Saturday, 20 October 2018

Of riots, immigrants and Singapore’s Global Migrant Festival

Since the refugee crisis hit Europe issues pertaining to migration and population flows have moved up the global agenda. Back home in Singapore, the Little India Riot in 2013 was a shocker (riots in Singapore!) but also a wake-up call about the countries large but often unnoticed pool of low skilled labor.

One side effect of the renewed focus is the establishment of the Global Migrant Festival which takes place in Singapore in December 2018. As part of his research for an article on the festival for a Hong Kong English daily I received some questions from a journalist on the subject of migrants, immigration, etc.

A selection of the questions and my answers are reproduced below.

Syrian refugees at the main train station in Budapest, Hungary (source: Wikipedia)
Q. What do you think are circumstances that led to this festival? How do you see it as something different towards other cultural festival?

A. I don’t know the details of the festival other than the information listed on their website but understand it is geared towards an otherwise culturally neglected demographic of Singapore’s society, i.e. low income foreign workers. In many ways, this is a ‘local’ Singapore festival which hopefully over time will come to encompass the aspirations and talents of an often forgotten segment of immigrant communities. In coming years, as the festival becomes established, festival Organizers will have to walk a fine line between commercialization and maintaining the ‘grassroots’ spirit / intent of the founders.

Q. What problems are they trying to remedy or at least articulate/engage with?

A. Humanizing a demographic of society which is often seen but almost never heard. Without this community many cities, including Singapore, would grind to a standstill. Additionally, I am sure there are lots of hidden talents among festival participants so bringing these talents out will be a service to not only the individuals but also the entire arts community.

Q. Singapore had a setback with the Little India race riots in 2013. How do you think things have changed (or not) since then? 

A. The wording of your question is interesting. Not everyone will refer to the 2013 Little India riots as a race riot. The riot was a seminal moment for Singapore in that it highlighted to broader Singaporean society the need to focus on a minimum quality of life for *all* residents of Singapore, not only Singaporeans and top end foreign talent. Much has been achieved since then because of this focus on the lower paid foreign workers by the government as well as a burgeoning NGO sector. Arguably, this festival itself is a by-product of the 2013 Little India riots.

Q. What do you think can be done to encourage more discussion and community engagement with migrant/immigration issues? Is there anything particularly that requires a shift in debate?

A. It’s a sad testament to the modern world but it took large waves of uncontrolled refugee migration to the developed Europe, especially from Iraq and Syria, for the international community to realize immigration issues are real and must be studied for greater understanding. Poorer countries have faced refugee crises for many decades since in the post-war period, most notably three million plus Afghani refugees in Pakistan during the first Afghan war and many parts of Africa. 

‘Humanizing’ migrant workers and introducing them as real people with hopes, wants, fears, etc. through literature and the arts is a great starting point. Given that foreigners – of all skill levels – comprise approximately 30 percent of our population including sections on such migrant communities in academic courses / syllabi at various levels of learning in our educational institutions should be considered.

I hope we will see more high quality literature and visual arts emerge on the experiences of migrant populations as a result of this increased focus. This festival is a step in the right direction.

Q. How can awareness of these issues help drive change and inclusion in the following sectors? Education, art and culture, employment

A. As I mentioned earlier, including sections on the role of migrant workers in keeping Singapore running smoothly may be included in school syllabi. Additionally, the government may allocate more funding to academic efforts to understand the challenges faced by new citizens and / or migrant workers. Increased funding will lead to more and better research and, hence, greater understanding.

A broad debate on making Mandarin a compulsory subject in school for all Singaporeans until, say, P6 should be initiated. In a majority Chinese society where Mandarin is the lingua franca of the bulk of the population, not speaking Mandarin acts as a glass ceiling as well as a hidden barrier for integration.

Q. Some of the key social issues include concerns of immigrants taking up white-collar jobs, driving property prices up and occupying places in schools and hospitals. How do you think these concerns can be better addressed by the government and individuals?

A. This is a broad policy debate and pertains to Singapore’s historic economic growth model pursued over the last few decades, i.e. grow the population to sustain economic growth. We have gone from approximately three million residents in 2000 to 5.6 million today. That’s a big jump and brings with it not only economic growth but a multitude of ancillary social issues – intended and unintended.

Growth is not an end in itself. A blind focus on generating economic growth misses the point. Economic growth is a means to a fairer, more just and happier society.

As Singapore has achieved levels of affluence comparable to the likes of Switzerland and Austria, Singaporeans must now shift their focus to other aspects of social maturation. These are difficult questions relating to distribution of wealth, taxation structures, provision and subsidies of medical services and so on.

The question of immigration is part of a larger rethink which Singaporeans must undertake about the future priorities of our society.

Q. Cultural identity is always ridiculed or dismissed as being diluted in Singapore. What can be done to discourage this mindset and see more proactiveness from Singaporeans to articulate or develop this 'identity'?

A. National identity is not static. Nor is at an end point a society must achieve. National identity is dynamic. Like any vibrant society, Singapore’s identity is also constantly evolving over time.

Openness to new ideas is necessary for society to thrive, especially in today’s fast paced world. Foreigners – whether immigrants or transient – are a historic part of Singapore’s population landscape and contribute significantly to our melting pot of ideas.

I don’t accept the idea that Singapore’s identity is diluted by immigration or migrant workers. On the contrary, over the course of time, Singapore’s identity is strengthened by new and diverse population groups.

Take Hainanese chicken rice and roti prata, two quintessential markers of modern Singaporean identity. These dishes did not develop in a cultural vacuum. They developed through the interaction of various different immigrant populations on this Little Red Dot.
Note: Imran is a former banker and has lived and worked in several countries during his international banking career. He enjoys traveling, especially by train, as a way to feed his curiosity about the world and nurture his interest in photography. He is a licensed freelance tour guide in Singapore. He is available on twitter (@grandmoofti); Instagram (@imranahmedsg) and can be contacted at