As the COVID-19 pandemic has plunged Singapore, Asia’s shining star, into an economic recession, historically-minded denizens of the city-state might have occasion to recall the 1982 New Year speech made by its founder Lee Kuan Yew.
In the speech, Lee, who ruled Singapore with a velvet fist from 1959 until 1990, promised that the country would have a wholly Singaporean workforce by 1991. Lee said that countries like France, the United Kingdom and West Germany were facing political, social and economic problems due to their large migrant work forces. Arguing that this was not desirable for Singapore, Lee promised that work permits for the country’s migrant workforce in the non-traditional sector would not be renewed and that by December 31, 1984, all such workers would leave.
But Lee never fulfilled this promise and Singapore has seen a steady growth in its population of foreign workers. In 1986, as economic growth picked up after a period of recession in the early 1980s, restrictions on foreign workers were relaxed. Since then, the country’s foreign workforce, which sat at just 10 percent of the work force in the early 1980s, has grown to 36 percent, or around 1.5 million people.
Now, with businesses closing down and job losses mounting due to the COVID-19 pandemic, many of the city-state’s residents are turning their ire towards foreign workers, particularly those from India. In particular, Singaporean social media has discovered a new villain: the India-Singapore Comprehensive Economic Cooperation Agreement (CECA), a free trade agreement signed between the two nations in 2005.
In August, for the second time in nine months, Singapore’s Ministry of Trade and Industry (MTI) was forced to issue a statement correcting the widespread public misconception that the agreement has led to a large influx of Indian professionals in fields like finance and information technology.
The MTI clarified that there is no provision under the CECA for Indian nationals to become permanent residents and citizens of Singapore. It also moved to quash rumors that CECA requires Singaporean authorities to automatically grant employment passes to professionals, managers and executives from India who wish to work in Singapore.
Despite these clarifications, Singaporean social media continues to buzz with anger against newly-arrived Indian nationals, whom significant numbers of people are blaming for recent, pandemic-induced job losses.
Such narratives are particularly common on Facebook, often bolstered and accompanied by the distribution of fake pictures and videos. In August, a picture of a DBS Bank branch in Hyderabad went viral on Twitter after a user claimed that it was a photo of DBS Bank’s IT department at Singapore’s Changi airport. The user asked viewers to “find a Singaporean or Chinese” in the photo. The post created such a big splash online that DBS Bank was forced to issue a clarifying tweet stating that “pictures being circulated on social media are from our India office, not Singapore.”
Similarly, on the public Facebook group SG Opposition, which has 52,000 followers, the user Michael da Silva in July shared a picture of ethnic Indians sitting at Changi Beach Park with a caption referring to it as “Chennai Park.” Da Silva even accused the government of grating Indian professionals Singaporean citizenship in order to harvest their votes for the ruling People’s Action Party. Similar sentiments have been voiced by other posters on the group.
Reacting to a news article about CECA on Facebook, one Singaporean woman commented: “Our jobs are taken by Ceca! Wait till the ministers’ jobs are also taken by them, then they will know!”
While it is hard to know how far such sentiment reflects real world attitudes, for some observers, the reaction vindicates Lee’s warning in his 1982 speech that a large foreign workforce could foster social tensions.
Writing on his blog “For a Better Singapore,” Yee Jenn Jong, a non-constituency Member of Parliament, blamed Singapore’s obsession with economic growth. He argued that the massive explosion of COVID-19 cases has cast a spotlight on the city-state’s reliance on cheap immigrant labor. “The presence of so many low wage foreign workers has depressed the wages of less-skilled Singaporean workers, which has in turned caused a great divide between those who have benefited from our economic progress and those whose real wages have stagnated or even regressed in the past two decades,” he wrote.
Yee quoted the late Dr. Goh Keng Swee, the architect of Singapore’s economic transformation, who had warned of the dangers of increasing GDP through a large influx of foreign workers and foreign direct investments. Goh was of the view that getting unlimited access to cheap labor would impede the critical need for upgrading and innovation among Singaporeans, Yee said.
Kirsten Han, an activist and co-founder of the long-form journalism outlet New Naratif, added that there was also a racist element to the “too many Indians in Singapore” trope. “This is about #xenophobia and #racism, where CECA (a Singapore-#India trade agreement) is used as shorthand for racism against Indians,” Han tweeted in late 2019, before the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. She added: “There is also a widespread assumption that there are more Indians coming to #Singapore under CECA than Singaporeans traveling to live/work in #India, hence propping up the narrative that Singaporeans have been cheated/sold out somehow.”
Xenophobia and racism are not new phenomena in Singapore. Indeed, expatriate workers from mainland China, the Philippines, Bangladesh, Indonesia, Myanmar and India have long been blamed for rising unemployment and the overcrowding on public transport and housing. Last November, a video of an Indian man shouting expletives at a condominium security guard went viral, sparking social media outrage. Online vigilantes went on the rampage and told him to “go home” and not bring his country’s caste system to the Lion City. Many also blamed CECA for giving Indian nationals a free pass to work in Singapore.
Some internet users have even conjured up memories of the Little India riots of 2013, when Indian migrant workers set police and private cars on fire after one of their countrymen was knocked down and killed by a bus. “We have seen how troubles like that of the Little India riots of 2013 could happen when we overcrowd our small city-state with the many people that we currently have, not to mention if we allow it to explode to another 235%!” Yee wrote in his blog.
However, the issue with Indians is different in key ways. Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia and Brunei all have large communities of south Indian heritage. Being from south India, their complexion is dark and they have become identified with what are called Mamak stalls, small food outlets that serve a type of Indian cuisine unique to the southern part of the subcontinent. Because of this, keling, a racist slur, has long been used to refer to them.
But the recent discomfiture against Indians concerns not these long-established communities, but rather the arrival of educated professionals working in high-profile and well-paid sectors like banking, finance and information technology. Being more wealthy due to the higher management positions, they live in upmarket condominiums in East Coast neighborhoods. Indeed, their visibility in banking, finance and IT sectors is one of the sources of Singaporeans’ angst against them.
Laavanya Kathiravelu of Nanyang Technological University said that in times of economic recession, exclusionary sentiments like xenophobia have been known to rise. “People look for easy targets to blame rather than understanding structural issues for change,” he said.
Asif Ullah Khan has worked in senior editorial positions at The Times of India, Khaeej Times, The Hindustan Times and The Brunei Times. At present, he is based in Jaipur, India, and contributes to The Brussels Times, The Diplomat, The ASEAN Post, India Legal, The Wire and other publications.