SINGAPORE - It’s Thursday, 8.30pm, and the crowd at the Singaporeans First Party (SingFirst) rally is getting heated up.
In front of me, a party candidate stands on the stage, behind a rostrum, his fist in the air. He shouts into a mic. “Foreigners have come into our country, stolen our jobs, broken our families! They have destroyed our self-esteem!”
A wave of cheers erupted from the audience, with only a smattering of boos.
“Throw them out!” yelled a man with grey, thinning hair, his elbows propped against a yellow metal barricade.
Another man, with a gold chain around his neck and his hands cupped around his mouth, screamed, “Ask them to f*** off! They are not Singaporeans!”, as a woman, with her hair stuck to her forehead, knocked two empty plastic bottles furiously against each other, showing her support for his strong words. A folded-up pram leaned against her thin frame.
Nearby, two children stood silent, peering through the yellow bars. Their parents were nowhere to be found.
The same scene was played out at a Reform Party rally the next night and another SingFirst rally on Saturday.
Targeting foreigners is a tactic as old as politics itself.
Ever since tribes were formed, and nations created, the notion of “us”and “them” is the foundation of any group.
History is replete with examples of how a group of people, in trying to define themselves, use the “others” as examples, with disastrous and often violent results.
Look at the dozens of civil wars in Africa, where genocide has been undertaken, or, more recently, the ostracising of the Rohingyas in Myanmar.
In this general election, there has been no violence, or suggestion that Singaporeans take up violence, thankfully.
But political parties are not averse to, and rather gleeful about, pushing the agenda against foreigners to score political points.
At a Reform Party rally last Friday, a candidate shouted: “The foreigners have come into our country, stolen our jobs with their fake degrees!”
What’s more worrying than the political parties’ message is that it seems to have gotten some traction among those in the audience.
Dr Mohan J. Dutta, who studies communication for policy changes at the National University of Singapore, said that xenophobic language hinders “meaningful deliberations” because it provides “simplistic views towards deep social issues”.
“Xenophobic language appeals to deep-seated emotions (in the audience), and people get fired up, which affects the quality of discourse.”
On Saturday, a Malay candidate said: “Let me speak in Malay, because foreigners cannot understand Malay.” Well, as a born-and-bred Singaporean Chinese, I cannot understand a whole speech delivered in Malay either.
For me, these anti-foreigner speeches were intensely uncomfortable experiences.
As a manpower reporter, I’ve spent many evenings visiting migrant workers staying in walk-up apartments, purpose-built dorms, even bin centres. Recently, I’ve also started talking to more foreign white-collared workers in IT, healthcare and the finance sectors.
This group has been the target at rallies for allegedly stealing jobs meant for Singaporeans.
Over the Chinese New Year period this year, I travelled with a group of mostly Bangladeshi and Indian nationals to Malaysia for a holiday organised by a local dorm operator. Most of them live on the fringes of our society, in industrial areas in Toh Guan, Senoko and Tuas.
“Othering” foreign workers is easy because they do not share the same social spaces as most Singaporeans. They live among themselves; consistently eat food that is not usual hawker fare or typical Singaporean food such as chicken rice, laksa and char kway teow; and band together during weekends at places such as Lucky Plaza, Little India and Chinatown.
And to opposition parties, foreigners can often easily become the same thing they accuse the ruling party of using them as: nameless digits.
Well, they are not.
Some of them are mothers, like domestic worker Trina Ocampo, 23, from the Philippines, who cried every night for a month when she first came to Singapore, because she missed her one-year-old son.
Others are husbands, like construction worker Abul, 33, who wanted to work overseas so he could pay off medical debts for his sick wife. He hurt his right thumb when he was trying to close a latch at his workplace last month, and refuses to see a doctor because he is afraid of being out of work here.
They are also sons and daughters, like IT consultant Arjuna, 33, and nurse Maria Bautista, 27, who send money home so their parents can have a better life. Mr Arjuna’s parents, for example, sold part of their land in India for him to study here.
As the world becomes more connected, the issue of migration must be treated with kid’s gloves.
Singaporeans are feeling cramped as more migrants flock here to seek their fortunes. It is not unfair for citizens to hope that the Government can protect their interests better. At the same time, it is also the Government’s responsibility to ensure we are not left behind as the world surges forward.
So we need representatives who have a plan and can represent us to have a healthy, hearty discussion on what to do next regarding migration.
But stop xenophobia. Singapore’s politics deserves better.