Integration not just about fitting in

-- ST ILLUSTRATION: ADAM LEE
-- ST ILLUSTRATION: ADAM LEE

It also means letting ourselves be changed a little by our immigrants

Part of my job is to survey the climate of opinion on any number of current issues, and make a judgment call on what commentaries to run in The Straits Times, what thoughtful perspectives from which contributor to solicit and what new issues to highlight.

I've been following the evolving discussion of the Charlie Hebdo incident with fascination, ever since news broke on Jan 7 that 12 people were gunned down by two French Muslims in the Parisian office of the satirical weekly magazine.

As always, as a true-blue Singaporean, part of my mind is engaged on what this all means for Singapore.

Every society has to strike a balance between free speech and responsibility to others.

Laws against libel and laws proscribing disclosure of secrets for national security reasons are common fetters on speech. In many countries, including France, there are laws against hate speech that incites racial hatred or discrimination against a racial group.

Austria and Germany have laws against denying the Holocaust. France has a 1990 law that makes it illegal to question the existence of crimes against humanity (such as the Holocaust).

In France, even the iconic 1789 Declaration of the Rights of Man, abridges the right to free speech thus in Article 11: "The free communication of ideas and of opinions is one of the most precious rights of man. Any citizen may therefore speak, write and publish freely, except what is tantamount to the abuse of this liberty in the cases determined by law." (italics are mine)

In other words, even the fiercely independent and revolutionary-minded French recognised limits to free speech and chose not to protect those who abused it.

No wonder an irate Muslim editor, Mr Mehdi Hasan of the Huffington Post UK, wrote an open letter to "free speech fundamentalists", calling them out on their hypocrisy for championing Charlie Hebdo's right to insult Islam, when their societies protect other religions from such insult.

"Did you not know that Charlie Hebdo sacked the veteran French cartoonist Maurice Sinet in 2008 for making an allegedly anti-Semitic remark? Were you not aware that Jyllands-Posten, the Danish newspaper that published caricatures of the Prophet in 2005, reportedly rejected cartoons mocking Christ because they would 'provoke an outcry' and proudly declared it would 'in no circumstances... publish Holocaust cartoons'?"

So much for the free speech fallacy surrounding the issue.

As for Singapore, laws like the Sedition Act and the Maintenance of Religious Harmony Act take a clear stand, putting communal peace and social order above freedom of expression.

Within Singapore, we may question the Government on details of legislation, and debate instances of over-zealous enforcement of these laws, and argue online and off among ourselves just how to shift the balance to give more leeway to freer speech.

But last week, as many newspapers around the world republished Charlie Hebdo cartoons in a blow for "freedom", I was glad that in sedate Singapore, we have laws that can hold to task anyone who might feel inclined to insult Muslims by publishing naked caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad.

As for Western views, I was struck by how few commentators there were who acknowledge that French and European laws aren't even-handed in their protection of religions from hate speech. Even more striking was that very few went on from there to argue that protecting Muslims from hate speech should become part of the European agenda, as protecting Jews from anti-Semitism is.

Instead, there was a lot said about the need to integrate immigrants better. Integration is a code word for making minorities fit into, become part of, and even become like, the host country and its culture.

While every society has the right to demand that immigrants and newcomers "fit in", the accommodation should also be two-way.

Societies that choose to take in large numbers of immigrants - and it is a choice, for countries can close their borders to newcomers - also have to be prepared to be changed by their immigrants.

France has five million Muslims making up about 8 per cent of the population - a large minority. The Charlie Hebdo murders could be an opportunity to review its own treatment of Muslims. Or they can strengthen the resolve to argue that being French means forcing French Muslims to live with gratuitous insult of their religion in a country that protects other religious minorities.

In Singapore, we have our own integration problems, as seen by a rising tide of anti-foreigner sentiment, especially online. Our workforce has more than 1.33 million foreigners, of whom about 750,000 are domestic workers and construction workers.

Foreigners in such numbers will have an impact on any society - in neighbourhoods where migrants cluster, in cuisine, in social manners, in the lingua franca of choice. Our morning commute, our meal times, workplace, evening shopping spree, will all be different.

We can resent the change, or let ourselves be changed - a little - by the foreigners in our midst. To be sure, we want to avoid the bad traits: the ostentatious ways of one group, or the crass behaviour of those who misbehave on airplanes.

But we can learn from others, and let Singapore change at the margins. We can leaven our staid society with the zest from the large numbers of foreigners in our midst: Interweave our complaining culture with the immigrant's gratitude for efficiency, for peace and security; inject third-generation Singaporean complacency with the DNA of the immigrant drive to succeed; overcome being kiasu (fear of losing) with newcomers' courage to embrace change; and rekindle love for our nation through the fervour of immigrants who forge new ties with the adopted land of their choice.

Faced with large numbers of foreigners and immigrants, we can resent them and insist they all become just like us - as many among the French seem to be saying last week. Or we can hear their voices and let ourselves be changed a little, perhaps for the better.

muihoong@sph.com.sg