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A straining gap between Singaporeans and foreign workers

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What does it take to become a multi-cultural society?

Much has been said about xenophobia, but it still remains as a perennial issue in Singapore. Although foreign workers have contributed a fair bit to the survival of our economy, Singaporeans seem passive about accepting migrant workers wholeheartedly.

While institutional efforts may have spread awareness about the rights of migrant workers, few of these initiatives help them better assimilate into our local culture. As such, there is little progress in shedding everyday xenophobia on a more day-to-day level.

Through a recent video series by SGAG, the local media site depicted the discrimination foreign workers faced in Singapore by reading aloud demeaning tweets written by locals to them. 

In response to these tweets, many of these workers were speechless and several even choked up upon hearing them. More importantly, their responses, spoken after much hesitation, shed light on the apparent misunderstanding between Singaporeans and themselves.

One of the tweets addressed the disdain among locals regarding foreigners from the People's Republic of China (PRC) talking loudly in public.

The workers explained that it was a habit that stemmed from their field of work. He said: "Unlike working in offices, we need to communicate clearer and louder at noisy construction sites."

A fellow construction worker added: "If we can't hear each other, it might lead to accidents."

Bangladeshi workers are not spared from everyday discrimination either.

Stephanie Soh, 21, an undergraduate in Nanyang Technological University (NTU), recounted how a middle aged man accused two Bangladeshi workers on a train carriage for being too noisy.

"The foreign workers just smiled awkwardly. But because they were unresponsive, the uncle stood up and started provoking one of the workers," she continued.

These incidents raise the question - are we really as welcoming to foreign workers as we should be?

A large part of the difficulty in accepting these migrant workers might have stemmed from the cultural differences between these workers and Singaporeans.

In an excerpt of a book titled The Future of Singapore: Population, Society and the Nature of the State, an Indian teacher, 23, commented: "… But it's ironic that I can hang around people of different races… I find it harder to interact with an India Indian… I find that India Indians and the Singaporean Indians are very different."

As such, the influx of foreigners had seemingly strengthened multiracialism, uniting Singaporeans of different races against the new migrants. Ironically enough, we seem to think of India Indians or PRC Chinese as "Others" in our iconic Chinese, Malay, Indian, Others (CMIO) model.

Nonetheless, there have been notable individuals who displayed heartfelt acts towards migrant workers.

A noteworthy effort by fellow Singaporean was seen earlier this month when Dipa Swaminathan, 44, packed unsold food from a Starbucks outlet for the foreign workers nearby.

Another example is Rimy Lau, 68, who encouraged migrant workers to take a seat in the train as an act of gratitude for "build[ing] our homes". The workers appeared touched by a simple act of his, and even requested a selfie with him.

In this time and age where the world is inching towards becoming a global village, I believe it is time for Singaporeans to break out of our ethnocentric selves and be more inclusive of these workers as part of our multi-cultural society.