I’m aware that I’ve been away from this blog for a while. Rest assured, I’ve been busy. Some folks, I know, are expecting news about my next book. I hope to be able to tell you more in the coming year. For the moment I’d like to come out on this blog, this time as a Brexit supporter. A friend warned me, ‘Be careful. You don’t want to alienate anyone.’
Extreme polarization is one of the challenges of our time. As a country, we used to be able to disagree with one another and remain civil, but in recent years discourse has turned toxic. Attitudes have hardened. ‘You’re wrong! I’m right.’ That’s very much the prevailing tone. I sincerely hope that readers of this blog will allow more subtlety than that.
I don’t intend to explain why I voted the way I did. It was a gut-wrenching decision, one which I took very seriously, not least because we were told it would be a ‘once-in-a-lifetime’ vote.
I discussed the issues with friends from whom I thought I might get insights not otherwise available, including a senior peer in the House of Lords. I made sure I listened to both sides of the argument. This wasn’t easy, since most of the people I know wanted the UK to Remain within the EU.
Days before the Referendum on 23 June, 2016, I grabbed two sheets of paper. One sheet was for Remain, the second for Leave. I drew a line down the middle of each sheet and listed arguments in favour of Leaving and the arguments in favour of Remaining. Pros and cons, in other words, pros on the left and cons on the right.
It appears that Boris Johnson did the same in even greater detail, going so far as to write an entire pro-Remain article. The existence of such an article is supposedly evidence of his being a two-faced so-and-so. You can criticise the guy for many things; on this point, however, he was doing no more than what writers often do: playing around with points of view. I did it because I could not see how else I would reach a decision. I took one side of the argument, slept with it for a night or two and then took the other side of the argument and slept with that, too.
My doubts persisted to the very end. Nonetheless, I think that listing those bullet points was a worthwhile exercise. There’s always more than one side to any story, and if we are to heal as a nation, we’ve got to be able to see the other side, too.
Since the Referendum result, it has been scary coming out as a Leave supporter. In fact, I would go so far as to say that coming out as a Brexiter has been scarier than coming out as gay. I was naïve the first time. I was at a cocktail party in a staunchly Remain household and could literally feel the hackles rising. I thought I’d get beaten up. After that, I kept my mouth shut.
Leave voters have been stereotyped as stupid, ignorant, racist, xenophobic, little Englanders. I’m none of those things. This absurdly simplistic depiction gained traction across the pond, too. A snippet in the New Yorker magazine from September celebrated a Lebanese street artist who came to Clerkenwell, London, to create graffiti. She sprayed ‘No to Brexit!’ and ‘No to borders!’ on a wall, as if wishing to Leave the EU is tantamount to withdrawing from the world (and as if the benefits of wholly porous borders are self-evident).
Implicit in the popular narrative is the unspoken juxtaposition of good, black or brown immigrants on one side, against bigoted, racist white natives on the other. Ergo, I the underdog immigrant, am necessarily in the right, whereas you, if you’re a native white Brit are presumed to be bigoted, especially if you have the audacity to question immigration policy (as Labour supporter Gillian Duffy did with Gordon Brown in 2010).
Reality is more nuanced. I have lived far longer in England than I ever did in my native Malaysia, and I reject the above caricatures. 17.4 million people – 52% of Referendum voters – chose to leave the EU. The majority of this country is not racist. On the contrary, I have found England to be an incredibly tolerant, open place.
Have I faced racism? Of course. But those incidents pale in comparison with the overwhelming kindness and generosity I’ve also encountered. Moreover, racism is a two-way street. Immigrants are racist, too (and that’s before we even get to their sexism and homophobia).
Some may say that I’m blaming immigrants. I’m not, though how we behave matters. If we don’t bother integrating, acceptance becomes harder. Let’s take language. Most immigrants speak English, yes, but many do so rather poorly; some, after years, continue making basic errors. I find this wholly unacceptable. We have obligations as immigrants, the most basic being to learn the language of our host nation properly.
I went to the opposite extreme. Coming from a former British colony, I already spoke English well, but I did not initially have the British accent I have now. I acquired it through conscious effort. No one needs to do that – you don’t have to sound like the Queen to be accepted. For me, though, it was an important marker of belonging.
Many people – especially my white socialist British friends – like to castigate this country as cold and selfish. Jo Swinson, who led the Liberal Democrats, Britain’s third political party, until she lost her seat last week, said after being booted out: ‘I still believe that we as a country can be warm and generous, inclusive and open’, which implies that it isn’t. I disagree. I believe Britain is already that warm and generous, inclusive and open place.
This is why so many immigrants come. If Britain is so terrible, why do you think we come, and we stay, too?
I’d like to do something that’s not often done: to take this opportunity to thank my adopted country for the wonderful chances it has given me, chances I would never have had in Malaysia.
Thanks to Britain, I was able to gain a university place fairly and squarely, with ethnicity not being a primary consideration (as it is in Malaysia) and only the strength of my brain mattering. I went into examination halls secure in the knowledge that I would not be marked down because of my race or others marked up because of theirs and that if I worked, I could achieve anything.
Thanks to Britain, I’ve been able to express political ideas and opinions without fear of official recrimination. Only those who have lived under oppression can truly understand how amazing this is.
Thanks to Britain, I know what it feels like to have my vote count. This is a priceless freedom, one which too many Westerners take for granted.
Thanks to Britain, I don’t have to lie about who I am. I can live openly with a woman, even marry her, and have this right protected by law.
Thanks to Britain, I know that profound social change for the better is possible – because I’ve participated in it, seen it and experienced it for myself.
There’s no question that England has made me the person I am today. I will always owe her a huge debt. Too often, we immigrants are quick to complain and slow to thank. In my own small way, I’d like to rectify that here. Thank you, Britain.