The Other Lesson Singapore Can Learn From Brexit

The rhetoric of Britain’s Leave campaign offers a cautionary tale.

While some have been shocked by the result of the British referendum to decide whether the state either remains or leaves the European Union, all can agree that what has been even more surprising and discomforting have been both the open displays of xenophobia and the spike in hate crimes against migrants and minorities. The Leave campaign leading to Brexit was buoyed by a very exclusionary nationalist narrative. This narrative was a simple one where the British – framed as exclusively white, and Anglo-Saxon to be precise – are a people are under assault by immigrants. While successful in contributing to the goal of ensuring a win at the referendum, the blowback from such a narrative has been ugly. Since the referendum, hate crimes against both European migrants as well as minorities have spiked by 57 percent.

This exclusionary narrative and its effects are highly instructive for Singapore – a nation occasionally prone to –albeit nowhere to the extent of what is happening in Britain today – xenophobic displays. Singapore’s self narrative has always been inclusive rather than exclusive – openness to newcomers is supported by the story that previous generations of the nation have almost all come from somewhere else. To avoid slipping into a more exclusionary nationalist narrative, energy would have to be devoted to constantly remind its people of this fact. This is especially so as Singapore grows older as a nation and as its people become more disconnected from its immigrant past with each passing Singapore-born generation.

National Narratives and Singapore

National narratives – or the story a nation tells of itself to understand its place in the world – are a powerful tool. While described disparagingly as a means by which individuals are instructed to “hate people you never met, and to take pride in accomplishments you had no part in,” they have also motivated individuals who have never met one another to work as a collective to strive for something greater – an example here would be President Kennedy’s call for America to be the first to the moon.

National narratives by virtue of telling us who we are in the world can be exclusionary or inclusive – it is effectively a story about who can be part of “our” club. As articulated by elements of the British leave campaign, the bar for entry into the British community can be set insurmountably high with all the attendant negative effects. Alternatively, as in the case of Singapore, the narrative can be far more inclusive. For Singapore, the narrative of the nation begins with Singapore from its very founding in 1819 taking into its fold a kaleidoscope of people. Interestingly, by 1854, Singapore was described to have been filled with “the very dregs of South Eastern Asia.”

This narrative arc sweeps to 1965 where the story of immigrants coming to an island in Southeast Asia becomes meshed with the fact that Singapore became an unplanned child of international politics with its only natural resource being its people. The narrative arc finds conclusion with the resolution that everyone here has come from somewhere else and all Singaporeans have is each other to survive in this world. As national narratives go, it is a highly inclusive and convincing one.

A (Sometimes) Forgotten Narrative

Narratives, however, can be questioned and challenged. In recent Singaporean experience, we have seen increasing fracture of this narrative. In his 2012 National Day Rally, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong noted that there had been a proliferation of xenophobic discourse in Singapore, particularly online and lamented that “very few people stand up to say this is wrong, shameful, we repudiate that. I think that is no good.” In the days after the Little India riot in 2013, following a profusion in vitriol and xenophobia online towards foreign workers, Russell Heng, the President of migrant workers’ group Transient Workers Count Too (TWC2), echoed the Prime Minister’s sentiments and noted that such comments “can only perpetuate a vicious cycle of hatred that can lead to more violence and may even cost lives”.

An increasingly exclusive national narrative, forged in the fires of xenophobia will only serve to increase mistrust and suspicion throughout Singaporean society; where one has to constantly respond to questions if one is a ‘real Singaporean’. Answering in the affirmative, almost always results in having to engage in a snide conversation about “foreigners” – both the “talent” and “worker” types. This constant ‘othering’ of immigrants becomes as exclusive as the rhetoric articulated by those of the Brexit ‘leave’ campaign. It sets the bar to be part of “us” as one based on the length of time they have been in Singapore and their background, rather than their desire to be Singaporean which is the antithesis of our story thus far.

The Way Forward

There is a common argument that the inclusive immigrant narrative is from days of yore and out of touch with the perceived identity of Singaporeans today. After all, a third or fourth generation Singaporean knows no other place but Singapore as home and has little notion of being a product of immigration. Admittedly, this appears to be a convincing argument at face value but it is an argument no nation with immigrant roots can articulate coherently. This is largely because such a perspective opens up a Pandora’s Box of unanswerable questions and issues ranging from the rules that dictate the number of generations it takes to be part of the community and just who decides the number of generations it takes.

It is undeniable that with the passing of time, and as the nation-state ages, connectivity with the immigrant narrative becomes increasingly difficult to access directly as Singapore as a collective loses family members who can be remembered as coming from somewhere else.

How important is preservation of this narrative of the nation? Perhaps counter-intuitively, the solution is to encourage a consistent challenge of the narrative. Following philosopher JS Mill’s argument that all truths should be challenged to avoid them becoming dogmatic and stale, counter-narratives should be permitted and encouraged. A range of narratives that strengthen and challenge the dominant narrative are necessary so that they can be engaged with in the marketplace of ideas, giving Singaporeans a chance to debate a story of “us,” a story not just scripted by a vocal minority putting forth an exclusionary, narrow narrative.

Pravin Prakash is an Associate Research Fellow with the Centre of Excellence for National Security (CENS) at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Singapore. Norman Vasu is Senior Fellow and Deputy Head of the Centre of Excellence for National Security (CENS) at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Singapore.