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Guest Contribution

On Xenophobia And Public Transportation: An Open Letter

I am writing this letter not because I am disgruntled with the public transport service standard, but because I feel especially xenophobic on public transport, specifically the train service.

It is not just the feeling of being physically alone in my country that is so disturbing. When I get on the train there is rarely an opening allowed for passengers to alight.

Before I delve into it, I just want to let you know I am not the typical Singaporean netizen who likes to air his complaints online. I live in extreme harmony with foreigners. My alma mater has an abnormally high percentage of foreign talent, particularly from China, and quite a few of them are my close friends. My neighbours include a family from China who shifted in this year, and another where the parents are Singapore Permanent Residents from Malaysia, having stayed here since some 10 years ago. I talk to my neighbours. I know the grandfather of the Chinese family was once a high-ranking diplomat who still keeps in touch with global news. I am, till of recent, possibly one of the least xenophobic Singaporeans you can ever find, one of the silent majority.

After an extremely high number of trips over many weekends, I cannot help but feel xenophobic. It is a crushing feeling, to know that I am one of the few Singaporeans on a train service that our government is forking out so much money to improve. Don’t get me wrong, I am all for improving the public transport network. There’s just something very wrong when you are outnumbered 20:1 in a cabin. You don’t get a seat because they are all occupied by the old, the pregnant, the parents with their young children, with the remaining, if any, already taken by the rare local who looks relatively young and not a parent. In any case, most likely, a foreigner would have taken the seat already.

It is not just the feeling of being physically alone in my country that is so disturbing. When I get on the train there is rarely an opening allowed for passengers to alight. Listening to everything but the English language being spoken on the train amplifies the xenophobia. Being stared at by foreigners like you don’t belong in the train doesn’t help too. Above all, the Singaporeans, which I take the train with, are rarely gracious. I am no angel. But at the very minimum I do wait for passengers to alight and I give my seat up to those who need it more than me. I move into the carriage to make space on the train too. All, sadly, absent on the public transportation services nowadays.

I take 3 lines to get from my girlfriend’s place in Kovan, to Bukit Batok. It is a journey filled with increasing discomfort, as I clock up more rides on the public transport.

Just in case you are feeling particularly disconnected, or are unable to remember the train lines needed, the three are the North-East line, the East-West line, and the North-South line. My family does own a car, but I made a choice to not drive what I did not pay out of my own pocket. With the COE prices constantly rising, it is unlikely I would be able to afford a car anywhere in the near future too, which means the train will continue to be the main mode of transport.

Instead of asking you to help me better the transport system, to slow the flow of foreign workers, population growth or even economic growth, I want to approach it from a fresh perspective. How should I be feeling instead? How best can I realign my perspectives to deal with evolving demographics? I still feel fortunate to be able to ride on a relatively reliable public transport system, but my xenophobia (mostly when taking public transport) will not abate.  I am fresh to new ideas and I hope you could provide some.

The writer, Lee Jie Yang (Mr.), was also a former Chinese High student, and used to pen a blog, The Sidelined Student, back when he was a little more carefree.

About guanyinmiao

A man of knowledge lives by acting, not by thinking about acting. Carlos Castaneda.


7 thoughts on “On Xenophobia And Public Transportation: An Open Letter

  1. I could not agree with you more and the problem is not only with the huge number of China Nationals. As a 3rd generation Indian, I have no connection with anyone in India. I am what you called a true Singaporean. I speak Tamil, Malay and Hokkien and understand most Chinese dialects. I have more chinese friends than Indian, but that does not mean I don’t mix with them. Just as you feel xenophobia on public transport (I drive) and feel the same just walking down serangoon road or visiting one of the indian temples. The worst is when you visit Mohamed Mustafa. Not only the shoppers but almost all the workers are foriegners and I feel like an alien in my country, sometimes I think I am the visitor who must be accommodating. I have tried so many times to get to know these people but they have no real intention to integrate, it’s all superficial. The fact is some of them consider themselves as elite and high caste and locals like me inferior, to which I will say “bollocks”

    Posted by Ah Beng Kia | November 7, 2012, 1:22 pm
  2. Exactly my sentiments! Everyday I have to share (squeeze my way) the train with students, workers, families, seniors etc.. the daily commuters. Pay a little attention and you would realize that most of them are non-locals. I hear languages I do not understand, English in different accents and mandarin in northern / southern china accents. Makes me feel like a visitor in a foreign land. Strange, isn’t it? This is my home and yet I feel outnumbered and uncomfortable.

    Posted by nat | November 7, 2012, 3:15 pm
  3. Thanks for providing a very interesting angle to this discussion. The question is not merely what you DO feel, but rather what you SHOULD feel, given circumstances which you cannot change. You’ve asked an interesting ethical question – but prior to that we need to ask ourselves: are we able to shape our own emotional responses? Even if we are able to do so, why SHOULD we do so? Is the onus on the citizens to (somehow) change our own responses to real-life situations, or is the onus on the government to change the real-life situations we encounter instead? Or is a compromise between the two the best approach?

    Hard questions which I hope someone will venture to answer. Thanks Jie Yang!

    Posted by Yann | November 7, 2012, 5:36 pm
    • Hi Yann,

      Well, personally I am supportive of the presence of foreigners in our country as I recognize the need for them to sustain economic growth (I believe I don’t have to elaborate on why we need them). So given this set of circumstances, I think it’ll be pretty much tough for Singapore to turn into a homogenous society like Japan. The government’s response would not have not an immediate effect too, whatever their future course of action might be. In view of such factors, my humble opinion would simply to change one’s perspective, in all optimism that at least I would be able to alleviate my xenophobic tendencies. It’s one of the few duties as a Singaporean that we all have essentially; to be a gracious citizen.

      Jie Yang

      Posted by Jie Yang | November 9, 2012, 10:41 am
  4. Time to join the non-silent minority Jie Yang. The silent majority may soon just become the minority…

    Do not underestimate the power of the Dark Side… Muahahahahahahahaha!

    Posted by IGoCrazyBecauseOfYou | November 8, 2012, 2:41 pm


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