The Foreigner as Neighbour

October 2017 Pulse

Over the last few years, tension between locals and foreigners in Singapore has been mounting, with occasional high profile flare-ups being reported by the local newspapers.

This situation has gotten the attention of politicians, including Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, who has weighed in on the issue. Urging those who live and work here to do their part to maintain the cohesiveness of our society, PM Lee also noted that anti-foreign sentiments might in the long run hurt the global reputation of Singapore.

The inflow of foreigners, which has caused much anxiety and angst in some Singaporeans, was one of the hot topics in the 2011 General Election. A sociologist from the National University of Singapore analyses the situation thus: ‘Since the 2011 GE, we have dangerously walked very close to the safety boundary … using economic setbacks as an excuse, many Singaporeans blamed foreigners for taking their jobs so they drew the line between foreigners and Singaporeans’.

The point of contention, however, is not the admission of foreigners and new immigrants into Singapore, but the scale of it. According to the figures realised by the Manpower Ministry, the number of foreigners admitted to Singapore has risen significantly from 1,053,500 in December 2009 to 1,336,700 in June 2014. Singapore has a population of about 5.6 million with an unemployment rate of just under 3 per cent.

The influx of foreigners has heightened competition for jobs and education in the wake of a lingering economic slowdown due to global factors. Although the government has introduced a new policy, called Fair Consideration Framework (FCF), to ensure that Singaporeans do not miss out on job opportunities, some locals are unconvinced of its effectiveness.

The Population White Paper, published in 2013, also exacerbated the problem as it only reinforces the anxieties and fears that many Singaporeans harbour. The White Paper projected that by 2030 the population of Singapore will stand at 6.9 million and nearly 50 per cent will be foreigners or new immigrants.

Singaporeans are generally uncomfortable with the idea of having new immigrants making up the majority of the population. They take issue with the state’s economic rationale for bringing so many foreigners into the country. According to an IPS report, Singaporeans are also ‘upset about having to change their way of life, their use of language and settled social norms to accommodate the presence of foreigners’.

Several global events, like Brexit, may also have fanned the flame of such sentiments. US President Donald Trump’s ‘America First’ rhetoric might have provoked some to feel that the government should give Singaporeans priority when it comes to benefiting from the nation’s success.

The internet is the space where some of the most virulent, venomous and toxic reactions are expressed, often in the safety of anonymity. These sentiments are so prominent in online chatter that ‘foreign trash Singapore’ has become a Google auto-fill option.

Such behaviour, however, makes no positive contribution to the discussion of this important issue and brings no solution to the table.

It is of course the responsibility of concerned citizens to articulate their anxieties to the government using the many available channels of dialogue and feedback. It is also the responsibility of citizens to suggest possible and realistic ways to calibrate the inflow of foreigners.

However, citizens must also appreciate the fact that achieving the right balance is no easy feat for any government.

It is one thing to engage the government in a robust discussion on this issue, and quite another to treat foreigners and new immigrants who are already with us badly. There can be no excuse for racial intolerance and xenophobia.

It is not difficult to find injunctions in the Bible on how aliens and foreigners in the land should be treated.

In Leviticus 19:33, we read: ‘When an alien resides with you in your land, you shall not oppress the alien’. Aliens must be subjected to the same laws, and therefore by extension, the same treatment as the natives (Numbers 15:16). And those who deprive aliens and foreigners of justice will come under the judgement of God (Deuteronomy 27:19).

In the Gospels, Jesus commanded his disciples to love their neighbours (Mark 12:31). This surely includes the foreigner and the alien, and we demonstrate this love by living generously towards them (Leviticus 19:9-10).

In addition, the Bible again and again urges Christians to show hospitality to the alien and the foreigner. In Romans 12:13, Paul specifically commanded the recipients of his letter to ‘extend hospitality to strangers’. And in 1 Peter 3:9, Christians are instructed to ‘Be hospitable to one another without complaining’ (NIV: ‘grumbling’).

Part and parcel of showing hospitality is the willingness to allow disruptions in our way of life. As one writer has arrestingly put it, when hospitality is extended, ‘the familiar is defamiliarised’.

Hospitality respectfully treats the other as other – acknowledging his or her dignity – without attempting to create the other in our own images. Put differently, hospitality carves out the space and the time that would afford the stranger the freedom to be who he or she is, and thus to freely and unselfconsciously be a part of the community.

And it is precisely this kind of self-forgetting and generous hospitality that Christians are called to extend to the neighbour, especially the stranger and the foreigner.



Dr Roland Chia is Chew Hock Hin Professor of Christian Doctrine at Trinity Theological College and Theological and Research Advisor for the Ethos Institute for Public Christianity.