Monday, 24 May 2021

The virus of racism must not spread in Singapore

Linking race to the COVID-19 virus is against the social DNA of our multicultural society.
By Asad Latif, The Straits Times, 22 May 2021

A vicious attack on an Indian Singaporean woman, because she was not wearing her mask properly (she was brisk-walking), reveals the nefarious relationship between race, fear and violence that has been generated by the Covid-19 pandemic.

The incident is the most egregious of several instances of unsavoury behaviour involving ethnicity and disease in the wake of a new strain of Covid-19, rampant in India, which threatens to stigmatise Indians, whatever their nationality.

Of course, race is not the only variable in this unseemly equation. Some employees at Tan Tock Seng Hospital, which is at the forefront of efforts to fight Covid-19, have faced discrimination from members of the public.

Not all of the hospital's employees are Indians.

Here, then, is the first variable: Fear. An infectious disease socialises the individual fear of death that exists anywhere, all the time. A contagion broadcasts the fear of untimely and unwarranted death.

It amplifies the fictive distinction between "soft death" and "hard death" which the American writer Susan Sontag demystifies in her 1989 book Aids And Its Metaphors. Soft death supposedly comes easily; hard death is hard to bear.

"The metaphorised illnesses that haunt the collective imagination are all hard deaths or envisaged as such," she writes.

Thus, the Acquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome (Aids), seen as leading to a hard death, became a "mythological menace".

Attack on nativist collectivity

Mythology nests in threatened territory. Territoriality is the second variable. Sontag suggests that a disease becomes a metaphor when sufficient members of a society view it as an external attack on their nativist collectivity.

The sexual promiscuity associated with the provenance of Aids in Africa was viewed as an attack on the moral and biological integrity of Western society, which imported the supposed curse because of its openness to the rest of the world.

Black Africa became the Aids-producing continent, while the white West became the geographical victim of a foreign disease. Aids was stigmatised in racialised terms.

Something very similar has occurred with Covid-19. Its origins led to it being called the Wuhan virus and even the Chinese virus, terms that signalled the identification of a disease with a place and even an ethnicity.

No wonder Chinese were insulted, harassed or attacked in several countries. They did not have to be from Wuhan or even the rest of China: All that they had to do was to look Chinese.

That was sufficient to rationalise their racist victimisation.

Now it is India's turn.

The Indian strain is seen as an Indian product, as if any country specialises in the creation and export of a virus.

Just as the suffering of the Chinese in Wuhan and other cities was ignored by racists in the West, who were interested only in apportioning ethnic blame, the epic struggles of Indians to fight the scourge today are ignored by those who see every Indian, or "Indian-looking" person, as a potential carrier to be shunned.

Singapore's social DNA

It is unacceptable that such sentiments should have any place in multiracial Singapore. The social DNA of this nation is multicultural.

There is no culture here which is untouched by the enriching aspects of other cultures.

From food to everyday social practices, from the facts of its foundational past to the reality of a single national future, the very idea of Singapore is unimaginable without the presence and well-being of all its races.

True, there is a strong sense of ethnicity, but this protects the cultures and particularly the languages of all its citizens - including minority Eurasians, Malays and Indians.

The inclusive national culture that lies at the heart of Singapore is upheld by laws and customs that are guarded jealously by state and society alike.

To be racist in Singapore is to be anti-Singapore. Simple.

Hence, the unqualified opposition of Singapore's political leaders to racist behaviour. Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said that he was "disappointed and seriously concerned" by an alleged racist attack on the woman.

He added: "I understand people being under stress because of Covid-19 and anxious about their jobs and families. But that does not justify racist attitudes and actions, much less physically abusing and assaulting someone because she belongs to a particular race, in this case, Indian. The victim happens to be a Singaporean, but even had she not been one, the attack would still have been wrong and shameful."

Law and Home Affairs Minister K. Shanmugam has noted that groups have been capitalising on Singaporeans' anxiety over jobs to fan the flames of xenophobia and racism, and that such racist behaviour will become normalised if Singapore is not careful. Calling on "responsible" opposition parties to take a stand on the matter, he urged all members of the House to condemn racist behaviour in Singapore.

"The majority of Singaporeans are decent and not racist, but if we continue to fan the flames of racism, we will get to a more uncomfortable position," Mr Shanmugam said in Parliament. "(Singapore) will fail if we allow racism and xenophobia to become prevalent, and it is contrary to everything that has made us successful and proud to be Singaporean."

The message could not be clearer: Singapore and racism do not go together.

The majority of Singaporeans understand that message and have internalised it in their social reflexes. Some people have not. It is time for them to do so.

The fear of death and protectiveness of territoriality are understandable.

But the truth is that the coronavirus has no race, religion, nationality or culture. It is the common enemy of humankind.

It is the common enemy of Singapore, whatever its provenance.

Asad Latif is an editorial writer for The Straits Times. This article was first published in Tabla.

Don't dismiss xenophobia as a factor in COVID-19 unhappiness

I read with interest the Opinion piece, "What lies beneath the unhappiness over Covid resurgence in Singapore?" (May 20), by former Straits Times editor Leslie Fong.

I fully agree with his analysis that much of the unhappiness comes from Singaporeans feeling that the Government has not paid enough attention to their feedback on immigration and the pandemic.

However, I think it is rather hasty to dismiss xenophobia as a contributing factor to some of this angst. The daily lived experiences of Indians in Singapore do reflect the presence of racism and xenophobia.

Over the past several years, there has been mounting pressure on Indians to "prove" that we are Singaporean. When I take taxis or talk to other Singaporeans, I am constantly quizzed about where I grew up and what my mother tongue is.

My son, a fifth-generation Singaporean, was asked during national service which part of India he is from. There seems to be a very narrow definition of who a Singaporean is.

I know some of this stems from the frustrations of people who perceive that they have lost jobs to immigrants, and who now fear that Singapore might face a second wave of Covid-19 cases due to the cases coming in from abroad.

However, none of this explains the laser focus on Indian migrants or on the cases of Covid-19 caused by the variant first detected in India. Singapore currently also has cases caused by variants first reported in Britain, South Africa and Brazil. Why the focus on the variant that was first detected in India?

Similarly, there are migrants coming to Singapore from many different countries. Why are Indians singled out for the vitriol?

We do need to identify and address the sense of helplessness that many Singaporeans might feel with respect to jobs or the pandemic, but making excuses for blatantly biased opinions is not the way to do it.

Otherwise, recent cases of verbal and physical abuse against people perceived to be from India may become more common.

Seetha Sharma


No comments:

Post a Comment