Sunday, April 22, 2007

Treatise on Foreign Talent

Forty years of racial harmony ingrained through government policy into the culture of her citizens has seen successes in reducing ethnic conflict and promoting integration amongst the main racial groups in Singapore. Race, as such, in the conventional sense of the word, is no longer a pertinent issue to the life of Singaporeans as it was in the tumultuous years of the mid twentieth century - manifested in workplace discrimination and a plural society. However, this is not to say that the Race, as a concept, has been thoroughly eliminated from the consciousness of locals here. In fact, the policies that sought to promote racial integration, although accurate in aims, have had negative repercussions on the psyche of the average Singaporean, who is integrated via reduction in racial awareness. This is engineered through suggestions of the 'sensitivity' of the topic, and hence it’s marking as out-of-bounds to the average Singaporean. The corollary, of course, is that when this bubble of homogeneity is pierced by a foreigner, the most spectacular forms of Xenophobia are made manifest. It is therefore no wonder that not many outside Asia would think of Singapore as the first city when it comes to diversity, unlike London and New York. Thus is the reason why Singapore almost never features amongst the developed and major cosmopolitan cities of the globe, if it was not for strong advertisement.

Contrary to widespread opposition on the ground against foreigners, it is government policy at the top to continue the import of foreign labour and talent. The recent announcement of the 6.5 million population forecast by the year 2050 and current circumstances of below-replacement-level birth rates suggest that the major part of this projected population increase is likely to be derived from foreign sources. In accordance with the economic pragmatism of the current government, it is also safe to assume that the majority of immigrants will be what is officially and commonly termed foreign talent.

Foreign talent, however, resonates with negative connotations within the majority of Singaporean citizens. Foreigners are viewed as threats to locals' livelihoods, they are viewed with suspicion and envy; yet many a Singaporean would fawn and grovel before white customers, often at the expense of their local 'brethren'. This love-hate relationship that exists in Singapore is one-of-a-kind, and does not exist in other premier cities. It might be argued that worn-out remnants of Singapore's colonial legacy have not sunk into history; if it is so, then the imperative is to resolve these obstacles. The contradiction must be resolved before any headway can be made in integrating these foreigners into our population.

In the short term, the government has ostensibly shown to throw its support behind the worried local populace with the recent decision to accord more privileges to Singaporean citizens vis-à-vis Permanent Residents, who are largely composed of skilled foreign labour. The downward revision of healthcare subsidies for Permanent Residents and non-citizens announced in December 2006 is thus a milestone in government policy, in that this deviation from the government's usual stance can be viewed as an assertion of the growing need for national integrity in face of homogenizing foreign influences. While homogeneity might be prized as an objective for cosmopolitan conurbations such as Tokyo and Berlin, that is only because these megalopolises are merely cities within a nation, and as such, the threat of destabilizing foreign influences is absorbed by the sheer depth of national identity embodied in the rest of the country. In the context of Singapore, however, she is both a city and a nation - even the term city-state is a misnomer for her, for these ancient Greek political entities included the rural territories surrounding the central polises - and, as such, the term city-nation is the more relevant term. The immediate implication is that the cultural diversity so necessary for the economic development of the city is in direct conflict with the cultural homogeneity so essential to the social integrity of the fabric of the nation. The fact that economic development has largely been the sole defining factor for the growth, and in fact, the existence, of the Singaporean nation makes the conundrum no less a matter of concern.

As such, the other aspect of this policy change becomes apparent - the reflection of the need to restrict the mobility of foreign talent, who are, by definition, in search of the best job opportunities around the globe, and thus, tie them permanently into the fabric of Singapore city's economic growth. By claiming citizenship status, these foreign talents are now in fact driving a stake in the Singapore nation.

It is essential to note, however, that what has occurred is merely a postponement of the inevitable conflict. Although the policy change might be viewed as remarkable by un-attuned observers, the essence defining it has remained essentially the same: buying social security with economic growth. This logic was pursued during the fast-tracked period of growth in the early post-independence years with remarkable success, for the requirements of labour and capital-intensive industrialization were a homogenous labour which could be pursued in tandem with social integration. Towards the 1980s, however, with the promulgation of the Knowledge-based Economy, problems arose as labour self-sufficiency gave way to the need to import foreign talent to remain competitive with the rest of the world, and the social and the economic hence began to diverge. Towards the end of the twentieth century, the scope of this dilemma has expanded as foreigners began competing not only in the workplace, but in educational institutions as well.

Thus, two problems are identified in the above paragraph. Firstly, with the onset of slower growth, the un-sustainability of the abovementioned method of nation building becomes apparent. This is evident from the fact that in the recent readjustment of subsidies, the government has had to make a choice in favouring the citizen over the non-citizen, and hence, trade economic growth for social security. Secondly, by competing (and usually triumphing over) Singaporean youth, foreigners are liable to be the object of resentment of disillusioned youth. If even premier institutions can be utterly defeated in televised debates – un-helped by the immodest responses of the victors, stating that that was merely the case in the outside world - then it becomes a double setback for impressionable youth. While the issue might currently be restricted to a select few, however, as the influx of foreigners in tandem with the projected population growth increases, it is inevitable that this contact and friction with local youths also accumulates.
Foreign talent, then, becomes an issue pertinent to both young and old, educated and uneducated. This is no new phenomenon, however. What Singapore is currently, or about to experience in the future, has already occurred in other more mature cities. Foreign talent is a concept that applies throughout the globe, one that has been prevalent throughout the course of history since the migration of man. Foreign talent is, in essence, a double-edged sword. In times of prosperity, they are the main driving force behind the economy and accordingly venerated. In times of recession, however, they become the focus of a violent nationalism. It is thus no wonder that Anti-Semitism was the strongest in Europe during the desperate era of the Dark Ages, and found its greatest resonance during the time of the Great Depression. The problem is as pertinent as it was in recent or ancient history, made no less obscure by the fact that depressions are an essential, unavoidable feature of the Kondratiev cycle that defines our global economic system.
The policy mechanisms of income redistribution in favour of equity thus assume paramount importance during growth slowdowns, as opposed to growth-centric policies per se. The important consequences of slumps and depressions are not the short-term economic ones but the indirect social repercussions. This is not to say that economic growth should not feature heavily in any governmental policies aimed at arresting recessions; but to the extent that societal disgruntlement has sparked a frenzy of nationalism and scuttled foreign talent and investment, then efforts should be directed towards the straightforward cure of this disease than the application of vitamins to boost the patient's ailing health.
Foreign talent, then, is here to stay. Racial Harmony that has hitherto focused on the Chinese, the Malay and the Indian will soon have to accommodate this much neglected 'Other'. It is perhaps time to give a face to this nebulous 'Other', to recognize its essential place in Singapore City, and as such, weave it into the Fabric of our Nation.

Sunday, February 18, 2007

Treatise on the Issue of Race

Race has always been a sensitive topic throughout the four decades of national history. Unfortunately, this issue is one of the unique cases whereby action precedes word. It is a concept that is shaped more often by personal experience than logical thought. As such, it is hard for the individual to conceive racial concepts in an objective manner, on a macro societal level and harder to, borrowing the oft-used phrase, “put oneself in the other’s shoes”.

As such, while older generations have been deterred by their shared experiences in racial conflicts, the younger generation is ostensibly unperturbed by the issue of race precisely because of their lack of similar experiences. The twofold nature of Singaporeans’ attitudes towards race has become a paradox that has affected government policy in an awkward manner. While the concept of Racial Harmony has found fertile grounds in the youth of today, it is in the middle-aged people that the resonance is greatest. This dissection of the young and old into different target groups is arbitrary and unnecessary.

This has given a new Uniquely Singaporean dimension to the Race issue here. The tendency for youth to perceive Race as a problem merely exclusive to Singapore can be attributed to the solely Singaporean examples provided in textbooks, and the solely Singaporean solution of Racial Harmony. Focusing on textbook-style inculcation of values will inevitably lead to youth perceiving Race as an issue that is anachronistic, outdated and irrelevant, simultaneously drawing their personal experiences (having friends from other racial groups, etc) from today to substantiate their beliefs. As such, there is a pressing need to expand the horizon of our youth, using foreign examples to demonstrate that the racial issue is neither confined to nor as placid as Singapore’s. This is the objective of this essay – and to serve as an objective, but nevertheless clear warning against our departure from Racial Harmony.

What many Singaporeans fail to comprehend is that the potential for Race to explode into a grievous issue is similar or greater in other regions of the world. While many nations of today are enjoying the peace and stability of a society relatively unplagued by racial tensions, these same countries have also had their share of genocides and civil wars springing from this common social division. Claiming that “Singapore does not, will not, and cannot, have a culture of its own” is perhaps premature; How could anyone predict that other cosmopolitan societies are any stronger than our own beyond the image that they project? If even a predominantly traditional and relatively undisturbed society as that in Iraq can be driven to sectarian violence, what volumes does this speak regarding the integrity of our society in response to similar pressures? Does this spell doom then, that our modern societies, always in a constant state of flux, would fracture into a million splinters when the time came? Or, is it perhaps an indicator that Race is no longer an issue in “modern” societies?

Racial discrimination has always been prevalent throughout history, through the attribution of negative stereotypes to a group of people based on racial prejudices. So long as the underlying assumption that racial discrimination is solely caused by racial prejudices holds true, then, if all people were of one race, there would be no discrimination, since the social divisions caused by race are eliminated. Yet, it is often forgotten that stereotypes do not materialize without reasons; racial discrimination is more likely the culmination of a combination of grievances: social, economic and political. As long as these underlying jealousies exist, it is likely that even with the assimilation of various peoples into one homogenous race, these undercurrents would continue to manifest themselves in more subtle forms, gender and age, for example, of discrimination.

The main reason behind the predominance of racial discrimination in the hierarchy of discriminatory types is the inherent structure of society. Since the ancient times, communal identities have always formed as a result of a congruence in political, economic, and hence social aims. The Egyptian identity was based almost exclusively on their monopoly of the fertile Nile delta, while the Chinese have a common history in the Central Plains. Such examples serve to illustrate the gap between the haves and the have-nots, which as time passed tended to manifest itself in terms of civilization versus barbarian struggles. Chinese chauvinism expressed itself in the most ardent form in the Qing Government’s high-handed treatment of and obvious disregard for European envoys in the 19th Century. This mindset of Chinese “supremacy” and “superiority” has prevailed since the Qin dynasty, and was based on the profitable tea trade during the 19th Century. All of this points to geographical factors influencing the political, economic and social background of a people’s identity, which is termed race. Hence, race is merely a shroud for deeper inherent prejudices which have prevailed in society. Removing race would solve the symptoms of discrimination in the short-run, but as long as the long term inherent factors persist, the disease would nevertheless persist, and manifest itself in other forms.

Discrimination is also often based on a majority-minority set of rules. The roots of anti-Semitism go back to when the Jews were dispersed in small communities throughout Europe, and where they were faced with impotence in stopping mass pogroms, which were socially acceptable norms. Today, in America and Europe, despite racial discrimination being outlawed (especially after the Holocaust) as being socially unacceptable, and technically, “Race being no longer an issue”, Jews continue to be attacked for their economic dominance in society. As such, this example illustrates that despite the removal of racial barriers, certain minority groups continue to be targeted – Jews because of their physical minority, and Blacks due to their being an ‘economic’ minority. Race notwithstanding, discrimination continues to manifest itself in power-politics.

Racial discrimination is again becoming increasingly irrelevant in the globalized world of today. The formation of homogenous, cosmopolitan societies across the globe means that racial distinctions are blurring. Certainly, globalization and its results have assisted in reducing racial discrimination, since the various races (especially foreign talent) all play an integral and irreplaceable role in society and more importantly, the economy. Furthermore, racial discrimination against a particular minority would almost inevitably provoke a reprisal against one’s own minorities overseas. This is most aptly illustrated by the Prophet Mohammed Cartoon saga where Europeans in the Middle East were targeted in reprisal for perceived religious/racial attacks on Muslims in Europe. Hence, it can be seen that racial discrimination is becoming unprofitable not only for the victim, but also the proponent as well, and thus, is being actively curtailed across the globe.

Yet, globalization does indeed bring its fair share of discrimination, though in more subtle forms. Reinforcing the majority-minority argument supporting the continued eminence of discrimination are sexism and ageism. These two forms of discrimination prey on perceived weaknesses of females being the weaker gender, and bank of the inability of the older workers to resist discrimination. As such, globalization has served to transform discrimination from its hitherto blatant, physical form to a more subtle, virulent form. It is precisely this subtlety and “logical” discrimination that makes it extremely hard to counteract these days: Proponents of sexism and ageism argue that such people being discriminated against is proper and rational, since they are less economically useful. What such an argument serves to highlight is the inherent social Darwinism evident in society: the strong dominate the weak; the majority overrules the minority.

The cunning façade offered by the decrease in racial discrimination can be said to have hidden or overshadowed the rise of more subtle forms. Discrimination is in itself a culmination of many inherent factors defining a certain identity, which then chooses to assert its dominance over another group of people. As such, discrimination will continue to exist as long as social divisions are present in society, and the number of forms of discrimination can take is defined by the number of fault lines in society. It is indeed regrettable, that globalization has often caused the rise of a more fragile cosmopolitan society, with a weaker social integrity and fabric than the societies of the past. What one can expect, then, is not the reduction of discrimination, but its mutation into less discernible forms.

It is perhaps apt to conclude with a quote from Samuel P. Huntington, author of “The Clash of Civilizations” – “One can only love what one possesses, and hate what one does not”. Nowhere did he mention Race. Unfortunately, it is simply the most brutal yet effective means of adhering to this ingrained human doctrine.