Post-Casey, what expats must do

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More and more Singaporeans are protesting against the influx of foreigners. What exactly is contributing to this xenophobia?

The Anton Casey saga spurred a public uproar with netizens responding angrily, displaying their unhappiness. A Singapore-based British wealth manager published a series of messages mocking ‘poor’ Singaporeans on his Facebook. The wealth manager eventually apologised through a PR company but his move was deemed insincere. He even received death threats made against his family, prompting him to flee to Australia after his firm fired him.

Not too long ago, Oliver Desbarres, a senior employee from Barclays berated, threatened and threw a metal sheet at a group of construction workers building a house next to his. He was immediately fired from his bank after a video of him went viral on cyberspace. Then there is the Australian expat cyclist who ran into a heated argument on two unrelated incidents. In one he was caught acting aggressively and spewing bile from his mouth at a female driver. He was captured on a camera footage shouting and banging on the lady’s car.

I have personally witnessed expatriates misbehaving in public spaces. I signed up for a charitable run recently where I witnessed cyclists reprimanding the runners to ‘f*** off’ on two separate occasions. In both incidents, the aggressors were middle-aged Caucasian men on the cycling track. During my undergraduate days, I worked in social networking events and encountered snobbish expats behaving distastefully. Many have questioned if this is the kind of talent we want in Singapore where some foreigners exhibit unruly behaviour that irks locals.

Cyber proliferation

As the media is readily reporting stories of uncouth behaviour, news spreads like fire over social media, galvanising public emotions. Even the media uses Facebook as a tool to hype up latest stories and news. Tweets pop up every second that get re-tweeted, sent as screenshots for wider public display and articles are shared on walls. We have used our technology savviness to create an unprecedented cyber culture. Social media has aggravated this rising tide of xenophobia by fuelling people’s wrath. Most Singaporeans fear that they will be subdued as third-class citizens in their own country.

One of the causes of resentment is the fact that many expats enjoy first class services; a glamorous nightlife, shopping at renowned boutiques and staying in luxury hotels. Not all Singaporeans can afford the same high cost of living. The flux of expats fused with elitism is turning into a stark divisive force in Singapore. Indeed Singapore is a success story with new cash flowing readily, soon overtaking Hong Kong as the Asian capital with low taxes for businesses.

Even Yale has set up campus here and Interpol moved its headquarters recently but the wealth is not evenly distributed, exacerbating the gap between the extravagant rich and wide middle class. We have reached a stage where there is zero tolerance for unruly behavior. Social media acting as the message and messenger will continue to sensationalise emotions, thoughts and attitudes.

Long-term sustainability

The goal to accumulate more Asian wealth and offset low birth rates with liberal immigration policy evidently has social and cultural repercussions. Surely Singapore will still need to depend on foreign talent to sustain its vibrant and booming economy. Despite the government urging Singaporeans to be tolerant of foreigners, critics have underestimated social media’s ability to fuel animosity towards foreigners. The popular belief is that xenophobia in Singapore has stemmed largely from economic disenfranchisement rather than social outcomes.

Even if our society becomes mindful and tolerant, foreigners need to make an equal effort. An unnamed expatriate defended Anton Casey ‘that he has a very British sense of humour’ implying that his comments were not meant to be condescending. Others have countered that profanities are not regarded as derogatory in the West. Even if culture shock is the root cause of the Anton Casey or Oliver Desbarres saga, expats should not impose their value systems in a foreign land. Cultural adaptation is rudimentary for foreigners despite their income levels and social backgrounds.

Locals are not going to rest on menial and lower-management jobs or react passively when an outsider undermines them. Superficial curbs will not resolve the accentuating discontent and sourness, like foreign workers earning less than S$4,000 a month are no longer able to bring their spouses and children with them to live in Singapore. Or a 10 per cent extra stamp duty charge for foreigners wanting to buy property on the island. So, expats: sit up and learn to behave.