SINGAPORE – Racial slurs, kicking a woman in the chest, and shouting at an Indian expatriate family to go home.
These are not scenes from the streets of an American city, where anti-Asian sentiments have run high amid fears of catching Covid-19, but racist attacks recently reported in Singapore.
Law and Home Affairs Minister K. Shanmugam spoke about them during the debate that followed Health Minister Gan Kim Yong’s ministerial statement in Parliament on Tuesday (May 11) on the Government’s response to Covid-19.
Condemning such behaviour and outlining why it is dangerous, Mr Shanmugam said: “Parties have been deliberately stoking the fears, encouraging racism and xenophobia and dog-whistling, much like what we have seen in the US.
“First it will be the expat Indians. Then it will come to Singaporean Indians. And anyway, not everyone can distinguish between foreign-born Indians and Singapore-born Indians… eventually all Indians can be a target of hate.”
Fears of job losses during the pandemic stoked anti-foreigner sentiments worldwide. Add to this the perception that the coronavirus and its variants are the fault of certain countries, and the result is a combustible mix of economic insecurity, xenophobia and racism.
In Singapore, this has been fuelled by two things in particular.
The first is unfair employment practices which favour hiring foreigners and discriminate against locals. But steps have been taken to address this.
The Fair Consideration Framework was updated last year to include stiffer penalties for discriminatory hiring practices. Early suggestions by a joint task force included ring-fencing certain jobs, such as in human resources, to give local PMEs hiring priority.
But public perception matters.
Even if it is just a minority of employers who flout the rules, Singaporeans’ unhappiness has also received ample airing and amplification online.
It is here that Mr Shanmugam’s second point – one that underscores how the lines between what is racist and what is anti-government can be intentionally blurred – comes in.
He had this to say of some anti-government websites which are also overtly racist: “Comments on these sites have Indians being called cockroaches, rapists, and so on. We should be ashamed that, in the name of free speech, we allow such comments.
“When called out, we cannot seek to justify such racist behaviour by saying: ‘Oh it’s because of the Government’s policies’, or ‘it’s because of the Singapore-India Comprehensive Economic Cooperation Agreement (Ceca)’, or ‘the Indians are behaving badly’, or that we are entitled to be racist and xenophobic because of these things.”
Referring to a “whispering campaign” that promotes falsehoods about Ceca, he challenged Progress Singapore Party Non-Constituency MP Leong Mun Wai to table a motion to debate the issue openly.
Mr Leong had previously raised a question to Parliament on whether there were plans to negotiate better terms in the Ceca review, given DBS Bank India’s merger with Lakshmi Vilas Bank.
Separately, he lamented that DBS had no homegrown chief executive officer. Its current chief, Mr Piyush Gupta, was born in India and became a Singapore citizen in 2009.
Mr Leong’s comments about the influx of foreigners have extended to beyond those from India.
He has spoken about Singaporean workers facing a wage disadvantage because employers do not contribute to foreign workers’ Central Provident Fund; and about hawker centres eventually no longer serving local food, but more and more foreign food.
It has to be acknowledged that government policies are not perfect. Have there been gaps in planning and execution, not just on the issue of foreigners? Yes.
Do certain anti-government websites and politicians tap a vein of unhappiness among Singaporeans who feel disenfranchised? Absolutely.
But do the ends justify the means – specifically by playing the race or nationality card? No, especially for politicians who are keenly aware that their words carry weight not just in the House but on the streets.
Discrimination rears its ugly head in other ways too.
Since the cluster of Covid-19 cases from Tan Tock Seng Hospital (TTSH), there have been reports of healthcare workers being shunned in public or rejected by ride-hailing service drivers, prompting several ministers, even the Prime Minister, to call on Singaporeans to stay united and show their support.
On Tuesday, Dr Tan Wu Meng (Jurong GRC) spoke of TTSH staff who were turned out of their houses by landlords, and those with infants who had to cope with separate living arrangements to prevent cross-infection between hospitals.
Hotel arrangements have since been made for some staff. Such temporary measures are welcome.
But as many MPs have said both in and outside the House, more attention must be paid to the mental health of, and possible burnout faced by, healthcare workers.
Mr Gan said on Tuesday that the great majority of Singaporeans are thankful for the sacrifices and contributions of healthcare workers, including from TTSH.
“We know you have been working tirelessly in difficult and uncertain conditions…I believe I speak for the great majority of Singaporeans, all of us in Ministry of Health, and everyone in this chamber, that we are all solidly behind you,” he said.
The pandemic has taken a toll on everyone, and emotions understandably run high in times of stress. But during such difficult times, it is even more important for Singaporeans of all races, religious and political persuasions, to play their part by looking out for one another and not spread misinformation.
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