Filipino Independence Day plans reveal political rifts in Singapore
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Filipino Independence Day plans reveal political rifts in Singapore

June 12 marks Independence Day in the Philippines. An online campaign by a group of Filipinos, supported by the Philippines Embassy in Singapore, to organize a celebration in the heart of Orchard Road has sparked a backlash from some Singaporeans.

Any large public event in Singapore requires a police permit. The organisers have declared that the event will take place, even though a police statement on April 22 revealed that the organisers had not applied for a permit.

Not all Singaporeans were offended by the event. Derrick Lim saw it as a group of people who “just wanted to book a place to throw themselves a birthday party”. Others such as Lim Hon, however, asked if celebrating their national day on Orchard Road should be considered an “insidious act of invasion”?

There were 172,690 Overseas Foreign Workers (OFW) from the Philippines in Singapore in 2012, according to data from Philippine Overseas Employment Administration. This is the third largest after Saudi Arabia and UAE.

Among other gripes, opponents of the event took issue with the proposed location. Andrew Loh, chief editor of media group The Online Citizen said, “[with] the riot in Little India in December… there are legitimate concerns of such emotional events being held in such crowded or busy areas”.

A small group, described by the Prime Minister as ‘trolls’, who were alleged to have made threats against the organisers were slammed by the Minister of Manpower, Tan Chuan-Jin. “These actions by those who peddle hate are not acceptable, repulsive even,” he said.

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong went further, describing them as a “disgrace to Singapore.” He continued: “We must treat people in Singapore the way we expected to be treated overseas”, pointing to the recently concluded Singapore Day in London.

However, in a rare show of dissent on the PM’s Facebook page, many Singaporeans openly challenged his views. Richard Tay argued that Singaporeans were respected and well treated overseas because they “respect the host country and their culture”. He argued that “all these hostile treatments against [foreigners] do not happen without a cause”, he went on to cite how Singaporeans in the past were very open to celebrating different cultures and that the hostility was a recent phenomenon.

Others took offence at the PM’s comparison of celebrating a foreign Independence Day in Singapore with a cultural day. “Why don’t you go across the causeway (to Malaysia) and wave our flag on August 9 (Singapore’s National Day). Let’s see whether you are welcomed to do so with open arms,” wrote Shawn Chen. Ameer Basalamah sardonically asked the PM to arrange for Singaporeans to celebrate Singapore’s national day at the Merdeka Stadium in Kuala Lumpur.

Such outbursts against the PM are rare in Singapore, where by and large persons in authority are treated politely and with formality.

Online forums and blogs have circulated that an American, Timothy Eugene Garlock had his post deleted for disagreeing with the PM. Garlock had said that, “Singaporean citizens must come first above all regardless of their nationalities.”

While the protest could be seen as a result of growing xenophobia, Andrew Chu posed a thoughtful question, “Are we really xenophobic – or just claustrophobic?”

Singapore is the third most densely populated country in the world after Macau and Monaco. While it is less dense than New York City, Singapore is an independent city-state. The total population in Singapore has grown from 3 million in 1990 to 5.4 million in 2013. In the corresponding period the proportion of Singaporean citizens has fallen from 86% to 61%.

A White Paper targeting a total population of 6.9 million by 2030 with Singaporeans making up 55% was published in 2013 and saw a rare Singaporean protest. The growth in population has been blamed for spiralling housing costs and increasing traffic burden on the island. The Prime Minister has taken flak for overseeing this growth and saw his ruling PAP obtain 60% of the popular vote in the 2011 General Elections, the lowest in the party’s history. The party lost two successive by-elections in 2012 and 2013.

Some have asked why the government was willing to allow a foreign national day celebration but banned a family day event in 2008 for the opposition Worker’s Party, suggesting that this was tied in with ensuring votes for the PAP.

That such voices have linked this issue to local politics is suggestive that the Filipino Independence Day episode was a lightning rod for the real issues confronting the Lion City. The politicians have to decide what the real issue is.

A Eurasian member of the ruling PAP, Sean P. Rozario, wrote, “Sir, your people are unhappy… but you are never told the real picture. So how would you know… please lead all the MPs with you and quietly walk the ground yourself. No fanfare, [uninformed] and you will see the truth and the hurt.”