Too Close for Comfort?
Image Credit: Gyver Chang

Too Close for Comfort?


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.

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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.

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.

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