Stand Strong Against Xenophobia in NUS - Of Sun Xu and the Foreign-Local Divide

This article was originally posted anonymously on The Kent Ridge Common.

Source credit: Edvantage
A Tale of Two Cities where there should be One

Often, I find myself in the unenviable position of defending Chinese students. Typical comments I hear from Singaporean peers are listed as follows:

"I really don't understand why there're so many Chinese students competing with us. The bell-curve is making it impossible for any Singaporeans to score As."

"Look at the Chinese. How dare he just walk into our lab, smile and walk out again? Completely no social grace. And a silly smile. What a stupid thing. Why are they on scholarships?"

"And we got one guy. He's completely rude. I don't know why he was so pissed off when the captain subbed him out. Everyone should have a chance to play."

The above comments are the less inflaming ones that I can recall, with expletives edited out. Certainly, there're more vitriolic ones. People are so prone to judgement, so ready to put others down that I'm frightened. Toxic words flow so freely that I wonder where is its source. In some cases, I try to defend Chinese students, to give the circumstances a positive - if not, at least neutral - spin.

"Actually, I've a number of friends who are from China and they're really decent people. Recently, there're Chinese students who set up - "

"What about the tainted milk scandal? Have you forgotten about it? The suppression of Tibet? And the child who was ran over and left to bleed while passer-bys feigned ignorance? And the student who said that there're more dogs in Singapore than people?"

I write today, as a Singaporean Chinese. I write not to criticise, but to point out a pressing situation, one that deserves thoughtful discussion. I write because I fear what xenophobia may cause and because I'm tired of tolerating prejudices.

Xenophobia in Daily Life

In social circles, calling people "cheena" has become an acceptable fad. Making fun of cultural roots and accents has become an easy way to elicit laughter. It's the cheapest, most thoughtless way of being cool.

Once, I unwisely pointed out to one friend on how his slurs actually restricted his horizons. "If you judge people so quickly, how can you ever hope to learn from them? All these comments aren't becoming at all."

Doing so, I came to realise, was social suicide. I would be attacked badly or heckled incessantly. "Why don't you have dinner with your Chinese friends instead?" Otherwise, an unnatural silence would cast a pall over the gathering. Therefore, most ashamedly, I've learnt to listen selectively. I'd only speak up if the critics were particularly vicious; otherwise, I would feign ignorance.

This article is an attempt to make peace with myself, to atone for those moments of silence when I heard comments which were uncalled for.

On Different Groups of Chinese Students

On a recent study trip to Cambodia, I had the rare opportunity to sit beside Chinese students.
It really gave a face to the stories I heard. One friend - let's just refer to him as HX - told me about his family, childhood and pet dog. Initially, the conversation was somewhat lighthearted; as we exhausted these topics, we turned to the Singaporean Chinese - Chinese Chinese divide.

"A few weeks ago, along the stuffy corridors of Science, I overheard two Chinese students, discussing about how they shouldn't be spending the best part of their lives in NUS. They ought to go back to China, their homeland, where exciting opportunities abound. Seriously, I was offended. Did all Chinese think this way?"

On a separate occasion, I posed the same question to ZZ. She paused before sharing some insights. "You must understand that the Chinese students aren't all cut from the same cloth. There're basically three types of students. The first type: those who came here after 高考 (High School exams). They came here with the expectations that they'd receive degrees and work for Singapore-linked companies upon graduation. They didn't really spend their formative years over here and don't have many Singaporean friends. It is understandable that these students want to return to China."

"And some, they're like me. They came here after graduating from high school but before they took their 高考 (High School exams). In a way, we're in a limbo. We don't really feel that close to China, neither do we feel strongly for Singapore."

"The last group of students, they came here when they were young - to study in secondary schools or junior colleges. These students - and I'm sure you know some of them - feel a sense of belonging to Singapore. They'll want to remain, to work and live here."

As a recent furor over foreign talents unfolds, I'm surprised by how many Singaporeans lump Chinese students into one indistinct group. At times, we are guilty of making sweeping assumptions, ones that don't do justice to the people involved.

On Sun Xu

"Have you heard of the guy, Sun Xu?"

"Yes. I think -"

"Actually, I feel quite sorry for him."

"Huh, why?"

''Did you know that he posted his comment on Weibo (China's equivalent of Facebook)? I wonder how Singaporeans got wind of this. Perhaps, it's a malicious act..."

"Actually, I don't really care who exposed him. I think he should be expelled from NUS. He is in Singapore, on a scholarship. Whether he posted that on Weibo wasn't important. Whoever exposed him isn't important. We can leave all the discussion on patriotism to countries out; this isn't a Singapore-China issue. It's an issue on morals. When we make mistakes, we should bear the consequences. He should have known better. This comment simply doesn't reflect well on his character."

But, as I spend more time thinking on this issue, I realise that I don't care about what words Sun Xu uttered.

I want him to be punished because I value the respect that Singaporeans generally have for each other. I treasure the harmony that we have, especially since I have had the privilege of visiting other places where blatant prejudices tear apart the social fabric.

Sun Xu deserves to be punished, yes. But he doesn't deserve the caustic insults poured all over him.
The poisonous words against him in online forums (herehere and here) are staggering. Some Singaporeans behaved with such heated anger that their words reflect badly on them, the way Sun Xu's words have. I've came across Facebook updates that were so malicious that they rank right down there with what Sun Xu said. Worse, people are actually agreeing with such inflaming comments.

Seriously, if people ever call me a dog, I'll just ask them to fuck off before ignoring them. I know that I'm not a dog; whatever they say doesn't hurt me. And so, I see these vigorous reactions against Sun Xu as our society's collective anxiety. If we aren't dogs, then why would we be bothered by that insult?

The Divide That Shouldn't Be

In many ways, I'm glad that I'm not a Chinese Chinese, but a Singaporean Chinese. I don't have to face the prejudices piling upon them. As YW shared, "it is really discomforting being from China. We can't really criticise the Chinese people or the Sun Xu incident. Otherwise, we'll be lambasted by the Chinese community as traitors. And we can't point out stuff that can be done better in Singapore, purely because our suggestions will be dismissed as outsiders' perspectives."

After many conversations with Chinese friends, I acquire a respect for their tenacity and perspicacity. They are generally decent people (although they did tell me that some Chinese people can be really unscrupulous). They defy the toxic stereotypes that some Singaporeans may have of them.

The problems that we now face are real. It is true that Singaporeans have to face tough competition on many fronts - be it for housing, jobs or university places. There are questions that need to be addressed; how to balance economic needs with demographic demands and natural constraints; how to erase the divisive tensions between locals and foreigners. These are complex issues that we need to tackle together.
As we work through these challenges, it is vital to keep in mind that people - no matter where they are from - are people. They are not faceless entities that one can criticise safely, anonymously and poisonously; any vitriolic words reflect badly on the person who uttered them. Discourse, when we have them, should be civil. Day-to-day interactions should be respectful.

In Singapore, we've precious harmony. Let's strive to keep it this way.