The protest is not without its controversy, though. Critics have accused Goh of racism and xenophobia, and many of the messages seen and heard at the protest were a little too nationalistic and protectionist for comfort. Among the many placards at the protest was one that read, “Singapore for Singaporeans”, echoing catchphrases of right-wing anti-immigration groups around the world. (“Britain for the British” is one of the favourite slogans of the far-right British National Party in the United Kingdom.)
This has alienated some, preventing them from participating in the protest despite also rejecting the White Paper.
“The framing of the protest as being about ‘immigration policy’ should ring alarm bells, especially when it mirrors the rhetoric of the far-right in Europe,” says an educator I spoke with, who decided to boycott the protest. “Concerns should be placed on issues like oppressive labor laws, the commodification of space, militarization and the policies of built environment. Also, civil society should recognize its responsibility towards immigrants by building a just society for all.”
Still, many civil society members went to the protest to ensure that anti-foreigner sentiment did not dominate. Migrants’ rights activist Jolovan Wham was one of them.
“I went to the protest because I was concerned that in our enthusiasm to oppose our government’s immigration policy, we might end up unwittingly bashing foreigners,” the educator noted. “I gave out flyers at the event to reinforce the idea that criticising our lousy immigration and labor policies should not degenerate into attacks on foreigners.”
Vincent Wijeysingha, treasurer of the Singapore Democratic Party, also attended the protest to counter potential anti-foreigner sentiments. “Do not set yourselves apart from our foreign guests,” he urged the crowd in his speech. “Change your mindset: it is not they who steal our jobs and lower our wages. It is a policy framework that has forgotten that we Singaporeans are, and must be, the first and last object of governance.”
It’s clear that Singaporeans are angry, but it would be far too simplistic to pin it down to just one thing. The wave of dissatisfaction has been caused by many factors, from worries over bread-and-butter issues to a frustration over the lack of true democracy. And locals aren’t the only ones hit, either; migrant workers have also often been victims of government policy and the lack of welfare and protections.
“The problem with the White Paper is that it recommends an increase in the number of low-wage migrant workers in Singapore without providing information about how it would ensure that the rights and welfare of migrant workers would be ensured,” Whams explains. “For example, will there be sufficient decent accommodation for them? Will they end up living in slum-like conditions at construction sites like many of them do now, or in overcrowded quarters because there are insufficient dormitories? Are our social services equipped with the capacity to provide appropriate social support for them?”
Wham continues, “These questions are not being answered and unless they can show how they will ensure that the rights of migrant workers will be upheld, I reject the White Paper because we cannot just treat migrant workers as economic units to grow GDP.”
It’s not the most cheerful of situations, but Singaporeans seem to be waking up. Where this newfound motivation will lead remains to be seen; not all change is good. The hope is that people will be aware that change needs to come not just from the government, but also in mindsets long cultivated from years of rhetoric and “mainstream values” foisted on the populace. Fortunately, many young Singaporeans aren’t giving up.
“I'm concerned for my country and I'm not one who runs away when things get tough,” says Lin. ”This is my country and I take ownership.”
Kirsten Han is a writer, videographer and photographer. Originally from Singapore, she has worked on documentary projects around Asia and written for publications including Waging Nonviolence, Asian Correspondent and The Huffington Post.