I was at a dinner party a few evenings ago and sat next to a lovely Danish woman who said she’d just arrived in Singapore from Denmark, but was having problems settling into Singapore, especially in interacting with the locals. It was an understandable commentary: It’s never easy moving to a new country, having to adjust to new people with their different customs, habits and way of life.
Suddenly, from the other side of the table, someone piped up, “I’m sure this isn’t what you do, but we Singaporeans are generally very clean and green. I see a lot of foreigners who litter all over the place. Maybe that’s what they do in their own country, but we frown on that sort of thing here in Singapore. Once people understand this, it will be much easier to blend in!”
The entire table gasped.
First of all, the bald intimation that Singaporeans do not litter was breathtaking in its naïveté. Secondly, the Danish lady, now looking completely ambushed, had not even said anything about littering. But what was more worrying about the non sequitur was the underlying insularity and perverse logic. The equation worked like this: foreigners litter; Singaporeans don’t; and this is why foreigners often do not fit into Singapore.
Was this how Singaporeans really think, I wondered: That foreigners are a littering lot?
One of the things that visitors to Singapore always comment is how clean everything is. My friend Su-fei once coolly replied, “It’s clean only because we employ an army of cleaners to clean up after us. And, anyway, Orchard Road is not a good yardstick. You want to see the real Singapore? Go out into the suburbs.”
But surely, when it comes to welcoming foreigners, the issue cannot be one of cleanliness or even some simplistic expression of civic pride? After all, I’ve watched young adults toss empty cigarette packets into the gutter as they stroll along the streets; residents flipping through their mail at the letter box and dropping unwanted catalogues and flyers onto the floor before blithely walking away; and even parents huddled in a corner of the corridor of an MRT station urging their child to urinate onto the floor. Our longkangs are festooned with litter, the sidewalks with cigarette butts and drink containers, while our stairwells are dumping grounds for old newspapers, rusted bicycles and empty cardboard boxes for TVs and computers.
No, the issue here isn’t about race. Nor has it anything to do with littering (though there’s certainly a lot of that going around) and if it does, it’s not a problem that’s caused exclusively by foreigners.
Rather, the issue is one of humanity and common decency; of knowing how to treat each other, fellow citizens and foreigners alike. I have seen grown (Singaporean) adults frantically press the close-door button when someone is dashing for the lift. People have turned away and ignored me when I’ve asked for directions. I’ve seen customers who snatch up their receipt and shopping bags without acknowledging the cashier with either a smile or a word of thanks. Or perfectly able-bodied children and adults who blithely remain seated on trains while an old man sways uncertainly on his feet, right in front of them.
I once passed through an HDB block and came upon two boys aged around 12 (again, if you really insist on playing the race card, one was Chinese, and the other Indian). They were calmly lighting matches and throwing the flaming sticks at a stray cat. Angrily, I yelled at them to stop. One of the kids looked at me, a little bemused and a little embarrassed, and pointed at the other kid, “It wasn’t me, it was him!”, before both slunk off. I had no doubt that, within the hour, they’d be torturing another stray.
So my question is this: Is this the mentality that foreigners are supposed to emulate in order to fit into our society? Blaming the foibles of other races, and taking no responsibility for how we welcome newcomers to Singapore – is this the Singaporean way?
Of course not. It simply cannot be. And as if it needed saying, none of these examples is even, to pinch the old STB slogan, uniquely Singapore. The majority don’t behave like this. Rudeness, insensitivity, belligerence, littering – these things happen everywhere, all around the world; especially in foreign countries. But the point is that it’s often so easy to assume a superior stand, point fingers and virtuously assign blame.
So, how do we help foreigners (itself a vicious, loaded, xenophobic term) fit into Singapore? Well, we begin by picking up our own rubbish.