On tribal instincts
By Toh Hsien Min
Humans are inherently tribal. We define ourselves in part through our nationality, ethnicity, religious beliefs, languages and social standing. Perhaps the culture of individuality has gained ground in recent decades, but neither that nor left-of-centre liberalism can erase our sense of belonging to every one of those circles we call our own. At the best of times, it may be possible to forget the tribal instincts for a while, but when things take a turn for the worse people do tend to close ranks and start perceiving threats to harmonious society. If looking askance at the Chinese or Indian emigré in the MRT train is not defensible behaviour, sweeping the real issues in Singapore society under the label of xenophobia is no less puerile.
I remember having this discussion with a friend of mine, who had written a letter to Today to try to refocus the debate, in the middle of January. And then the Anton Casey incident erupted and unfortunately put the liberal agenda on the back foot. Where is the case against xenophobia when the case for is so amply justified by such a foreigner in our midst? What stronger demonstration of the strength of tribal instincts than to have the whole country up in arms because of a slight not directed at any individual one of us?
Incidentally, the same friend and I had an even earlier discussion, some years back, in which we agreed that as long as we were employed by global firms, we could not assume that our private lives were insulated from our professional lives. In the case of Mr - I forget his name, Stasey? - the Facebook posts were in my view grounds for managing his exit not because of the lynch-mob-driven publicity but because they exhibit an extraordinarily bad judgement, which could eventually bite in other ways.
Of course, the whole debate about xenophobia had resurfaced in part because of the riots in Little India in December, when a drunk Indian labourer had been run over by a bus and a mob of 400 Indian labourers had closed ranks around their own, misguidedly, by attacking the ambulance and police personnel trying to help him. I was half a kilometre away at the time, and heard one of the explosions. To the credit of the authorities, the response was quick, decisive and yet measured; the riot police and Gurkhas were deployed within the hour and the situation contained without unnecessary escalation. Subsequent reaction has been ham-fisted however. The recent Public Order (Additional Temporary Measures) Bill has more than a whiff of the stables after the horses have bolted, while the judgement of Prohibitionist-era noises being made about restricting the availability of alcohol throughout the island may be set in context by the volume of evidence that societies that accept alcohol as part of life (e.g. European societies) face far fewer problems with it than those that try to restrict it (e.g. the USA). If you think about it, the thing in common with these incidents I've cited above excepting the emergency response to the riots - whether it is the British expat's immaturity or his public lynching, the Little India riot or the calls for changes in legislation - is a lack of a balanced perspective. Perhaps if that's what we all have in common, we might just be one tribe after all.
Interestingly, the poetry submissions for this issue had rather more of the theme of home than usual, to an extent that I was trying to gauge whether I could put out a themed issue. For instance, one poet wrote on the Little India riots, another on what Singapura [sic] was like. Enough of these survived in the selection, which as usual is threaded for flow, that the flavour of the month remains. Elsewhere, Chew Yi Wei adds to the theme by seeking out her roots in her (disused) languages, while David Fedo's Letter shows the damage that tribalism taken to an extreme can do. Kai Chai has selected a strong slate of short stories, there are two detailed reviews of new books published in Singapore, and I have found reading across the three Proust Questionnaires illuminating in what might be found in common between writers. Happy reading, and Happy Lunar New Year!QLRS Vol. 13 No. 1 Jan 2014