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Monday, 1 February 2010

Thinking about enclaves in Singapore

There has been a lot of talk lately about enclaves in Singapore. Or rather, the prevention of forming enclaves in Singapore, because it could lead to national integration problems. This followed on a rather intense debate about the importance of declaring one's ethnicity, which the government claimed was to remind Singaporeans of their roots.

(Which begs the question: Aren't we supposed to have set roots in Singapore already? But I digress.)

So let me tell you three stories.

Cooking up an Indian storm
Someone related this tale to me. Back when he was studying in the United Kingdom, he lived in a dormitory that had quite a number of Indians. Every weekend, the dormitory would be filled with the smells of Indian curries, wafting from the freshly cooked dishes in the kitchen. He joked that the smells probably irritated the non-Indians. I don't know if those on the receiving end would have thought it to be a joke.

Easy-to-find Indonesians
Where I was studying my undergraduate degree, I used to take the afternoon bus to get across campus. Every day, that bus would be filled with Indonesians sending them to and from their apartments. And it was always the buses to a particular location that would be filled with Indonesians. Everyone on campus knew that the sizable Indonesian student population lived within a few blocks just outside of campus. And no one batted an eyelid. Like I said, it simply made them easy to locate.

Singaporeans under one roof
In another university city, apparently almost all of the Singaporean students lived in the same apartment blocks. There were a few hundred Singaporeans then out of the thousands of university students there, so it must have been a sight to see all of them congregated in one location (like the Indonesians at my university). If a new Singaporean student entered that university, he would invariably end up living in one of those apartment blocks too. It was just the natural thing to do.

What's the point of the above stories? Besides being anecdotes of enclave-like living overseas, they also highlight something that's very basic about human beings: we find comfort in being around people like us. That's the basis for how societies were formed. People who related with one another lived and interacted together.

The need to be with familiar faces generally becomes stronger when one is overseas. As a stranger in a strange land, being around people like yourself makes the transition of living overseas easier to bear.

Which is why, in Singapore, our foreign nationals prefer living near one another. That shouldn't come as a surprise. It's what we'd do if we were in their situations. It's an organic formation of community.

The dark side of living among your own is that it's easier for you to ignore the rest of that society that you reside in. Putting it simply, if I can speak Mandarin freely with those around me and still be able to work, live and play, then why would I want to learn English to communicate with those who are outside of my circle, except for commercial necessity?

I suppose that's what has the government spooked about enclaves. And it has history to justify its rationale for breaking up these enclaves. Singapore's turbulent past saw one race fighting another. Breaking up these homogeneous communities was the government's way of preventing any more of these outbreaks, by reducing their bases of power.

I don't think our communities of foreigners would start fights with one another today. But if a particular enclave grows to a substantial size, it could become self-sustaining, and Singapore could see Little Japan, Little Russia, or maybe a new Chinatown and Little India.

The government thinks that that is undesirable for a small country like Singapore, which cannot afford the (physical and social) space to support so many homogeneous communities.

But breaking up an enclave is easier said than done. For one thing, there's the practical difficulty of identifying the foreigners, particularly if they rent their apartments and thus leave no property trail to trace.

Also, if enclaves are the organic formation of communities, then the government will need to build new communities artificially, which could lead to resistance from both locals and foreigners. It has already undertaken steps to integrate foreigners more closely into society, though it seems to be implemented more from the foreigners rather than the locals. And it's a long and hard road to build an heterogeneous community.

Ideally, we'd say, "live and let live". Foreigners have their rights to live where they want, subject to practical restrictions like housing availability. If an enclave results from their living together among their kind, so be it. And deal with the problems later.

I guess the question then is: Can Singapore afford to deal with enclave-related problems in the future, if they do arise? I don't have an answer, but I hope a smarter person than me has already worked through the various possibilities.