Features | Society | Southeast Asia

Too Close for Comfort?

As Singapore emerges from its sharpest and most protracted recession, the city-state’s policymakers have been keen to emphasize the importance of immigrants to the country’s future well-being. But as Jeya Segaram discovers, the downturn has exacerbated simmering tensions over an immigration policy that some Singaporeans believe is too lax.

By Jeya Segaram for

Adapting to life in Singapore hasn’t come easy for Xiao Li.

Leaving her family in Guangdong, China, Li (who asked her real name not be used) says adapting to what she calls a ‘pseudo-Western’ lifestyle has been difficult. But she says that although her new lifestyle has been an awkward fit, what has been hardest is overcoming the hostile attitude of natives in a country known for being a melting pot of different cultures.

‘I disagree with some of the practices and habits of Singaporeans, but I’m here to make a living’, she says, adding that her feelings about her host country, and the prejudice she says she has encountered, are to her quite separate issues from trying to make a successful career.

Li says her working day usually begins at 7 a.m., when she begins manning a cart selling trinkets outside one of Singapore’s private universities. She says the job isn’t glamorous by Singaporean standards, but that the wages are high enough compared with what she could earn in China to allow her to send enough money back to help her parents out. And she says her job is better than what many of her compatriots are left doing–long hours in karaoke lounges, waiting tables in the city-state’s restaurants and hotels–work she says is traditionally shunned by native Singaporeans, who have seen immigration as a way of filling such vacancies.

But although she admits she has it better than many immigrants (adding that life has been made much easier since she acquired Permanent Residency status through marriage, something that gives her most of the rights of a citizen) she says she doesn’t see her long term future in Singapore. ”One day, I’ll just go back to China because China is prospering’ she says.

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Li’s comments reflect a growing tendency among many Chinese and Indians to view Singapore as a temporary home and springboard that helps them further their educational and material pursuits while reserving the option to return to their home country. But such views are increasingly causing resentment among native Singaporeans, a frustration that was given full voice by Singaporean bloggers last month after a former resident who had returned to China resident flashed her permanent residency card in front of Chinese camera crews during China’s National Day celebrations.

China-born Zhang Yuanyuan, who had studied in Singapore for five years and landed a lucrative job here, caused outrage among Singaporean netizens when she flashed her residency card while apparently proclaiming her loyalty to China, an act many saw as indicating a lack of gratitude for the opportunities afforded her in Singapore. But even before the so-called Zhang Incident, a prominent former civil servant, Ngiam Tong Dow, had already penned an op-ed warning over the island’s ‘liberal’ immigration policy, writing that Singaporeans risked becoming ‘strangers’ in their own country and expressing concern that the island was being seen simply as a ‘stepping stone’ by many immigrants.

According to a recent government report, Singapore’s population had risen to 4.99 million (of which 1.37 million were said to be foreigners), meaning the tiny country, which is far smaller than the tiny US state of Rhode Island, has almost 7,000 people per square kilometre squeezed into its borders.

But the tight physical squeeze is only part of the problem facing policymakers as many newcomers find themselves facing growing accusations of job-snatching and claims they are changing local areas for the worst. ”I don’t recognise Geylang any more.I’m beginning to wonder which is the real Chinatown?’ one reader wrote recently in the Straits Times, commenting on the transformation of a one-time Malay (the indigenous people of Singapore) area, before going on to note the replacement of English signposting on some restaurants in Geylang with Putonghua (Standard Mandarin) typefaces.

Such concerns have been compounded by the global economic recession, which hit Singapore particularly hard and which has added fuel to already festering concerns over jobs. These worries were on display at a weekly Monday evening ‘meet the people’ session I attended recently, during which local legislatorsfaced a barrage of complaints from residents about foreignerssupposedly taking their jobs. ‘They hired a Filipina who they paid half the salary they paid me’, a one-time publishing executive who did not want to be named told meof her US Company on the industrial estate of Jurong. In a speech to university students on September 15, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong acknowledged growing concern over new arrivals in recent years, and although he did not specify what those concernswere, few listeners are likely to have doubted their existence.

Although the government’s position has been that immigrants are an economic necessity to Singapore, the speech also marked the first acknowledgement this writer can recall of such a senior politiciantouching on the potential pitfalls of a laissez-faire attitude to immigration. The government, meanwhile, has also been faced with growing complaints that foreigners have pushed up property pricesand have caused the ‘elbowing’ of local Singaporeans out of public school places.

And, as is so often the case in many other countries, stories of crimes involving foreigners inevitably grab headlines. Convincing a populace opposed to new immigrants while still striving to achieve what former Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong has said is theeconomic imperative of having immigrants will therefore be no easy task. Indeed, despite the country’s success resting in significant part on the work of immigrants, and despite calls by founding father andMinister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew for future immigrants to be allowed in to help make up for ‘the babies that Singaporeans are not having’ (thebirth rate last year fell to a historical low replacement rate of 1.28, with 2.07 seen as the rate necessary to maintain a population), there is talk that Singapore is reaching the limits of the number of immigrants it can accommodate.

Goh has therefore been prescient with warnings that the country wasreaching a threshold on the immigration debate, though he has also been outspoken on the fact that there will be dire long-term consequences (not least for Singapore’s international trade competitiveness) if it begins turning immigrants away. But talk of a ‘threshold’ opens a can of worms that includes a whole range of issues, not least the issue of national service.

Military conscription in Singapore is compulsorily for all Singaporean male citizens and second-generation permanent residents who have reached the age of 18. National service was introduced in part with a view to fostering greater racial harmony through shared experience, but there has been some resentment that many permanent residents are getting the privileges of residency, but are not having to undertake the responsibilities associated with military service. Successfully fusing immigrants from such diverse backgrounds as envisaged when national service was launched will be no easy task. And it will also not come cheap. This autumn, the National Integration Council announced a series of recommendations to promote greater integration of immigrants, including an S$10 million Community Integration Fund that will encourage social gatherings and seminars.

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However, easing tensions and improving integration involves not just enormous expenditure, but also an aggressive education campaignbased around the principle of acceptance of racial and cultural differences–in a sense forging a social contract that blends elements of the old with sometimes exotic and even ‘annoying’ or ‘frustrating’ elements of the new. The issue of immigration is a thorny one around the globe, and debate has been complicated by a more plugged-in society where not only accurate information, but also rumours and malicious and damaging hearsay can be transmitted to thousands with the click of a button.

Change is in the works for an evolving Singapore, but what this change will lead to is still far from clear.