|Wall St Journal
May 26, 2012
By SHIBANI MAHTANI
A DEADLY deadly accident involving a Ferrari in Singapore has opened a backlash of xenophobic sentiment, after a mainland-Chinese driver crashed into a taxi, killing himself and two people.
The WSJ's Deborah Kan speaks to reporter Shibani Mahtani.
A few weeks ago in Singapore, a Chinese Ferrari driver crashed into a taxi, killing himself, the taxi driver and a passenger. It was one out of approximately 8000 car wrecks in the city-state each year, but it has turned into a flashpoint for antiforeigner sentiment in Singapore as residents grow increasingly resentful of flashy displays of wealth.
Singaporeans were particularly enraged at the circumstances of the accident, which involved a Chinese national who was speeding in a high-end car early May 12, according to videos taken from a car driving behind the taxi and used by police as evidence.
The videos show the Ferrari running a red light and crashing into the taxi. According to police statements, the driver of the Ferrari, Ma Chi, was declared dead at the scene, while the taxi driver and his female passenger, a visitor from Japan, died hours later.
The accident garnered a rare response from the Chinese Embassy in Singapore, which wrote a letter to the local Straits Times newspaper saying that Chinese citizens in Singapore should "respect life, value the safety of themselves and others" and "abide by its laws and regulations." Several of Singapore's top politicians have chimed in, including Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, who offered his condolences. Minister of Law and Foreign Affairs K. Shanmugam promised monetary aid to the family of the taxi driver, Cheng Teck Hock.
But anger over the crash has snowballed, with many Internet users expressing vitriolic anti-Chinese sentiment. A mock Facebook profile page for Mr Ma, the driver of the Ferrari, characterizes him as a restless soul "currently [residing] in Hell." A handful of readers commenting on the page have praised its unidentified creator and posted additional anti-Chinese comments.
Details about Mr Ma haven't been made public, and attempts to locate relatives weren't successful. Local media reports have cited his wife as saying he worked in finance and lived in a penthouse.
Resentment against foreigners — especially mainland Chinese — isn't new in Singapore, where large numbers of wealthy expatriates live. According to government statistics from 2011, Singaporean citizens make up 63% of the country's population, meaning nearly four in 10 are foreign-born permanent residents or temporary residents. In 1980, Singaporean citizens made up 91% of the population, and 74% in 2000. There is no data available on the number of Chinese nationals living in Singapore.
Many native Singaporeans say foreign-born residents take jobs, push up property prices and add new strains on the city-state's infrastructure, especially its crowded subways. Political analysts say such sentiment played a role in the ruling People's Action party's poor performance in elections last year. More than 52% of voters said immigration was an important issue to them, according to the Singapore-based research center Institute of Policy Studies, or IPS, in Singapore, with analysts saying many voters felt the government was giving immigrants unfair advantages.
But the criticism of foreigners has taken an increasingly xenophobic tone over the past year, which has also seen an increase in the display of wealth, according to academics and observers in the city-state, and more Singaporeans are turning to social media to broadcast their views.
Terence Chong, a researcher from the Singapore-based Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, said at a conference on immigration hosted by the IPS that the government label of wealthy foreigners as "foreign talent" has had the effect of making Singaporeans feel inadequate and lacking requisite skills to flourish in their own country.
The opening of two casinos in 2010 brought more high-rollers to town, both as visitors and residents. Several new hotels catering to the ultrarich have also cropped up and Ferraris and other luxury cars are more visible than in years past. Pangaea, a prominent new nightclub that opened last year, charges between $1970 and $15,750 for a table, while high-end yacht clubs are also flourishing.
Recent media attention on Facebook co-founder Eduardo Saverin, who gave up his US citizenship and moved to Singapore as a permanent resident, has generated additional resentment among some Singaporeans, who say the city-state's business-friendly policies and lower tax rates are attracting new residents who don't have the same obligations as citizens. Male Singaporeans and permanent residents, for instance, are required to serve in the military for two years when they turn 18, while new citizens, residents and foreigners aren't.
Mr Chong said that in the view of some Singaporeans, new citizens and permanent residents "are here to reap the benefits without any obligations,"
According to surveys from IPS, approximately 70% of Singaporeans feel national service is an important indicator of integration, while only 40% of new citizens and foreign-born residents think so.
As displays of wealth have become more prevalent, criticism has expanded online. Political analysts have largely applauded the spread of social media in Singapore in recent years because it provides an alternative voice in a country whose government tightly controls mainstream media. But the proliferation of blogs and other websites has also made it easier to blast foreigners, often anonymously.
Some bloggers have called for boycotts of popular websites they say have stirred up antiforeigner sentiment. An anonymous blogger, Little Fish, has started an online campaign which has received some support, blaming the blogs for circulating "misinformation" and drumming up xenophobia.
Top academics, too, have expressed their worry at the increasingly heated antiforeigner dialogue in the city-state.
"We have to deal with this problem, now, urgently, or we will have a fractured society, a divided polity," said Janadas Devan, director of IPS at a conference on integration on Monday.
Singapore is an immigrant society, largely composed of third- or fourth-generation immigrants from mainland China and India. Analysts say that the cultural divides run deepest between Singaporean Chinese and new immigrants from mainland China, and between Singaporean Indians and non-resident Indian nationals living in the city-state.
Government officials say that keeping a healthy flow of immigrants is crucial to the small city-state's survival. Singapore's fertility rate of 1.2 is well below the replacement rate of 2.1, according to government research, meaning the country's workforce would shrink drastically if more outsiders aren't allowed in. Officials also argue that foreigners bring more ideas, skills and innovation to the city-state, enhancing its viability as a major Asian financial center while creating more opportunities for local residents.
Such arguments have done little to calm local anger. Last year, Singaporeans were enraged when a family from China took offense at their Singaporean, ethnic-Indian neighbor's dining preferences, seeking mediation from local housing authorities because they could not stomach the smell of the curry the family was cooking. Singaporeans rushed to the defense of the ethnic-Indian family, organizing national campaigns to cook curry and creating online videos mocking the Chinese family.
Earlier this year, a student from China, studying at the National University of Singapore on a government scholarship, caused controversy when he described Singaporeans as "dogs" on Chinese microblogging site Sina Weibo. After stirring heated sentiments from the city-state's populace, the Chinese student, who apologized, was fined S$3 000 and required to perform three months of community service. His scholarship benefits for his remaining semester at the university were also revoked.