Housing Discrimination and Immigration: Singapore

Few things are more amazing to Z Geography than the seeming uptick in xenophobia and racism in much of the world (to include the United States). What is particularly striking is the overt and public outpouring of these sentiments – from signs explaining what language to order in to, apparently, rental listings listing undesirable ethnic groups. To Z Geography, the growth of globalization/glocalization has reinforced nativist and xenophobic attitudes – from Russia, to Singapore, to the United States.

The BBC published a story on owners of rental units in Singapore restricting tenants based on ethnicity, specifically Indians and Chinese (or in the parlance of the internet, Indians/PRCs). One, of course, wonders if the restriction applies to citizens of Taiwan. It probably does, as the article details even persons of Indian or Chinese descent from western countries are viewed with suspicion. To be sure, this is not official discrimination but entirely personal. Of course, this sort of outright racism is not limited to Singapore – last October, an anonymous poster to a social media site in Norfolk, VA posted that black trick-or-treaters (Halloween was upcoming) would not be welcome in a (predominantly, one assumes) neighborhood.

As the BBC reports Singapore’s population is ethnically diverse: 74% Chinese, 13% Malay, 9% Indian, and 3% other. The interesting point though is that in this small southeast Asian state, 90% of people own their homes, which probably makes the population somewhat sensitive to housing prices. And this is the justification for overt racism – no Indians or Chinese because “many don’t clean weekly, and they do heavy cooking… They may use a lot of spices that release smells that people don’t like.” On the other hand, another source related that some owners would be less willingly to lease to Chinese and Indian immigrants because they are viewed as less likely to maintain the property. That sentiment, taken on its own, “less likely to maintain a property” seems reasonable to me – it is the addition of the ethnicity factor that makes the statement preposterous.

Also similar to the United States is Singapore’s separation of the public and private spheres. In both states, racial harmony and multi-identity societies are well-entrenched in public life (at least on the surface). However, the state’s views end at the private door step. There’s an obvious disconnect here between the stated public utopia and the grim reality of the private citizen. In Singapore this was thrown into stark contrast in December when foreign workers from South Asia rioted after a bus accident resulted in the death of an Indian national. Online, the saga sparked condemnation of racism in the country and criticisms of foreign workers.

We should also be rooting these anecdotes into the deepening globalization of society. But not only are foreign workers migrating in larger numbers to new places for employment, they are also sparking a glocalization movement (global-local). This movement, a reaction, is also understood as natvist. The receiving community not only engages the global community, but also reinforces its own sense of local identity. In the context of Singapore, “Singapore” is resisting the influence of immigrant Indian and Chinese communities. Obviously, Singapore isn’t the only country doing this.

Going forward, Z Geography expects to see a combination of growing support for foreign workers in Singapore as well as stiffening resistance to their presence. Whilst this will be primarily discussed within Parliament of Singapore, violent flareups – like last December’s riot – are more than likely.

A New “Russian” Internationalism: a (very) early hypothesis

Last week Z Geography examined the interim Ukrainian government’s and Russian government’s narratives of the ongoing conflict over eastern Ukraine (here). In that post, I recounted Russia’s stated objective of protecting the interests of “Russian-speakers” in Ukraine. In this post, I hypothesize that Russia may be adjusting its definition of Russian to include eastern Slavic languages – including Ukrainian.

This presupposes though that Russian is all that different from Ukrainian. It is apparently not, sifting through the sources in the all-popular Wikipedia, we find three academic sources (see note classification 8 on the Ukrainian language page). The first states that among the Slavonic languages (to include Russian and Ukrainian)  “[The] distinction between dialect and language being blurred, there can be no unanimity on this issue in all instances…” And the distinction is very blurry, consider the second definition of dialect from the Random House dictionary: “a provincial, rural, or socially distinct variety of a language that differs from the standard language, especially when considered as substandard.” Language, as some sociologists might argue, may be socially, culturally, and politically appointed. Take the dominance of French in France – as captured nicely in The Discovery of France (Graham Robb). We often take French as the principal language of that political construct called France, but it wasn’t until long after the French Revolution (and the patois are making a comeback).

But I digress. Ukrainian and Russian “have very high rates of mutual intelligibility…The separation of Russian, Ukrainian, and Belorussian as distinct languages is relatively recent…Many Ukrainians in fact speak a mixture of Ukrainian and Russian, finding it difficult to keep the two languages apart…”, according to a source in 1981. As the Wikipedia article notes of a Ukrainian-language source comparing lexicons, Ukrainian is closest to Belarusian (84%), Polish (70%), Serbo-Croatian (68%), Slovak (66%), and Russian (62%). In 1977, a peer-reviewed study asserted that “In terms of immediate mutual intelligibility, the East Slavic zone is a single language.”

Percent of Ukrainian speakers (Purple) and Russian speakers (Blue) in 1989 (lighter) and 2001 (darker) by province

This mutual intelligibility, however, was not sufficient to prevent Russian elites within the Soviet Union from suppressing the language, because it could have become a rallying point for Ukrainian nationalism. A renewed Ukrainian national identity would have been a significant divergence from, and a threat to, the Soviet Union’s internationalist communist/Stalinist identity.

So here’s the hypothesis, could Putin’s (Russia’s) expansionism be fit under the rubric of a more inclusive, internationalist “Russian” (Slavic) identity. The test for this hypothesis will be the remaining years (decades) of President Putin’s rein – will Russia content itself with Crimea and a limited “Russian-speakers only” vision, or will it seek to unite other Eastern Slavic speakers under an enlarging “Russia”? To the ongoing Ukrainian crisis, this identity shift (to pan-“Russian”) would imply that not only could Ukraine’s east be absorbed, but the entire country. If this hypothesis is true, the conflict may resemble the wars of unification in the 1860s (Germany) and 1880s (Italy).

The German case is particularly instructive. Prussia in establishing the Second Reich ignored the German-speaking (at least the elites) of Austria in order to maintain Prussian supremacy in the German empire. Today this curious quirk of political geography is linguistically explained by the existence of “varieties of German.” Consider the map below, how nice that German-German and Austrian-German end at a political boundary! In the current Ukraine-Russia crisis, Russia could leave the west of Ukraine as a rump state.

“Varieties” of German (via Wikipedia)

Competing Narratives in Ukraine

The conflict narratives prevailing in eastern Ukraine obscure the likely “ground truth” at the center of the conflict. Russia’s and Ukraine’s press releases and official commentary are political statements; statements that contain elements of truth bent towards justifying (or legitimizing) certain political actions. Geographically, these narratives center on eastern Ukraine and its people. With the start of Ukrainian military action in the east, the critical factor is which identity the eastern Ukrainians emphasize – are they primarily cultural Ukrainians? Or Russian speakers? The answer to this question will have repercussions for the rest of Ukraine.

note: this post draws on information from a useful BBC report (here).

For Russia the conflict is about protecting the interests of Russian-speakers in Ukraine, specifically eastern Ukraine at the moment. As the BBC observes, most of these Russian-speakers are “ethnic Ukrainians”. This unhelpful phrase is probably meant to convey that these communities of individuals are “culturally Ukrainian”. Ethnic groups, like nations, are an imagined community; a community often based on: 1) culture, 2) language, 3) religion, et cetera. This seemingly minor details carries important weight – first, a person’s identity has multiple faces. An individual living in Donetsk is probably, at once a Russian-speaker who consider herself Ukrainian. Perhaps next door neighbor, similar in all respects, considers themselves Russian. In the Russian narrative, Putin aims to protect both groups, Russian-speaking cultural Russians and Russian-speaking cultural Ukrainians from Ukrainian-speaking government oppressing this group from Kiev.

For Ukraine the conflict is about maintaining territorial cohesion and its cultural identity. The government argues that Russia sparked the unrest in the east, insinuating that these problems occurred at foreign behest; moreover, it has labelled the pro-Russia groups as “terrorists.” Kiev’s argument is that Ukraine is a country for cultural Ukrainians, whether they speak Russian or Ukrainian. Unsurprisingly given this position, it has wholly dismissed the demands of the pro-Russia group, marking them as illegitimate.

Taken together, the conflict is about two competing nation/state narratives – a Russia seeking to assert itself abroad as the protector of Russian-speakers worldwide and a Ukraine seeking to maintain its identity as the abode of cultural Ukrainians. The problem, of course, is what the Ukrainian-passport holders (i.e. the official Ukrainian public) consider themselves. As the BBC article notes, many people in the east are angry with a government in Kiev that see is dominated by politicians from the central and western oblasts. Further, they believe that the interim government has simply appointed oligarchs as governors, similarly corrupt individuals from Yanukovich’s tenure. Besides the international community, the Ukrainian and Russian governments are also attempting to influence these locals – labeling pro-Russia groups as “terrorists” and advocating the defense of “Russian speakers.”

With the Ukrainian military undertaking an “anti-terrorism” operation in the country’s east – the government risks pushing the resident cultural Ukrainians, who have a legitimate gripe with the government – poor representation and corruption, into the waiting arms of Russia. This risk would grow even more likely, and dangerous, should the operation negatively impact local residents. By prompting local Ukrainians to switch allegiance, Kiev would ultimately be challenging its own identity – is Ukraine for cultural Ukrainians, regardless of language or is the vision much more limited a state only for Ukrainian-speaking cultural Ukrainians in the west and central oblasts? If the latter is the case, what happens to the Hungarians, Poles, and Romanian speakers?

Appendix:

The CIA’s World Factbook also illustrates the religious aspect of Ukrainian identity, although it the data is only provided a the countrywide-level.

Of 44.2 million estimated Ukrainian citizens:

  • 67% speak Ukrainian
  • 24% speak Russian
  • 9% speak other languages (including Polish, Romanian, and Hungarian)
  • 50% practice Ukrainian Orthodox (Kiev Patriarchate)
  • 26% practice Ukrainian Orthodox (Moscow Patriarchate)
  • 8% practice Ukrainian Greek Catholic
  • 7% practice Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox

According to its Wikipedia page, the Moscow Patriarchate of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church is primarily located in eastern Ukraine. The other two Ukrainian Orthodox churches are mostly located in the west and center.

Media and the “Nation”: south Korea

How much do cultural icons reflect our “national values”? Actually, we should refer to them as “national ideals”, though this certainly isn’t the space to discuss the difference. For the moment, let us suffice to declare that national ideals are upheld by our popular cultural icons – our actors, our singers, our writers, painters, and artists. Like most people, I don’t ever really pay attention to this link – until I do.

If it please my dear readers – the following link is from Psy (the sensational pop singer from the southern half of the Korean peninsula. This Youtube music video was posted in July 2012 and is entitled “Korea” and is a “cheer song” for the 2012 London Olympics. While in Korean, the video also includes English translation for the lyrics in the bottom left corner. What Z Geography finds interesting is the conception of Korea in Psy’s music. I had assumed that “Korea” would reference both halves of the peninsula, they are after all “one people separated by war” (being the Korean War that is still, technically, going on). While the music video is understandably devoid of any references to the ruling Kim dynasty, most of the clothing (except the shirts with the South Korean flag) also counts as part of the northern state’s heritage. There are taekwon-do martial artists, men and women in hanbok, and more recent symbols of nationalism – Olympic athletes (representing South Korea).

In Psy’s worldview – South Korea is Korea. Is North Korea part of Korea? No. Throughout the song one of the lyrics is “the shouts of 50,000,000 are ringing and spreading”. The estimated population of South Korea in 2012 was 50 million. It is clear that these lyrics and the presence of decidedly South Korean national symbols (the athletes and flags) highlight the underlying notion (at least for Psy, the producers, and others) that South Korea is the descendant of the Choson (Joseon) dynasty. As the wikipedia article summarizes: “the Joseon period has left a substantial legacy to modern Korea; much of modern Korean etiquette, cultural norms, societal attitudes towards current issues, and the modern Korean language and its dialects derive from the culture and traditions of Joseon.”

That this message is coming from a cultural icon is also important. While state’s (government’s) often have their own motives for their press release and messages, most often they reflect governmental (or bureaucratic) desires rather than societal (or cultural) beliefs. Psy’s music video, “Korea”, will probably do two things. First, it highlights a cultural view among some South Koreans that they are the real “Korea”. How prevalent is this view in the south is the next logical question. Second, the music video as a cultural production will be used to acculturate younger Koreans. They will grow up understanding themselves as Korean, rather than as strictly “South Korean”. Will these future voters consider the North to be “Korean” as well?

Detractors will point out that this song was produced for the Olympics. While true, Psy’s comments to the Daily Beast in 2013 (referenced in his wikipedia article) are also illuminating, asked about North Korean threats to the south:

“Well, as an entertainer, I don’t want to talk about politics. As a Korean citizen, I want peace. That’s all I can say. I want permanent peace.”

This video and Psy’s comment leaves Z Geography with a final, more troubling thought, is what this means for Korean Reunification. Could it be that some aspect of southern culture is indefinitely postponing the idea of reunifying with the north? After all, there’s no need to reunify the Koreas – if you are the only Korea.