Media And Its Role In Xenophobia: Singapore’s Crisis


Media is ubiquitous in the 21st century. Whether it is in the form of print, television or social media, every demographic finds a particular pertinence in one of the forms.

And much like a double-edged sword, these can be powerful torches of information conveyance, or weapons of mass outrage. Since the onset of the COVID19 pandemic last year, we have seen both the best and worst of humanity come out in the world. At the beginning of the pandemic, there were many who attributed the geographical origin of the virus to its etymology and called it as the Wuhan Virus. Subsequently, after reports of racists attacks against people of south east Asian ethnicity, which roughly is over 3 times the population of Mainland China, including people from countries like Vietnam, Philippines, Japan, etc. the WHO finally stepped in, in consideration of other parameters too, to rename the virus as COVID19.

Although not completely, it quelled the periodic violence against the Asian ethnicities, particularly in western cities. But today, we see a new threat to communal harmony. After the mutated variants began to surface, once again, we have gone back to the familiar flawed system of geographical linguistics. The B.1.617 variant of the COVID19 virus, referred to as the “Indian Variant” by majority of the world’s news media outlets including Singapore’s mainstream medias, has stirred up some pent up tensions. It is however important to stress that there are other variants who shared the same fate as the UK variants and the Brazil variants.

But why was this one variant so problematic? Because the Indian ethnicity is accountable for almost 7% of Singapore’s population. And the original generation of Indians to have migrated to the island goes only as far as 3-4 generations, so they are almost indiscernible from expat Indians who have come to Singapore for employment or education. Add to it tensions from the citizenry over perceived loss of employment to the visitors, it is a heated situation, which could harm Singapore gravely as pointed out by the Minister of Law K. Shanmugam.

The solution is also a conundrum because the perpetrators are not of the assenting kind. Most recently, an elderly Singaporean woman (of Indian ethnicity) who has been a resident of Singapore for 25 years, and is a citizen, was physically assaulted by a young man in Singapore for not wearing her mask properly. Although physical violence in any form is unacceptable, it raises serious questions because the woman is actually a Singaporean. But xenophobic people rarely tend to favour rationale over radicalism.

The scapegoat theory in sociology which examines prejudice in the context of social transition and change was detailed by Gordon Allport, who argued that frustrations lead to prejudice especially among disadvantaged people and in so doing they identify a scapegoat who are usually foreigners. Because they have no power they are blamed for people’s troubles.  “People displace their frustration onto convenient targets, thereby obscuring the actual causes of their anxiety. Hostile attitudes are formed in relation to unmet promises and limited resources”, such as employment and in this case, the pandemic. Scapegoating generally leads to isolation. Both concepts divide between citizens and migrant groups as ‘Us‘ and ‘Them’. The majority research regarding scapegoating and isolation theories were derived from the South African Racial crisis in the 20th century, and the role of the African media.

After all of this, it really pushes us to ask the question. Does the media have any part to play in the build up of this narrative? The news outlets (print and television) of Singapore have constantly aired news pieces relating timely information regarding the virus, with extensive use of geographical pointers concerning the origins, with the recent Tan Tock Seng incident, being reported with the same level of dexterity. Some of the pointers included mentions of the ethnicities of the infected nurses and other medical staff like Vietnamese, Philippine, etc. Singapore has seen the worst of its citizenry when personnel from the hospital were shunned by the community from their homes despite these heroes serving the nation during such trying times. But then again, who are the real villains?

Such irresponsible reporting has been perpetrated by media from other countries too. The New York Post most recently used a photo with the headline “COVID surge ‘swallowing’ people in India, footage shows people dead in streets”, which contains a picture of a young woman leant over an older woman lying in a street. The photo in reality was an old photo of a 2020 gas leak incident in Visakhapatnam in India. However, photos sell stories, especially if they portray a weaker demographic in herculean struggles. The New York Post has since removed the video that was featured in the screenshot from the article. The country also faces severe PR manipulations from the left leaning media houses against the country’s right wing leadership. These publications have been fanning the panic in the COVID19 crisis, as a means to discredit the Central Government. Granted there has been lapses in the execution of management measures for the pandemic, the situation reported in the newspapers is far worse than what it actually is on the grounds most of the time.

India still faces vaccine shortages with current vaccination rates at 1.7 million a day in a country with over 1 billion people. If the current rate continues, it will take more than 3 years to vaccinate the entire population. The centre’s “License Raj” on the vaccines continue, as the country’s policy states stat out of all the vaccines produced, 50% must be sold to the centre, 25% sold to the private sector and only the remaining 25% are dispensed to the states. Even after that, the Government has placed a caveat on the state’s purchasing capacity based on the percentage of adult population in each state. Add to it oxygen shortages and hospital bed unavailability, you have a gold mine for media vulture politics.

We see the irony in such an editorial being reported by a news media outlet such as ourselves, but that conveys the gravity of the situation at hand.  Andrew Vachss once said, “Journalism is what maintains democracy. It is the force for progressive social change.” Pravasi Express truly believes in courage in journalism is sticking up for the unpopular, not the popular.


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