I luuurrrrvvveee Canada! Yes, I really do!
Singapore will always be my home because I was born there and grew up there. I will always hate the hot, humid and sticky weather there just as much as I will always feel I belong first and foremost to Singapore. However, belonging is one thing. Agreeing with its social and political ideals is another. Singapore, to me, is the epitome of pragmatism in far too many ways. I’m too much of an idealist at heart for the deepest parts of my being to resonate much with the way things work in Singapore.
Canada, however, is a different story. I hate the freezing and snowy weather there just as much as I identify with its social and political ideals. And yet because the social ideals of a person or a country – their vision of how the human community ought to be like – are what are most important to me, Canada is the country for me…
I’m not a Canadian. I wish I were. I know I’d make a darn proud Canadian because I would be able to agree deep inside with what I believe Canada stands for. Although there are no universally agreed answers – even among Canadians – to questions such as “What does it mean to be a Canadian?” or “What does Canada stands for?”, two particular values I believe Canada and Canadians hold dearly to set them apart from most other countries and command my admiration.
The issue of multiculturalism and the integration of immigrant people into a country is a hugely debated topic in Canada. I had started to think about all this since 2002 when I went to study and live in Sydney, Australia. There were a lot of foreign Chinese (ethnically) students like me from places like Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia, Hong Kong and China. Yet, there were also many Chinese students who were either born in Australia or came to do their high school in Australia and who thus talked and perhaps behaved more like an Australian and because of that were able to integrate much better with the (white) Australians than us students who had lived most of our lives abroad and had just come to Australia for our University studies (of course I had spent the last 2.5 years of my primary school life in Brisbane and wasn’t totally new to Australia but that short time during my pre-teen years hardly affected the Singaporean identity I brought to Sydney in 2002). Furthermore, my sister had been living in Australia since she was 14 years old – that would make over 10 years of very important teenage and young adult life in Australia by 2002. Thus by that time, she considered herself very much an Australian already and had no thoughts of living anywhere else but Sydney.
Since 2002, I have also been thinking about why so many Singaporeans and Asians go ahead living on in Australia after finishing their studies – getting a PR status and then eventually becoming an Australian citizen and settling down there. I understand the reasons like there being less pressure in life there, more job opportunities and better weather. Australia is also a very beautiful place in terms of nature – mountains, beaches, parks…etc – which makes for great holidaying and enjoyment. Yet despite all these plus points, I’ve never really considered living in Australia. And I continue to wonder why so many Asians desire to do so.
You see, as far as I know, most Asians there hang around with their own kind. This is not only for the very new immigrants, but also for those who are born in Australia. Now, I have nothing wrong with that whatsoever. That’s just human nature. We are more comfortable with people who are familiar with our own culture. Language, customs, habits…etc. bind people of the same kind (race, skin color, region) together. This occurs everywhere in the world. What I do however find incomprehensible is why people would want to live in a country eventhough they are at the fringes of society there. That is, in my opinion, Asians will always be 2nd class citizens in Australia. Now, I know this is not a political correct thing to say, but that’s reality. And non-white Australians and foreigners living in Australia know it. We are only first class citizens and equals in our own little ghetto and sub-culture we’ve formed for ourselves.
Lest one thinks I’m taking a cheap shot at white Australians, let me state that I don’t think we can blame white Australians for either unconsciously or consciously looking down on non-whites or adopting a superior attitude towards them. We have to be realistic here. If we were white Australians and suddenly found “our” country invaded by lots of Asians who didn’t assimilate well with the prevailing Australian culture, we would feel that “our” country is being taken over by Asians! (I use “our” because I do acknowledge that the whites in Australia were colonizers and they thus can’t claim to own the land as by right it belongs to the native aboriginals). In fact, a similar thing is happening in Singapore. Many Singaporeans (even ethnic Chinese) are unhappy that Chinese from Mainland China are coming to Singapore in large numbers and can now be seen everywhere. I believe one of the main reasons why this is so (i.e. Singaporeans’ unhappiness with the influx of mainland Chinese) is that these mainland Chinese bring along a culture that is different from the Singaporean one and there is thus fear that our culture would be eroded. In addition, Singaporeans are complaining that scholarships are being given to foreigners, that foreign talents are taking away jobs and so on. This sort of attitude is prevalent in every country as globalization is occurring and migration of people across borders is increasing.
I do not condone this sort of attitude. If we want to call it a racist attitude, then so be it. But let it be known then that there are racists everywhere. This is of course no reason to be accepting of this flaw in character (?) and I certainly do not think we should condone it. But I also realize that there is a need to understand why people react this way against people not part of their group or culture. And when we go deeper to try to understand why many people are like that, we’ll realize that perhaps it’s not so easy to avoid such a reaction. We see it in our everyday lives. All of us are more comfortable being part of a group (which has its own culture) than not. And when we’re part of a “clique” in our everyday social interactions, we form a sense of comfort with our group. We become exclusive and we are weary of including others that may be so different from us into our group. If they are of the same mindset, we may let them in. If they are too different from us, we make fun of them or despise them or just simply can’t be bothered with them. How many of us have gone out of the way to befriend someone who is neglected by society? Very few indeed. We’d rather enjoy our interactions with other like-minded friends.
So let’s be honest and acknowledge that we all racists and exclusive in many ways. We do not live in a perfect world and so we have to work around that. This does not mean we don’t strive for perfection and the eradication of racist and exclusive attitudes. I am an idealist and I believe in pursuing the ideal. Acknowledgement of the fact that this world is not perfect and will never be in near future does not mean we need not strive for perfection and the fulfillment of our ideals. I think we ought to strive for the ideal and be unsatisfied when we fall short of our ideals.
I would never settle down in Australia despite the attractiveness of life there. For me, life has to be meaningful. That means I desire to contribute to society and not just take advantage of the good life there. I know most Asians go there for the good life and do not think about how they can contribute to society. Fact is, they can’t really contribute that much to Australian society because they are on the fringes of society. You hardly see any Asians in the media or in politics. Few understand the national culture of Australia or are part of it. For example, sports are huge in Australia. They are the best in Cricket and Rugby League and up there at the top in Swimming, Hockey and Rugby Union. They also have a very popular Australian sports named after themselves called Aussie Rules or AFL. How many Asian immigrants understand the passion Australians have for sports? How many actually partake in such enthusiasm and celebrate this aspect of the Australian culture? Very few indeed…
Let me sum up what I feel about immigration in Australia. I think there is too much Asian immigration to Australia. I understand why Asians want to go there – for a better life – but I would prefer to see a lot of them return to their country of origin and help up with the problems there. Singapore’s former Prime Minister called Singaporeans who left Singapore to go to migrate overseas for a better life “quitters” and sometimes I do agree with him. There are problems in Singapore – let’s not run away but try and contribute to make life better here. There are lots of problems in Indonesia too and I’d wish all those Indonesian Chinese would not just run away to Australia. Same goes for those from Philippines. I think we should help our country, not run away to a better place. But if you want to run away to Australia, then one should make an effort to contribute to society there. That means an effort to understand the national culture and adopt it and be part of it. Don’t just hang around in your own subculture. If you want to do that, you may as well go back to your own country. You will only cause problems in Australia and cause Australians to dislike all the immigrants. This attitude – call it racist or whatever – is in a way understandable because we all are like that. We ourselves would not like our country to be invaded by foreigners who are too different from us and who do not adopt our culture. We see it in Australia, we see it in Europe and we see it in Singapore.
Of course, it’s hard to tell others not to migrate and that they should stay in their own country and contribute to society there. The former is impossible as the process of globalization is occurring; the latter is perhaps a touch too idealistic. Migration will happen and it will be a problem undoubtedly. That’s why I’ve mentioned before that I feel there will be increasing backlash against Asians in Australia as more and more Asians enter Australia. We’ve already seen signs of it with Pauline Hanson and in Perth. What’s to come in future?
Let me now come to Canada. The above were my thoughts before I set foot in Toronto for my studies. Shortly after arrival, I started to realize that Toronto and Canada (maybe not Quebec but I don’t know) were very different from Sydney and Australia. I never liked living in Sydney but Toronto was very different – I started to love Toronto. And I struggled throughout my 8 months there to understand why this was so. I’ve come to a few conclusions…
I think the first reason why I felt so much more comfortable in Toronto than Sydney was because there were a bigger percentage of people of minority groups in Toronto than in Sydney. In Canada, about 40 per cent of Canadians were born abroad or are the children of new Canadians. And everywhere I traveled in Toronto, I saw so many non-whites. In fact, often when in public transport I had to search hard to find a white person! Toronto is the most ethnically diverse city in the world, according to the United Nations. The immigrant population living in Toronto stands at about 45% compared to about 30% in Sydney. The make up of immigrations differs. In Sydney, most immigration would be from the Chinese of Southeast Asia and China/Hong Kong. As Toronto is further away from Southeast Asia, you hardly get any Southeast Asians there (although you do have a sizable Filipino population) though a lot of Asians from Hong Kong and also South Asia (India and Bangladesh). The “brown” (Indian, Bangladesh…etc) population is actually probably on par with the “yellow” (ethnically Chinese) population in Toronto, whereas you don’t see as many browns in Sydney.
The fact that there is such a big percentage of minority population in Toronto and Canada makes life more appealing for immigrants. The whites are not as dominant a group and thus there are more opportunities and less hindrance for the minority groups to be involved in society. Also, because there’s been a high level of immigration for a long time into Canada, the white population (at least those not in Quebec) have got used seeing more and more immigrants – more so, I believe, than in Australia. It thus seems more acceptable in Canada than in Australia to see increasing immigration. Canada has been the leading country in accepting immigration in many ways. And because there’s more acceptance of immigrants in Canada, there’s less prejudice against them there. That’s why I felt more comfortable in Toronto, Canada.
A second reason why an immigrant would feel more comfortable in Canada than in Australia is because of the lack of a Canadian national culture – or at least a considerably weaker national culture as compared to Australia. As mentioned, there’s no agreed upon answer as to what it means to be a Canadian. The question of what defines a Canadian is still constantly discussed among Canadians. Government officials in the past have also explicitly mentioned that there is no national culture in Canada – surprising but true! The reason as to why this is so has a lot to do with Canada’s official multiculturalism policy since the early 1970s. Multiculturalism as a policy is normally contrasted with an assimilationist/melting pot policy. A country with an assimilationist/melting pot policy like the United States (even Singapore) encourages immigrants to shed its native culture and instead adopt the culture of the host country. A multiculturalist policy, on the other hand, does not expect its immigrants to adopt the national culture but instead allows them to hold on to their native culture. Such a policy thus promotes more diversity of cultures in the country in comparison to the promotion of a homogenous national culture by a assimilationist/melting pot policy. The result of an official multiculturalism policy in Canada has thus led to many diverse cultures existing within the country. This is the reason there is not a strong national culture – as none is being promoted by the government in Canada. The Canadian government instead believes in accepting a diversity of cultures, rather than imposing upon all any one official national culture. The result of having a weak or non-existent Canadian national culture is that everyone is accepted. In Australia, because there’s a strong national culture there, Australians may not accept and may even discriminate against immigrants who do not adopt the national culture. It’s easier to point out someone who’s not really an Australian there because there is a national culture to measure anyone against. In Canada, since there are so many different ethnic cultures side by side, all cultures are accepted. There isn’t that pressure to conform to a particular Canadian culture but one can be freely who he/she is.
(There is so much more to say about Canada’s multiculturalism policy. Many Canadians bemoan the lack of a national culture and feel that the policy causes much segregation of ethnic groups from one another, which is not a positive thing in the long run. I think both the multicultural and assimilation views have their pros and cons and I’ve mentioned one of the great advantages of a multicultural policy above – at least from the point of view of an immigrant. In regards to Australia’s policy, Australia holds to a multicultural policy though definitely not in as strong a way as Canada – it simply cannot and will not, due to the presence of a strong Australian culture.)
The above two reasons – the already large presence of minority groups and the lack of an official Canadian national culture – make immigration to Canadian society so much more pleasant and comfortable. I’m not saying that there exists no racism in Canada or that immigrants don’t face great hardships there but I think of all the countries in the world, it’s perhaps the easiest for an immigrant to settle down in Canada – definitely easier than in Australia.
(One point to note here is when we talk about ethnic diversity in a Canada and Australia and perhaps any other country, we’re really talking about it in the major cities of the country. Immigrants don’t migrate to the countryside of Australia or Canada or the United States. They go to the cities. We see few immigrants in places far from the major cities. Thus the more cosmopolitan people living in the cities are much more open to immigration than those who live elsewhere. And though their opinion is important, it can’t be said to be representative of people in every part of the country.)
I’d like to say here once again – because of the controversial nature of some of the things I’ve said – that this is my view of things through my time in both Australia and Canada. I speak from personal experience and have not done as much reading and research on this topic as I would have liked to. But that’s ok as I never write anything in a definitive manner – I think in probably almost everything noone should – and as one who takes to heart certain critical aspects of the philosophy of postmodernism, I realize that we’re more often than not biased in some ways and blind to that fact. The above may also be filled with lots of generalizations and I acknowledge that. We all speak with generalizations and it’s impossible not to do so. But my main point in this section is that I love the multicultural aspect and policy of Canadian society. It may or may not be good for Canada in the long run to hold on to its unique policy (as opposed to moving towards a more assimilationist policy) but for me, I do see the advantage of such a policy as I find that the result of it is Canada being a much better place than Australia for immigration.
2) Leadership in International Development
One of the main reasons why I decided to go to Canada for my exchange rather than Chile was because my love for development was greater than my love for the Spanish language and culture. And somehow I have always had a positive impression of developmental work done by Canadians. I can’t remember exactly what events led to this impression. But I know that in early 2002 when I was Australia doing my first semester of University, I was considering transferring to the 5 year International Development Studies (IDS) Co-op program at the University of Toronto, Scarborough Campus (UTSC). International development was what I knew I wanted to study already at that time and I thought this program would be good for me. It also included a one-year attachment in a developing country. In the end I didn’t go for it because of the costs involved and the length of study. I also remember being impressed by the fact that there was a strong Christian denomination in Canada devoted to social justice, peace and development – the Mennonites – and which started this very interesting Buy Nothing Christmas campaign. Overall, through the above through other events, I gained a strong impression that Canada was one of the better countries to go to in order to study development.
I therefore decided to go to UTSC for my one-year exchange program. I can’t say I was impressed with the IDS faculty there. The Scarborough Campus was a small one and since it was not the main campus, most of the lecturers teaching there and in the IDS faculty were based more in the main downtown campus. But nevertheless, the experience of getting to know other students passionate about development was well worth it.
I learnt more about Canada’s role in international development during my time there. In my first session, the research done for one of my development essays led me to some interesting facts about Canada’s and its Prime Minister’s role in international development. I was impressed by the fact that current Canadian Prime Minister Paul Martin was the main guy responsible for the creation of the G20 group – a group founded to include the poor countries’ participation in the G7 group. Canada and Paul Martin also promoted what was termed to be the “Montreal Consensus”. Such a philosophy was contrary to “Washington Consensus”, which was a neo-liberal philosophy founded in America that placed economic growth and market-liberalization above the social concerns of the poor in the developing world. In the words of Paul Martin:
The Washington consensus in place for a number of years now states that economic growth is a prerequisite to poverty reduction in the poorest of the poor countries. We agree with that, but as well we believe we must go beyond the Washington consensus. Industrialized countries must recognize that health care, education, a quality environment, investing in the young and protecting the aged are also essential constituents if poverty reduction is to occur. That is known as the Montreal consensus.
I saw in the above steps by Canada to be more inclusive of the poorer countries and to be more understanding of social concerns something that so many people who cared for the poor have been saying is needed yet so few in the diplomatic stage dared to voice. It was indeed a fresh change to hear a voice that stood up for the poor – a fresh change from the powerful voice of America constantly supporting the corporate agenda and putting profits before the poor. Here was a country and a leader who was concerned for the poor and concerned to see globalization work for the poor too and not just for the rich. Prime Minister’s Paul Martin’s speech on January 23rd, 2004 to the World Economic Forum in Davos was another example of his desire to want to help the poor nations through multilateral global politics.
I’m not saying Canada is a perfect country and I’m sure there are other nations who have done much more for developing countries (e.g. the UK and the Scandinavian countries). For example, Canada’s foreign aid is one of the lowest per capita among developed countries. However, Canada does have a history of being liberal in thinking and that includes the liberal concern for poor countries. And that’s something that I really admire of Canada.