"Full acceptance, not mere tolerance, is a better goal for open societies", Denzel Chung

Open Borders: Essay competition winner

 Does immigration strengthen or undermine tolerance?

Full acceptance, not mere tolerance, is a better goal for open societies, says Denzel Chung

This essay is the winner of The Economist’s Open Future essay competition in the category of Open Borders, responding to the question: “Does immigration strengthen or undermine tolerance?” The winner is Denzel Chung, 18 years old, from New Zealand. 

*    *    *

Moving from Malaysia to New Zealand, our family has seen it all. We have seen a brave new world of inclusive multiculturalism. We saw genuine efforts made to start understanding and embracing the unique culture we brought with us, just as we made our own efforts to understand and embrace the culture of our new neighbours.

We have learned (albeit reluctantly) to put Marmite on toast as well as in rice congee. They have learned (albeit reluctantly) to use peanuts and spices in satay sauce, instead of peanut butter and cream. We have learned to kick back on Waitangi Day or Queen’s Birthday Weekend and get to know New Zealand’s rich Māori and Pakeha history, while they have learned about the cacophonous, multicultural Malaysian feasts of Chinese New Year, Hari Raya Aidilfitri and Deepavali.

We have also seen a darker underbelly, the seething resentment and implicit discrimination occasionally boiling over into outright racism (that dreaded “r-word,” so potent and so feared, and so much more convenient to brush off and sweep under the carpet).

We saw as my parents, well-paid professionals in Malaysia, trudged through a variety of menial jobs, struggling to apply for minimum-wage work; and not for a lack of qualifications, experience or even English-language ability. We cringed as apoplectic politicians attacked yet another farm, factory or residential home being sold to “the Chinese”; culminating in the then-opposition Labour Party claiming an overseas hijacking of our housing market, based on the fact that 39.5% of house purchasers in Auckland had “Chinese-sounding names”. We groaned as we went through the usual baptism of fire for any new immigrant, the cocked-eyebrow and puzzled look as you struggle to get your words across, the constant sniggers and cries of “sorry, I didn’t get that,” little snipes at the outwardly different and the distinctive.

New Zealand has been a land of immigrants throughout its modern history, and, like the rest of the world, has experienced significant growth in immigration in the last several decades. This was usually thought to have been driven as much by a liberalisation of attitudes as much as of borders and air travel. How, then, can immigration serve both to strengthen tolerance and seemingly undermine it? This seemingly hypocritical juxtaposition becomes clearer when the meaning of the word “tolerance” is made clearer.

Why the word “tolerance” was chosen to hearken a new age of enlightened multiculturalism is forever a mystery to me. “Tolerance” implies a reluctant, begrudging acceptance, and indeed it is defined as an ability to bear with something one disagrees with, or dislikes, without interference. If this is tolerance, immigration has certainly strengthened it. Through immigration, there is broad consensus across wide swathes of society that immigrants are actually extremely useful, vital to prevent shortages of skilled professionals as well as being a potent engine of economic growth. For instance, for the last few years, New Zealand’s economy, generally subject to the swings and roundabouts of commodity prices and tourist numbers, has been growing consistently, driven almost exclusively by immigration and its flow-on effects.

The 2017 Perceptions of Asia survey, carried out by the Asia New Zealand Foundation, found that the vast majority of New Zealanders saw Asian tourism, investment and economic growth as being positive to New Zealand’s future. In a similar vein, the 2017 European Social Survey found that a skilled professional or a student with good grades could overcome the “ethnic penalty” of discrimination generally applied to non-European, non-Christian migrants, so strongly was individual approval of migrants tied to their relative skills or talents.

While respondents would consistently favour unskilled labourers from Europe over those from elsewhere, an individual would theoretically view any skilled professional immigrant, whether from Ireland, India or the Ivory Coast, equally highly. However, just because the presence of an immigrant is tolerated and their skills appreciated does not necessarily mean that they are welcomed, or even accepted, and the endless apocryphal tales of woe circulated among new migrants can be backed up by evidence of an attitude towards immigration that can verge on hostility.

Notably, attitudes towards the different cultures and ways of life immigrants bring with them are significantly cooler than attitudes towards immigration in general. Recent research in Australia, for instance, found almost half of respondents agreeing that people from minority groups should behave more like mainstream Australians and that “Australia is weakened by people of different ethnic origins sticking to their old ways”.  

The 2017 European Social Survey found much more positive attitudes towards migrants of the same race or ethnic group, such as other Europeans, as well as agreement in the importance of immigrants committing to their host country’s “way of life”. The Asia New Zealand Foundation’s survey found that less than half of respondents actually believed Asian immigration, or Asian cultures and traditions, would be positive for New Zealand’s future, notwithstanding the fact that large majorities of respondents saw tourism and investment from Asia as being positive for New Zealand’s future.

These case studies show most clearly the danger of accepting a mere “tolerance” of immigrants. This begrudging acceptance may lead to outward harmony, but hides toxic viewpoints that can significantly strain interracial relations further down the track.  Yes, a tolerance of immigrants indicates that they are broadly viewed as useful, whether for driving demand, mitigating skill shortages or providing investment capital and empirical evidence (as shown above) tends to support this.

However a tolerance of immigrants also indicates, at best, an apathetic disregard for them, and at worst, an active hostility kept under wraps simply because they are perceived as necessary. Empirically, negative views of immigrant cultures and traditions seem to persist, as does a view that immigrants should behave more like native-born “locals,” that they conform more tightly to the attitudes of the majority. Like a liberal democracy trading with an ideological foe, an outward relationship that seems cooperative, or even congenial, conceals a demonstrable, marked hostility, a fundamental, unresolved mismatch of mutually-misunderstood cultures and attitudes. 

The current viewpoint of strengthening “tolerance” towards immigration forestalls efforts to connect with immigrants, engage with them or learn more about their culture and heritage. It dehumanises immigrants, promoting a view of them as merely a “necessary evil”. It reduces them to the role of a machine to do what needs to be done, a machine that should get on with its job quietly, out of sight and with minimal fuss. Despite 59% of New Zealanders in the Asia New Zealand Foundation survey of 2018 admitting little involvement with Asian people or cultures, some of the primary reasons that some respondents felt “less warm” towards them was a cited “influx” of Asians, or their tendency to “stick to their own,” rather than “integrate”. 

When immigrants are reduced to the status of a mere machine, it becomes terrifyingly easy to dispense with them or dismiss them if circumstances render it necessary. Eventually, for the media and politicians of all stripes to alternately celebrate and slander them as the tides of national opinion ebb and flow becomes not so much heartlessness as mere pragmatism.

Of course, immigration strengthens tolerance. Immigration is vital to cover deficits of skilled workers and manual labourers, as well as deliver economic growth. Even racial supremacists and bigots recognise that immigrants can be necessary to the proper functioning of a nation. However tolerance is not the same as acceptance, and just because immigrants are able to live relatively peacefully in a country does not necessarily indicate a full-throated agreement to their presence, never mind their culture or their way of life.

Just as the investment-starved apartheid regime of South Africa welcomed wealthy Japanese as “honorary whites,” a superficial recognition of immigrants as economically necessary exists across the world today. Though external peace is present, this ultimately does as little to change the broader national attitude around immigrants as accepting the Japanese did for multiculturalism in South Africa. A broader sentiment of resentment towards new arrivals continues below the surface, with terrible consequences both for host citizens and the immigrants in their adopted home.

To make the shift requires less a change in policy or legislation as a change in attitude. It requires people to move past the traditional viewpoint of seeing immigrants as a necessary evil, as mere machines to make economic indicators more impressive or to sit in offices and hospitals because no one else wants to.

We should look past just celebrating immigrants’ bank balances and university degrees, to also see their unique cultures, perspectives and ways of life; if not always to be celebrated, to at least be understood in perspective. We must no longer simply stand for "tolerance" of immigrants, but we must stand for accepting, respecting and understanding them too.


Denzel Chung is a student in health sciences at the University of Otago in Dunedin, New Zealand.