Wed. Feb 28th, 2024

TL;DR – We do not need to go down this path and import such political ideologies into Singapore.

For the very first time in our political history, two of the Non-constituency Members of Parliament (NCMPs) come from the new Progress Singapore Party (PSP).

Having observed the presentations by the PSP NCMPs, namely Leong Mun Wai and Hazel Poa in Parliament and elsewhere, I am very worried for Singapore’s political future.

I surmise that the PSP’s political worldview and vision of Singapore is influenced by a closed-minded, naval-gazing type of nationalism that undermines the very values that define us as Singapore and Singaporeans. The PSP is also dangerously promoting the same far-right politics and values that we see dividing societies across Europe and in the US. I will share relevant examples and more of my views below.

But first, some background. Far-right politics, also referred to as the extreme right, is commonly characterised by its ultranationalist, chauvinistic and xenophobic views. If left unchecked, far-right politics can lead to political violence, forced assimilation, ethnic cleansing and even genocide against groups perceived to be a threat to the native groups or dominant culture.

In my opinion, statements from PSP’s NCMPs during the recent COS debates in Parliament seems to suggest that PSP’s political position leans towards those of the far-right political parties in Europe – xenophobic, racist, and populist.

On hawker centres, PSP’s Leong Mun Wai said that due to the decline of local hawkers, he was worried that our hawker centres would no longer serve local food but more and more foreign food. On workers’ wages, he said that there is a wage disadvantage against Singaporeans because foreign workers do not contribute to CPF. On research expenditure, he said that we have too many foreign researchers and called on Government to cut research funding until we have a larger pool of local research talent. On the banking sector, he expressed his unhappiness that a local bank employed a foreigner as its CEO and that only 70% of the retail banking sector jobs went to locals. He also made the blanket argument that more locals becoming PHV and gig economy workers is evidence of foreigners taking over the helm of our local companies and displacing local jobs. And to top it all, he said that perhaps it is because of an impoverished [Singaporean] middle class that we need more foreigners!

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We can see a similar political angling in PSP’s other NCMP, Hazel Poa. On the COVID pandemic, she questioned if Government had spent too much to rehouse and take care of migrant workers. She also gave the example of Israel imposing preferential treatment and price differentials for local businesses in Government contracts and suggested that Singapore should practise the same kind of nationalistic market protectionism. She also made various calls for Government to tighten the work pass and work permit quotas for various sectors, such as manufacturing. On another occasion, during an Institute of Policy Studies symposium panel discussion in Jan 2021, she used an analogy that likened the trade-offs of foreigners in Singapore to a HDB flat owner who has to forgo the invasion of his privacy if he rented out a room to them.

The points that the PSP NCMPs have raised run parallel to the kind of far-right political narratives that have badly divided societies in Europe. In Italy for example, the Pope was famously insulted by the Italian right-wing after he served pork-free lasagne to the poor (which included Muslims). The Italian-right took this to be a double insult: that not only did Pope Francis show compassion towards immigrants, but he also butchered the traditional recipe of Italian lasagne which includes beef and pork.

Similar to this example of the Italians’ food purism, Leong Mun Wai’s comment on hawker food is essentially waging a culture war against multiculturalism because he takes the stand that traditional local food signifies national identity and is being threatened by foreign food. Likewise, Hazel Poa’s foreigner invading privacy in rented HDB flat analogy is similar to the comments Marine Le Pen, a far-right French politician, made where she questioned if people would accept immigrants moving into their flat and before you know it they would remove your wallpaper, steal your wallet and brutalise your wife. Frankly, such arguments are xenophobic, not to mention downright absurd. Most of us know that our local hawker fare originated from the cuisines of other countries and that Singaporeans are descendants of immigrants.

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Leong’s suggestion to cut research funding because many of the researchers are foreigners is another example of narrow-mindedness in assigning value to people’s work based on one’s nationality. Surely he must know that an international research team is one of QS’ criteria for university rankings. It is also disingenuous to suggest research funding cuts for foreign researchers as one does not expect foreign universities to do the same to Singaporean researchers working overseas.

Another observation is PSP’s penchant use of the notion that foreigners come to steal local jobs. This is straight out of Trump’s populist playbook but also reflected in far-right European parties such as the Party for Freedom in the Netherlands, the National Front in France and Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party in the UK. In 2020, Magdalena Martullo-Blocher of the Swiss Peoples’ Party said that EU migrants were taking the jobs of the Swiss. Likewise, Leong Mun Wai claims that foreigners were displacing local jobs forcing them to become grab drivers.

In his argument, he had conveniently left out the fact that the majority of manpower cuts due to the COVID pandemic in 2020 were shed by our foreign workforce. Locals who lost their jobs were mostly in sectors badly hit by crisis such as aviation and tourism, and these were jobs gone and not replaced. And the reason why unemployed locals are unable to take up jobs in new growth sectors is because of a skills mismatch or commonly known as structural unemployment, not because those jobs were stolen by foreigners. If PSP’s emotive rhetoric of local is good/superior, and foreign is bad/a threat, it runs the risk of our society succumbing to populist instincts and reducing complex issues into binary choices. We can see that this is already happening in their political rhetoric when Hazel Poa mentioned that we are choosing economic growth (with foreigners) over social impact.

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Like the PSP and other political parties in Singapore, I too believe in creating a fairer and more just society, in ensuring that our Government makes policies that manage the impact of inequalities and leave no Singaporean behind. However, there is no easy way out. Closing our doors to the outside world and indiscriminately favouring locals over foreigners is quite simply suicidal for a small country with no natural resources and no hinterland.

I sound an early warning and argue that the PSP is dangerously flirting with far-right policies and politics. We do not need to go down this path and import such political ideologies into Singapore. We have to also guard against this slow creep of PSP’s biased and xenophobic worldview into our consciousness. Worst still if we start to imbibe these biases and reflect a chauvinism of whom we deem “worthy” in the guise of nationalism or “for Singaporeans”.

What we need is to continue to embrace the essence of what makes us Singaporean – the values of pragmatism, multiculturalism, meritocracy and communitarianism.

This is a guest post by Tan Qijie.

Qijie is a tech nerd who loves reading. He believes that the more he reads, and the better he becomes at reading.

By Zahra