best you don’t stay here, she warned. Her tone was rough, her message pointed. I looked at her in disbelief and wondered why she had picked on me!
Singapore. Around now. So many non-Singaporeans are telling me there is this rampant xenophobia making Singaporeans blind to global reality and making them feel wretched. Go back to where you came from. Leave our jobs to us. Have you nowhere to go?…just some of the sentiments expressed by Singaporeans to non-Singaporeans, either directly or through the various social media. Not a very healthy development.
And so I reflect on xenophobia: xenon=stranger/foreigner/guest. Phobia=fear/hatred/dislike/distrust. Roughly speaking these suggest that xenophobia is irrational and an attitude/practice that is almost inherently distasteful and very unpleasant. My two examples from Adelaide and Chicago are meant to illustrate my experience of xenophobia in two distinct, foreign-to-me places. Both cities pride themselves on being cultured, sensitive, educated, rational. So increasingly does Singapore. What then is the matter? Where does the problem lie?
Once upon a time at the old University of Singapore at the Bukit Timah Campus, we had a guy come from Uganda who became the centre of all attraction. Whenever Theo Luzuka was spotted, people stopped, stared and sometimes ventured questions. Once upon a time. Theo was here between 1974- 1977. I, too, became a minor attraction when, being out with a lovely blonde in Australia’s scenic Gosford, we found ourselves surrounded by a band of young boys and girls (about 7-10 years of age) chanting, in unison, Ali Baba, Ali Baba, Ali Baba, Ali Baba. Curiosity? Ignorance? Racism?
As societies develop, grow, mature, new sets of beliefs, values and expectations begin to shape their sensibilities. So as the USA, Australia, Singapore become modern and people from different parts of the globe find jobs, new relationships are forged. But the old demons of racism (is xenophobia also equal to racism?) and nationalism (does xenophobia transcend colour/ethnic backgrounds?) begin to rear their ugly heads when things don’t go right. So long as all is fine and dandy, everyone is happy to share the candy. But when things begin to go a little awry, then we all look over our shoulders, necks, thighs and see who else is occupying spaces we feel we should occupy. And so xenophobia manifests itself….
It is frightening, this experience of being xenophobic or being the subject of xenophobia. I know because I stand at the centre of it and have been thus since birth. Am I irrational or doomed to be the object of irrational hate/dislike?
The recent strides made by the Euro skeptics in Europe must make us stop and wonder: after all the talk and the walk, the climb and the swim, the tarry and the parry, what do we see emerging? Xenophobia writ large.
All of us are implicated. All of us have a lot to think about. And ruminate.
- “Ruminations on a (dastardly) theme” was written following a panel discussion — moderated by Kirpal Singh on 25 March 2014 and produced by ONE (SINGAPORE) and SMU’s Wee Kim Wee Centre — entitled Race and Xenophobia in Singapore: Does Discrimination Fuel Inequality?
- “This Man” was originally published in 1986 in “Palm Readings”.