Seah Chiang Nee
Most Singaporeans have no problems accepting migrants. What they resent is overdoing it, letting in such vast numbers.
A simple inter-school badminton match has developed into a national debate over how welcome foreigners are in Singapore.
It began when a little-known sports school nearly became a giant killer through fielding players from the world’s best badminton nation, China – and created a public furore.
The coach of the Jurong Junior College, Haden Hee, whose foreign talents took it into the inter-school finals for the first time, ticked off his detractors, saying: “We Singaporeans should buck up and not resent foreign players.”
He said the complainants should stop acting like cry-babies.
It is happening at a time when resentment is growing about Singapore admitting too many foreigners in too short a time.
The critics had accused him of resorting to foreign talents, rather than groom its own, to win sports honours.
The girls’ team it fielded was all-China, while of the seven in the boys’ team four were Chinese, one Korean and two Singaporeans.
They swept away all rivals until the finals, when the team lost to Raffles Junior College (RJC), an all-Singaporean team. It was an emotion-packed encounter that was cheered as a local-versus-foreigner contest.
The furore shows how deep the resentment has grown here over the massive influx of foreigners, who are accused of depriving locals of jobs and opportunities.
With foreigners now making up a third of Singapore’s population, there is growing concern over social stability, especially as unemployment is rising.
“A lot of us feel like we’re playing for Singapore against a foreign team,” said an RJC player.
Even some of its fiercest traditional rivals were rooting for the Rafflesians.
“This is a warning sign of unhappy sentiments against foreigners,” said Kevin Kelvin Teo at KentRidgecommon.com.
The local-versus-foreigner divide has become one of the three biggest social threats, admitted Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong. The other threats are an economic gap and race and religion.
Few people expect any large-scale violence, but the authorities are taking no chances.
The Public Order Bill has been changed to require any cause-related assembly to have a police permit, even if only one person is involved.
So far, the resentment of Singaporeans is confined to petitions and online insults, and even these are rising.
Early this year, thousands of residents of Serangoon Gardens protested against the building of a large dormitory in their serene private estate to house thousands of foreign workers.
Quarrels between mainland Chinese and Singaporeans frequently crop up over the former’s loud, boorish habits – and “job stealing”.
In a web survey asking whether Singaporeans welcomed foreigners, which is a regular government exhortation, 73% of the respondents said: “No, we’re overcrowded enough.”
The yes vote was 17%; the rest said they were foreigners.
Ironically, such unhappiness comes at a time when the recession is sending home large numbers of foreigners, mostly the lowly-paid, in a reverse migration.
Economists are predicting that as many as 200,000 migrant workers in Singapore will return home between this year and next. Many are from China, India and elsewhere in South-East Asia.
Credit Suisse said this could reduce the population by 3.3% by 2010.
This outflow is a world phenomenon, and is likely to continue. The Wall Street Journal reported that hundreds of thousands of workers from developing countries were leaving the West.
This U-turn will hit Singapore harder than the larger economies. Its economic growth and the high standard of services are owed significantly to the foreigners.
However, many Singaporeans are likely to celebrate rather than bemoan their departure.
Historically, this is a migrant society, and now cosmopolitan and multi-racial.
Hence, the vast majority have no problems accepting the open door policy. What they resent is overdoing it, letting in such vast numbers.
“Unlike the past migrants who came to settle here, the present lot are like leeches, who come just to make money and go home,” said one writer.
Foreign exclaves have been set up in many areas where Indians, Thais, Filipinos and Burmese assemble in large numbers. “Here Singaporeans are often the minorities,” said a news agency reporter.
One observer said: “I think the next generation of people born here will have a weaker sense of identity and attachment to this country due to the social upheaval posed by the ‘flood the island with foreigners’ policy.”
Realising this, Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew has said it is imperative to cap the foreign population to no more than the present one-third.