Racism and Xenophobia Amid a New Epidemic

Author: Ruby Thiagarajan
Published:

Just a few days after Health Minister Gan Kim Yong called its arrival in Singapore “inevitable”, Singapore confirmed its first case of the novel coronavirus that emerged in Wuhan. Since then, there have been 24 confirmed cases of the virus in Singapore and over 24,000 worldwide, with the majority of them in China. 

Given the sharp uptick in community transmission within China and the World Health Organisation’s classification of the situation as a Public Health Emergency of International Concern, many places have adopted more drastic international safety measures. Alongside countries like the United States, Japan, and Australia, Singapore has announced travel restrictions, denying entry to individuals with recent travel history to China, or holders of Chinese passports. 

There are differences in opinion over the efficacy of such travel bans, but such precautionary measures have unfortunately coincided with an eruption of xenophobic anti-Chinese sentiment worldwide. And although the majority of Singaporeans are ethnically Chinese, the city-state has not been immune to such attitudes.

Anti-Chinese xenophobia and racism in Singapore

Before the government announced travel restrictions, petitions demanding the closure of Singapore’s borders to travellers from China were already circulating. On the one hand, such restrictions might make intuitive sense by preventing or greatly reducing the arrival of people from areas where the virus is spreading. But during a recent WHO press conference, Director General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus called the idea counterproductive, and a WHO statement explained that travel restrictions would interrupt aid and technical support, disrupt businesses, and have adverse effects on the economies of countries affected by the emergencies. Catherine Z. Worsnop, an academic who studies international cooperation in global health emergencies, wrote in an op-ed for the Washington Post that “fear of restrictions may encourage economically and politically vulnerable countries to conceal outbreaks” and detrimentally affect global responses to future epidemics. 

There’s still a general lack of information on this novel coronavirus, even while public anxiety is high. Scientists don’t yet know exactly how infectious or deadly the virus is, and there appears to be little that the average citizen can do beyond practising good hygiene habits. In a context where people are looking for something to do or someone to blame, this epidemic is now reflecting and exacerbating existing anxieties. As the science writer Ed Yong points out in The Atlantic, the HIV crisis saw a spike in discrimination against gay men, while the Ebola epidemic instigated fear of African communities. Because this novel coronavirus is often referred to as the “Wuhan coronavirus”, many are now conflating the pathogen with the people.

While many who signed petitions calling for the closure of Singapore’s borders to travellers from China cited concerns over safety as their main motivation, a significant number of comments were also laced with anti-Chinese rhetoric.

While many who signed petitions calling for the closure of Singapore’s borders to travellers from China cited concerns over safety as their main motivation, a significant number of comments were also laced with anti-Chinese rhetoric. One such petition, which amassed over 100,000 signatures, claimed that the virus was a result of Chinese “self inflicted unhealthy food consumption not knowing how to differentiate what is food for living and what is food for pleasure” [sic].  

Rumours about the coronavirus originating in a seafood market in Wuhan has emboldened many to display their worst assumptions about China. Social media is full of memes riffing on the claim that bat soup was one of the reasons the virus mutated, even after images of a Chinese person eating the dish was identified as coming from an episode of a travel show filmed in Palau. Screenshots of the Bible verse Deuteronomy 14:18 are often posted in the comments sections of online articles about the evolving coronavirus situation. The verse, which lists the bat as one of many “unclean foods” to avoid, has been weaponised to demonstrate that supposed Chinese eating habits aren’t only dangerous, but also ungodly. Some landlords have even evicted tenants returning from China due to fear that they may carry the disease.  

Anti-immigrant sentiment has been a swelling tide in Singapore over the past decade. Online comments on news articles about any crime almost invariably include questions about the nationality of the perpetrator—the implied sentiment being that foreigners are more likely to engage in bad behaviour. A 2013 protest against government plans to increase immigration drew a crowd estimated to be between 3,000 to 6,000 people strong, an impressive size in a country where political protests are uncommon. Another more recent protest took aim at the Comprehensive Economic Cooperation Agreement (CECA) between Singapore and India—which helps facilitate movement between the two countries, among other trade-related issues. 

Immigrants from mainland China are also the target of local unhappiness. Despite the fact that a majority of Singapore’s population is ethnically Chinese, anti-Chinese sentiment is fairly common and has existed long before this outbreak. A large part of the population has drawn a red line between Chinese Singaporeans and “PRCs”, a term often used pejoratively against people from mainland China, regardless of whether they are low-wage workers on temporary work permits or ultra-rich tourists. The Chinese immigrant is feared because they’re considered to be either too rich and arrogant, or too “low-class” and dirty. Despite the immigrant history of Chinese Singaporeans, newer arrivals from China are stereotyped as either using Singapore as a playground while uninterested in actually assimilating, or as conniving and only looking to integrate in hopes of becoming naturalised citizens. 

Deeper issues at play

Demand for the recent travel ban emerged in light of the coronavirus epidemic, but also seems to express the hope that restrictions on Chinese visitors would be a panacea for society’s ills. Apart from fears over virus transmission, the comments on petition sites made references to overburdened infrastructure, ungracious tourists, and increased cleanliness, indicating more long-term unhappiness and anxiety that goes beyond just this new epidemic. 

A common sentiment found in the comments is a request for the Singapore government to take citizens’ pleas seriously. One comment directed at the government even reads, “please prove in your actions that you care for us.” 

Many Singaporeans are currently feeling the pressure of the rising cost of living and this, coupled with the fact that the country’s non-resident population has doubled over the last 20 years, has resulted in criticism against the current administration’s immigration policies. It’s often implied by opposition politicians and critics that the ruling party’s strategy of using immigration to compensate for labour shortages has benefitted new arrivals more than Singaporean workers—a sentiment that can easily lead to the scapegoating of immigrants when people start feeling like their government cares more for economic growth at all costs over the citizens’ overall well-being.

Despite the fact that a majority of Singapore’s population is ethnically Chinese, anti-Chinese sentiment is fairly common and has existed long before this outbreak.

The Singapore government has censured the spread of anti-Chinese sentiment in relation to the coronavirus. Landlords who have evicted tenants who are Chinese nationals or who have been placed on leaves of absence may face restrictions in the future and be barred from renting property to foreign work pass holders. Minister for Home Affairs and Law K Shanmugam noted a number of “racially tinged posts” online and condemned anti-Chinese xenophobia, while Manpower Minister Josephine Teo has assured the public that Chinese nationals returning from the Lunar New Year holidays are “by and large not unwell.” 

There is an irony in Singaporeans’ aversion to people from mainland China, especially as the rest of the world, particularly the West, regularly proves unable to differentiate between the two places. In reporting travel restrictions, Australian news outlet SBS World News at first mistakenly claimed that Singapore had the busiest airport in China, while a New York Times headline stated that Singapore had closed its border with China—a border that doesn’t exist. Chinese Singaporeans overseas, like many other people of Asian descent, have described being discriminated against for fears that they might be infectious. A Chinese Singaporean tour group to Sri Lanka were barred from entering a tourist attraction despite none of its members having visited China recently. 

The knee-jerk reaction of many Singaporeans is to differentiate themselves from the Chinese. It’s frustrating to be constantly mistaken for a citizen of the wrong country. But to a significant number of Singaporeans, being confused for a Chinese national can also be read as an insult because of their own racist prejudices against the Chinese. Perhaps the more strategic move is to dismantle the warped logic of racism itself. 

Anybody, regardless of passport or skin colour, could potentially contract the virus. Additionally, current data suggests that it’s fairly unlikely that the average person will be infected. It is, however, more likely that a Chinese national in Singapore or anybody of East Asian descent overseas will face coronavirus-hysteria-induced racism. Even throwaway jokes about the crisis calcify the idea that people from China are dangerous elements. 

As we’ve seen with other epidemics, giving an inch to discriminatory stereotypes and beliefs allows that line of reasoning to be repurposed, extended, and applied to others in the future. As such, preventing the spread of racist rhetoric is just as important as containing any virus.

For more information about the 2019 novel coronavirus, here’s a video from the World Health Organisation:

 

Ruby Thiagarajan

Ruby Thiagarajan is the editor-in-chief of Mynah Magazine.

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