Door narrows for foreign workers in S’pore

Martin Abbugao

Construction workers from Bangladesh, hotel staff from the Philippines, waitresses from China, shipyard welders from Myanmar, technology professionals from India — Singapore has them all.

For years the rich but worker-starved city-state, built by mainly Chinese immigrants, had rolled out the welcome mat for foreigners, whose numbers rose drastically during the economic boom from 2004-2007.

But with one in three of the five million people living on the tiny island now a foreigner and citizens complaining about competition for jobs, housing and medical care, the government is taking a fresh look at its open-door policy.

With the grumbling getting louder and general elections expected to be called before they are due in 2012, the government has unveiled measures to reduce reliance on foreigners and assure citizens they remain the priority.

“There are social and physical limits to how many more we can absorb,” Finance Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam told parliament in February.

He said the government will make it costlier for companies to hire foreigners by raising the levies they must pay for every non-Singaporean or non-resident they hire.

The government also earmarked 5.5 billion Singapore dollars (3.9 billion US) over the next five years to upgrade Singaporean workers’ skills to boost their productivity, make them more competitive and raise incomes.

It imposed measures to cool down rising home prices, also blamed on foreigners buying into the property market, and pledged it will further tighten the process of accepting permanent residents and new citizens.

Of Singapore’s population of nearly five million last year, 533,200 were permanent residents and 1.25 million were foreigners on employment passes, along with their families, official statistics show.

“I think it is shaping up to be one of the hottest issues in Singapore today,” political commentator Seah Chiang Nee told AFP.

Economist Song Seng Wun of CIMB-GK Research said that apart from helping local companies rise up the value chain, the new measures will also address potential election issues.

Singapore’s last elections, held in 2006, saw the ruling People’s Action Party returned to power for six years, continuing its uninterrupted rule over the island since 1959.

“The government has to be seen doing something in areas that are potential flashpoints,” Song said.

Disenchantment over foreign workers gained momentum during a severe economic slump that began in the third quarter of 2008, when trade-reliant Singapore became the first Asian economy to slip into recession.

Drastic job and salary cuts were implemented, affecting many white-collar workers.

In coffee shops, Internet forums, letters to newspapers and sessions with members of parliament, citizens became more vocal about the rapidly growing numbers of foreigners in their ranks.

The most common complaint is that Singaporeans are losing jobs to foreigners who are willing to accept much lower salaries.

“Foreigners are a damn pain in the butt. I seriously wonder if they are here to work or just snatch jobs from our locals,” said one posting on the popular online forum

“The country is fast becoming an unfamiliar place to many Singaporeans. The sense of national pride is disappearing by the day,” said a posting by Nur Muhammad on The Online Citizen.

Seah, who runs the political website, said much of the resentment comes from Singaporeans who have to compete directly with foreign engineers, accountants, hotel managers and IT professionals.

“Most Singaporeans do not feel angry against low-skilled foreign workers… It is more aimed at those who come in as white collar workers and get the jobs that Singaporeans can do,” he said.

Citizens have also complained about having to share space in crowded trains with a large number of foreigners, or compete with them for places in government schools and public housing.

Foreign labourers are accused of loitering, spitting in public and leaving litter behind. Another sore point for locals is dealing with waitresses and sales people who can hardly understand English.

Some employers have argued they do not hire Singaporeans for certain jobs because locals are choosy and often lack the natural social and communication skills in service professions like manning hotel front desks.

In some ways, Singapore is a victim of its own success.

A campaign in the 1970s for families to have only two children was so effective that the country is now well below the 60,000 babies needed per year just to naturally replace the resident population.

Efforts to reverse the trend have failed as increasingly affluent couples marry at a later age and opt for just one child or none at all.

Officials, economists and business executives admit that with Singaporeans procreating less, the country will need foreign workers in the long term, while making sure citizens’ interests are addressed.

Singapore’s founding leader Lee Kuan Yew, who advises the cabinet of his son Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, said in January that “we’ve grown in the last five years by just importing labour.”

“Now, the people feel uncomfortable, there are too many foreigners,” Lee said.

“The answer is simple: We check the flow of foreigners, raise your productivity, do the job better, so that instead of two workers, eventually you’ll do it with one worker, like the Japanese do.”

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