HE ENTHUSIASTICALLY EXTENDED HIS HAND and introduced himself. I am Isaac, he announced to my surprise as I had braced myself for a name that I assumed would be diﬃcult to remember. When Isaac adopted this rather quaint English name is unknown to me. I wondered if it was chosen recently in preparation for meeting strangers like me.
A few moments before meeting Isaac, I saw him sitting next to our other ward looking both excited and anxious. My wife and I had arrived a little late to this our first meeting between the two young visiting scholars from China and their host family. All other scholars and their host parents were by then already deeply engaged in getting acquainted.
Our role as hosts was to try to help these scholars feel welcomed and at home in their stay in Singapore. And their stay is expected to be a long one of nine years in total. Some may ultimately make Singapore their permanent new home.
Barely two weeks after our first meeting, we invited our two new found friends to the Chinese New Year family reunion dinner. By that time, our second ward had adopted the name Johnson for himself. Perhaps, they were advised to do so to aid in the better assimilation to their host culture.
I am not sure what these two young men learnt about my family during this dinner. Although we are a predominately Chinese family we also have strong Peranakan roots. My mother migrated from East Malaysia and my sister married a Eurasian. Our conversation and food that evening reflected the varied cultural diversity of our mixed heritage.
As the evening wore on, my brother-in-law remarked that five family members were not with us that evening but (that was all right as) we have 500 Chinamen instead. His rather characteristic dry humoured observation reflects the sentiments of many Singaporeans. Everywhere we go we are confronted by hordes of people of diﬀerent nationalities. Some are tourists but many are here to work and even to live here.
Their presence draws a mix of emotions. We welcome their tourist dollar but are put oﬀ by the crass behaviour of some. We are intrigued by their strange languages but are annoyed when they are ahead of us in queues or when they crowd the roads, trains and buses.
Whilst they are welcomed in town, we feel uneasy when they live amongst us. And although we may be welcoming when their stay is brief, we feel threatened when they stay longer.
How should we relate to the estimated one million foreigners around us? Some might say that they are welcomed only if they can contribute to our nation’s success.
Being only a small city-state with one of the most dense population per square kilometre, Singapore has long not taken immigrants who are fleeing political persecution or economic misery. erefore it is a good assumption that every one out of every five persons in Singapore is a stranger to our soil and deemed to be an economic asset. But do we as Christians welcome these foreigners only because they can add to our economic success?
Do we welcome them only if they assimilate and be like the rest of us? is is a question many nations are debating as they review their policies on immigration and multiculturalism. Perhaps this is a reasonable expectation as we seek to try to live in harmony on such a small island. But being Christians has always meant that we are called to a higher standard of conduct. Yes, it is easier to accept a person if he behaved like us and adopted a name that does not draw attention to his distinctiveness. It is easier to embrace another if he makes us wealthier and more successful. But what if he or she does not, do we turn him or her away? Do we withdraw the welcome mat?
I believe it is helpful to remember that we are all foreigners to this present land. We are all sojourners to this earth. Whilst we should enjoy it, call it our home and should responsibly manage its resources, it is still not ours to own and possess. If this is the case, then any individual has as much of a right to it as any other. We only possess it by God’s Grace. As the words of the song goes; “ This world is not my own, I’m just a passing through. My treasure is laid out, somewhere beyond the blue.”
With this reminder, I can also say, “I too am a stranger” to this land. We are brothers, not citizen and aliens.
Benny Bong is a member of Kampong Kapor Methodist Church, is a family and marital therapist.