January 2017 Go back to the Philippines
It is always a surreal experience when someone you know goes viral on the internet.
Last Sunday, I read my friend Jennifer Champion’s widely-circulated note on the racism she encountered in Changi Airport – Sky blue polo man and his call for Filipinos to go back to the Philippines. She had written about feeling like a stranger in her own home before, and was understandably disturbed by the show of xenophobia that occurred in front of her eyes.
Half-dazed by insomnia, I read it as a work of imaginative fiction, only to realize with dawning horror that she was reporting on an incident, not inventing one.
What struck me most was the man’s line ‘Go back to the Philippines’.
Reading it again now, my first response is disgust, followed by anger and denial. The stock excuses seen in public relations and journalism leapt into my mind. Perhaps this was an isolated incident or an outlier. This was an exceptional case, I told myself, sounding like a ministerial press secretary.
The truth is, I gave myself to these comforting lies because they triggered a memory that I had chosen to forget. In actual fact, sky blue polo man was not an isolated incident. I know this because the words ‘Go back to ….’ had remained with me for the better part of my 17 years in Singapore.
September 2003. Go back to your own country
I was born in Shanghai and I moved to Singapore in 1997. For many years in Singapore, my PRC family struggled under the burden of not knowing English in a country where English was everything and everywhere.
God’s sense of humour and irony thus dictated that my one lasting encounter with xenophobia should happen in Chinese class – the only place where I was confident enough to speak my mind.
Imagine a Primary Five classroom on a lazy Friday afternoon, bums were fidgeting in their seats and tempers were fraying. The teacher, whom I shall call Miss L, had never liked me for the usual reasons that teachers didn’t like me. Poor attitude, naughtiness etc.
She was lecturing the class on the many deficiencies of China in a tone of vague condescension. Natural disasters aplenty. Floods killing people. All no good.
My boyish patriotism and smartarse tendencies bubbled to the surface. So I retorted: “Every country suffers natural disasters. It can’t be helped. Even the United States has tornadoes.”
‘’Then go back to your own country.’’
For once, I did not have a cheeky rejoinder to her. Something in the venom of her voice shocked me into silence. I was all of 11 years old, but the hard lines of her face and the unsmiling eyes behind those prim wire-rim glasses told me, in the heat of that moment, she meant every word that she said.
I cannot remember the rest of the day. I only remember stopping for breath on the overhead bridge in Ang Mo Kio Ave 5 because I did not want to add crying to my list of humiliations. My world was spinning but I choked back the anger and shame and sadness until I reached the safety of a locked door.
Afterwards, I blurted everything to my parents.
In this age of social media, there might have been a public lynching. There would have been angry letters to the Ministry of Education and the relevant broadsheet editors at the very least.
Instead, my parents did nothing. After five years in Singapore, they had already learnt well the lessons of protocol, politeness and the undesirability of ‘rocking the boat’. A few curt remarks were exchanged during the next parent-teacher conference and the whole incident was passed into memory.
I stayed in Ms L’s class for another 2 years, bristling with that vague sense of injustice and resentment peculiar to young boys.
2017 Going back again
In the years to come, my tongue would shed its skin like a viper and I would win prizes in school for writing the English that eludes my father to this very day. Sergeant-majors would slap me on the back when I served National Service for being a good, well-integrated citizen and random people would praise me on the “Singaporean-ness” of my manners.
Yet, the old refrain ‘Go back to your own country’ has proven maddeningly difficult to forget. Even though I was a ”success” of integration and enjoyed the company of many Singaporean friends, the humiliation calcified like hate in my mind until I forgot everything about that day except the words ’Go back…’.
Every time someone ventured a well-meaning compliment like ‘Your family from China meh, cannot tell sia’, the past would rise up to whisper in my head.
Go back to your own country.
“Aiya, you’re one of us now.”
When I read Jennifer’s note on Sunday, the words resurfaced like a bad chorus to a half-forgotten song. For a brief moment, I was back in my Primary Five classroom, all eyes on me in stunned silence as the blood rushed to my ears.
Jennifer is right. She is right to take a stand and right in saying that this is a national conversation that needs to happen.
People must speak up against racism or xenophobia, regardless of the victim’s race or nationality, because speaking up in the moment as she did would mean all the world to someone on the receiving end of such ugliness. Silence is consent, and in my experience, the first pangs of bitterness and hate.
In my opinion, this apathy and silence is not one of our better national institutions.
I do not believe that – borrowing from sky blue polo man – this is Singapore. In fact, I refuse to believe it because Singapore has been nothing but gracious and kind in my experience. But what people need to realize is that the question of ‘which Singapore’ matters very little in the heat of the moment, when you are confronted head-on with a world that openly tells you in so many words that your existence here is unwelcome.
It may be too late to say to that Filipino family: ‘This is not Singapore, please don’t go back.’ Because in that sickening moment, that’s the only Singapore they can see and it will be the Singapore that sticks like a bone in their throat. Hate, like love, has a way of turning itself into obsession.
For the child, it might be the only Singapore he remembers for a long, long time. I hope that he will stay and enjoy the benefit of perspective as I do.
If not, that sky blue Singapore of bigotry and hate will be the only Singapore he ever knows.