It was bad enough that Ma Chi was driving well above the speed limit on a downtown boulevard when he blew through a red light and struck a taxi, killing its two occupants and himself. It did not help, either, that he was at the wheel of a US$1.4 million Ferrari that early morning in May, or that the woman in the passenger seat was not his wife.
However, what really set off a wave of outrage across this normally decorous island-state is the fact that Ma, a 31-year-old financial investor, carried a Chinese passport, having arrived in Singapore four years earlier.
The accident, captured by the dashboard camera of another taxi, has uncorked long-stewing fury against the surge of new arrivals from China, part of a government-engineered immigration push that has almost doubled Singapore’s population to 5.2 million since 1990. About 1 million of those newcomers arrived in the past decade, drawn by financial incentives and a liberal visa policy aimed at counteracting Singapore’s famously low birthrate.
Tensions over immigration bedevil many nations, but what makes the clash in Singapore particularly striking is that most of the nation’s population was already ethnic Chinese, many of them the progeny of earlier generations of Chinese immigrants. The paradox is not lost on Alvin Tan, the artistic director of a community theater company that takes on thorny social issues.
“Mainlanders may look like us, but they aren’t like us,” said Tan, who is of mixed Malay-Chinese descent and does not speak Mandarin. “Singaporeans look down on mainlanders as country bumpkins, and they look down on us because we can’t speak proper Chinese.”
These days, mainland Chinese get blamed for driving up real-estate prices, stealing the best jobs and clogging the roads with flashy European sports cars. Coffee shop patrons gripe that they need Mandarin to order their beloved Kopi-C (coffee sweetened with evaporated milk). True or not, tales of Chinese women stealing away married men have become legion.
“Singaporeans woke up one day to find the trains more crowded with people who speak Mandarin, and they aren’t handling it very well,” said Jolovan Wham, executive of an organization that helps foreign laborers, many of whom face exploitive work conditions. “The amount of xenophobia we’re seeing is just appalling.”
In the days after the accident, social media were awash in commentary that blamed mainlanders like Ma for upending Singapore’s well-mannered ways. Bloggers called him “spoiled and corrupt,” wrongly identified him as the son of a powerful Beijing official and suggested the police prosecute him posthumously. Detractors created a mock Facebook page, since removed, that brimmed with ugly invective.
“Good riddance and enjoy hell you piece of mainland trash,” read one of the tamer postings.
Singapore’s government, which has long relied on strict media and sedition laws to maintain ethnic and religious harmony in a multicultural society, has become alarmed by the venom, much of it coming from middle-class Singaporeans. In a recent speech to a parliamentary committee, Singaporean Deputy Prime Minister Teo Chee Hean (張志賢) defended the country’s immigration policies, saying foreign workers — both educated and unskilled — were indispensable to counterbalance a rapidly aging population and to maintain the momentum of Singapore’s roaring economy.