Narratives, Dr Chong believes, are integral to the anxieties and antipathy locals harbour against immigrants. The premise that we thrive on narratives counters the assumption that we are individual rational actors responding to specific material stresses, such as individual instances when a foreigner edges one out of her job.
This premise resonated with me. Consider Person A, a 62-year old individual on the verge of retirement. How Person A is contiguous with her 61-year-old past, and her 16-year-old youthful self, are important questions if Person A wants to assert that she is indeed Person A. To present a coherent, concerted creature called Person A, she has to thread her history of multiple selves using a narrative that highlights consistencies and heals any disjunctures so that Person A – from age 1 to 62 - becomes a whole being that is palatable not just for others’ consumption but also for Person A’s grip on a meaningful existence. As we weave these personal stories, we need characters in our plot, characters like the teeming foreigners we bump into, read about, work with, and work against.
Dr Chong identified three roles we carve out for foreigners. First, there is the “leap frogger”. The immigrant leaps ahead of Singaporeans because he escapes obligations like National Service (NS) to put himself in an advantageous position vis-à-vis the local. This “leap frogger” also siphons off subsidies for education and transportation. There is also the “scrounger”. Immigrants cascade into Singapore because of its prosperity relative to their homelands in China and India, for example. This stream of foreigners collect the minerals from our prosperous shores and flow out of our island home the moment greener pastures beckon. Images of non-permanent Permanent Residents and foreign scholars come to the fore. The third character in this narrative is the “hungry immigrant”. The immigrant is biologically and intellectually fecund. She is here to shore up our flagging fertility rates. She arrives with a feeble grasp on English but proceeds to trounce our local students in national exams. The “hungry immigrant” breeds envy and resentment.
A couple of queries simmer beneath Dr Chong’s refreshing analysis. Why do these narrative roles tend towards crass generalisations? How does a particular mould of the immigrant dominate other plausible alternative moulds?
To answer the first question, we can revert to the roots of our narrative-driven selves. Person A’s narrative grapples with the spiky inconsistencies through her life. It seeks to lump our protean personalities into a single being. The allure of narratives stems in part from the glue of generalisations. Likewise, the narrative roles we assign to foreigners allow us to make sense of our varied and salient interactions with people who look different, speak different, and, some might even insist, smell different.
But why the “hungry immigrant” as opposed to the “model immigrant”, one whose zeal is not a threat but an attribute worthy of emulation? This, Dr Chong pointed out, could be a result of our national narrative. The narrative of a community deeply affects its members because no person is an island and a meaningful existence requires not just a coherent being, but a coherent being which is tethered to a communal life that transcends her transient existence. Dr Chong demonstrates that the Singaporean narrative piques our sense of vulnerability with vocabulary that breeds insecurity, such as the “politics of survival”, “ideology of survival”, “historical trauma”, “garrison mentality”. We are anxious and wary of competition. The “hungry immigrant” hence becomes an object of fear rather than admiration.
Two conversations in Orchard Hotel’s regal ballroom corroborated Dr Chong’s view on Singapore’s cultural politics. The first session of the conference shed light on the importance of NS in the local conception of Singaporean-ness. Recalling my stint as a soldier, I remember not just the enriching encounters with fellow conscripts from different walks of life but also the periodic national education lectures. Sergeants, officers, and retired soldiers drilled into my head stories that the British colonisers were incompetent and lacked the will to fight for this island, that the Japanese soldiers were brutal exploiters. These portraits of foreigners probably entrench the unsavoury narrative frames we cast on immigrants.
Mr Chan’s broader point, which should not be lost in his passing remark on babies born out of wedlock, stressed that Singapore has to be a nimble city in order to secure opportunities for our future generations. Our city, the minister opined, needs to withstand the competitive pressures from abroad. Dr Chong must have felt vindicated; the national narrative of insecurity and paranoia was reiterated at the heels of his sharing.
So why not just alter these stories? Stories are not fluffy baseless generalisations. Singapore’s narrative, however inspiring and anxiety-inducing, is not unfounded propaganda. We certainly have to contend with the crunching competition from larger and better endowed communities. The “scrounger” receives partial validation from the statistic that a third of second-generation male Permanent Residents shirk their NS obligations. Perhaps the two thirds who stay behind could be incorporated into our national storyboard as more than “non-scroungers”. Perhaps re-colouring the narrative roles of immigration requires a lot more effort to correct the prevailing anxieties (kan chiong-ness) embedded in our consciousness. Perhaps to strive towards integration, we need a new canvas of stories.