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Beware the Brexit, Singapore

As someone who has lived in Singapore since 1996, best-selling author Neil Humphreys has experienced the country’s rapid developments across three decades. The popular humourist acknowledges that immigration is a contentious issue, but explains why integration must be a two-way street to avoid a Brexit-like climate of fear and mistrust…


On a genial, summery morning in late June, I found myself sitting in a caravan in the English countryside, in front of a laptop, with my head rather melodramatically in my hands. 

The United Kingdom had just voted to leave the European Union. Brexit had become a reality.

And then, I heard the raucous singing coming from a nearby caravan, the kind of warbling usually associated with mating bullfrogs…

Rule, Britannia! Britannia, rule the waves 
Britons never, never, never shall be slaves.


Reluctantly, I peeked through the caravan window and noticed a couple of middle-aged women, unsteady on their feet, singing and dancing between swigs of something cheap and potent. I was rather scared. It was only 9am.

“Finally, we’ve taken our country back,” one of them shouted, as if auditioning for the second placard waver on the left at a Donald Trump rally.

As the mind scrambled to make sense of the unfolding madness, three thoughts shuffled towards centre stage: 

First, ageing white folks do not wear tattoos particularly well.

Second, this was possibly the worst day of my life (I was still wallowing in the melodrama.)

And third, this can never happen in Singapore. My home. My family’s home. Not by birth right, but by choice.


Brexit, Singapore-style?

Britain’s future, post-Brexit, remains uncertain. Indeed the socio-economic trepidation stems from the uncertainty. The Brits are taking a blind leap into the unknown. There is no precedent, no obvious exit procedure, template or strategy beyond ‘wait and see, have a cup of tea and hope for the best.’ 

But a Brexit-like climate of widespread fear, occasional loathing and mutual mistrust would be the end of Singapore, as we know it at least.  

The Little Red Dot’s multicultural fabric isn’t made of naturally organic material, but one carefully and meticulously knitted together across 50 years, with lots of colours, races and even passports. It’s a security blanket for an entire nation. 
Singapore most certainly isn’t a natural state or a lucky country. Luck had nothing to do with it. 

Without getting all Hobbes and Locke about it, the tiny island is almost an unnatural civil society where us mammals are expected to suppress our instinctive tribalism in favour of utilitarianism, i.e. the greatest happiness for the greatest number and so forth. (Ignore those happiness indexes for a moment and stay with me here.)

The HDB ethnic integration policies, the insistence on four official languages (even though no one speaks any of them at the coffee shop), the nationwide celebration of all the major religious and cultural festivals (when we get a day off to go shopping) and the other concerted multicultural initiatives are attempts to get citizens to see Singaporeans first and the skin colour second (if at all.) 

And here’s the thing that annoys misguided western commentators. It works. For the most part, it works. 

There’s the odd dropped stitch in the country’s rich tapestry: a complaint about a Malay wedding here, or the smell of Indian curry there and so on. We’re only human. And there’s always going to be some who are less human or less sociable than others. But the multiracial, multicultural campaigns mostly get the message across, sometimes with the subtlety of a surface-to-air missile taking out a mosquito, but they invariably stop our unique melting pot from bubbling over. Even Barack Obama said so.

However, the laudable emphasis on Singaporeans, rather than specific racial and ethnic groups, reinforces the notion that Singapore is for Singaporeans, which is how it should be, particularly when things are going well. 

But when things are going less well, when wages stagnate, the cost of living rises and the last time anyone got a seat on the MRT was when Rick Astley was on the radio (which, in fairness to local radio, could’ve been yesterday), there’s a risk of that positive emphasis being slyly subverted.

Isn’t Singapore for Singaporeans? Then why are Singaporeans struggling? Why do foreigners seem to dominate the white-collared armies around Marina Bay and Raffles Place? Why can I no longer be understood on buses or in supermarkets in my own country? Why didn’t Neil Humphreys do National Service? Why do they still play cheesy 80s hits on mainstream radio stations? 

These are all very relevant and potentially polarising questions. Some I can answer. 

I met with MINDEF about possibly completing Basic Military Training at the very least and perhaps even making a documentary about the experience, but they cleared their collective throats and suggested I was too old. 

And Bananarama, Rick Astley and Michael Learns to Rock remain inexplicably popular in Singapore. No, I don’t know why either. 

The other questions are, of course, a tad more troubling. 

The Immigrant Meets the Apprentice Xenophobe

Three years ago, I attended an anti-immigration rally at Speakers Corner, an event unthinkable, just inconceivable, when I arrived in 1996. 

Looking back, dragging along my 1.94m-tall frame with a white face on top wrecked my chances of going incognito. I stood out like a foreigner at an anti-foreigner rally. 

Several speakers raised relevant concerns about Singapore’s long-term sustainability and job prospects for its citizens if too many immigrants were imported to reach that (since rejected) population target of 6.9 million. 

But their insight was lost on a minor, xenophobic element in the crowd. One chap shoved a placard in my face that read ‘Singapore for Singaporeans. Foreigners go home.’ 

He never spoke, never said a word. He simply held the political placard up to my nose, demanding its examination. So I complimented him on his artwork and suggested a thicker marker pen next time around. 

But the underlying, slightly sinister, message was ‘enough is enough’. Singapore’s borders are being swamped with foreigners. So they must leave. There was no alternative strategy posed to deal with the island’s chronic manpower needs and its ageing population, just an overwhelming desire to stoke the xenophobic fires among a small, disillusioned and disaffected minority.

It was a nascent war cry against the establishment and the growing income divide and a demand to close the gates. 

It was, in essence, a Brexit rally in its infancy.

For a Channel NewsAsia documentary, I spoke with one of the rally’s organisers and the conversation went something like this:

“So you believe there are too many foreigners in this country?” I asked.
“Yes,” he replied.
“So who should we send back? The foreign domestic helpers from the region who look after our young and elderly?”
“No, they can stay.”
“What about the South Asians who build our homes, maintain our parks and gardens and empty our rubbish chutes every day?”
“No, they can stay.”
“What about the heads of multi-national corporations who create wealth and countless jobs for Singaporeans?”
“No, they can stay.”

You can probably see where I’m going with this. (Intriguingly, he also said I could stay, claiming that I performed an “important service” for Singapore, which was stretching credibility a bit.) 

But that’s the fine line between a rational and necessary discourse on immigration in a country with finite space and obvious manpower demands - and irrational xenophobia. The message can get lost among the messengers.

Indeed, the highlight of the anti-immigrant rally took place at its denouement, when the last act of the day was to judge the best political placards. A young guy, wearing an ill-fitting singlet to display the dazzling tattoos across each arm, marched towards me.

His self-assured swagger and forceful shoulder barges through the throng did not bode well.

He stopped, just inches from my foreign face, his eyes ablaze. I smiled nervously and instinctively covered my groin area, as if preparing to defend a free-kick. This kid looked like he could put a real crimp in my day. 

“Hey ang moh,” he said loudly, cutting straight to my skin colour. “It’s you ah?”
“I’m sorry,” I muttered.
“It’s you ah, Humphreys, right?”
“Er, yeah, it is.”
“Eh, man, I got your books. Can take selfie ah?”
So I stood, an immigrant at an anti-immigrant rally, posing for photos with an apprentice xenophobe.

Integration really is a two-way street

That’s what 20 years, a dozen books and a deeply entrenched admiration for a country’s commitment to multiculturalism, despite the obvious pitfalls, can do for an adopted foreigner in Singapore. 

It’s earned me the nickname “Kevlar Ang Moh”, which is flattering, but patently untrue, the most cursory of glances at my lively Twitter feed would prove that. 

Genuine, sincere relationships between locals and foreigners are not a given. They must be earned.

Assimilation is more than the odd visit to the hawker centre to get down with the heartlanders. It’s not a Buzzfeed list of the top 10 chicken rice stalls, a day trip to Little India or clumsily shoehorning ‘lah’, ‘leh’ or ‘lor’ into sentences. It’s a way of life. I live in Singapore so I live like a Singaporean, no more, no less. To live any other way would be artificial and contrived. That’s what expat bubbles are made of.

Of course, integration must be a two-way street.

In Singapore, I’ve been racially abused about four or five times. (This is just a statement of fact. I’m not fishing for sympathy. I’m a white bloke who taps away at a laptop for a living. I’m not a Bangladeshi worker cleaning rubbish chutes for $500 a month. Perspective really isn’t a problem.) 

But the abusive incidents have all happened in the last four years, during a tense, post-globalisation age of austerity, income divides, anti-establishment sentiment and the omnipresent fear of the immigrant. 

So I get it. 

I was raised in a relatively poor working-class household barely surviving on a single income. The desire to lash out at those who are perceived to be contributing to one’s financial struggle is always there. 

I understand the socio-economic tension that might have provoked a guy to wind down his car window in North Bridge Road and shout: “Damn you, white trash.”

I recognise the possible reasons why a woman felt compelled to confront me at the Marine Parade Community Club and demand that I go back to where I came from (which was actually Bedok, so I was a little confused.) 

And I know why a well-meaning friend feels the need to tell my eight-year-old daughter that she will always be considered “foreign talent” and could therefore never fulfil her daft dream of representing Singapore as an Olympic gymnast. From an empirical standpoint, I can easily justify all of the above. 

But from an emotional standpoint, it’s a bit harder to explain to a little girl why she is still considered “foreign” in the only home she has ever really known.

Of course, these are overwhelmingly isolated cases. They are the kneejerk reactions of an uncaring or insensitive minority. They are not a fair and accurate representation of mainstream Singapore. 

The trouble is they said the same about Britain. And Brexit still happened. 

They said the same about the United States. And Trump is still here. 

Singapore doesn’t need to heed the warnings of history, just the last six months will do. 

The Little Red Dot’s biggest achievement isn’t the ‘third world to first world’ economic miracle, but the nation’s unswerving commitment to inclusiveness, on all sides.

It’s not a perfect model. There isn’t one. Mistakes are occasionally made, sometimes painfully, sometimes funny (I’m not sure every race must be represented in every stat board campaign photo each and every time, though it’s always entertaining to play ‘spot the race’.)

But the sustained emphasis on diversity, constantly advocating the integration of all races, locals and foreigners alike, remains the country’s greatest success.

Taking such a heterogeneous and peaceful society for granted would be Singapore’s greatest failure.

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