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More than 20 percent of Singapore’s 4.8 million residents are foreigners, many from less-developed Asian countries, and it shows.
On weekends and holidays, malls teeming with foreign workers add an extra dimension to Singapore’s claim of being a multi-racial state.
For foreign workers like P. Baskaran, the sprawling recreation centre set up by the Singapore Contractors’ Association is a home away from home.
On his days off, the Indian air-conditioning technician visits the complex to play cricket, buy cheap groceries and share a few beers with friends.
“This centre is very good, it has everything I need,” said Baskaran, flashing a toothy smile as he gestured in the direction of the four-hectare (10-acre) complex located in an industrial suburb.
With a supermarket, clinic, remittance services and a cinema, the centre was built for foreign workers who help power Singapore’s labour-short economy.
The centre has become a second “Little India” to workers from South Asia in addition to their original enclave along Serangoon Road, a 90-minute bus ride away.
While more affluent expatriate families live in upmarket areas, workers like Baskaran are often housed in far-flung, cramped dormitories, and congregate in their thousands at favourite locations to relax on their days off.
Lucky Plaza, a run-down shopping mall along swank Orchard Road, is where Filipinos gather to eat fried pork, drink San Miguel beer and send money home.
“This is the centre of the Philippines in Singapore, this is the place where we all come to,” Imelda Rico, 43, who been a maid in Singapore for 15 years, told AFP.
At Golden Mile Complex, on the other side of the shopping district, is Little Thailand where famous Thai singers perform on two television screens in a music shop next to the entrance, while the scent of lemongrass and spices fills the building.
“I like to come here,” construction worker Prayun Kalangram said at a supermarket where he buys Thai delicacies and other products from home.
In yet another part of town, Aung Soe Paing offers solace to nostalgic compatriots at an eatery in Peninsula Plaza, Singapore’s Little Myanmar.
Movie stills featuring the history of the country formerly known as Burma, as well as pictures of its famous actors, adorn the walls of the cosy restaurant managed by the former design student belonging to the Shan minority.
“Every group has their congregation area. Peninsula Plaza is our gathering area. We come for the local food, and to hang out,” he said.
Singaporeans are a minority in the foreign enclaves, highlighting a social divide between guest workers and locals that experts say is unbreachable.
“We need foreign workers, but we don’t want them to integrate into society,” said Gavin Jones, a sociologist at the National University of Singapore who has worked on population and development issues in other Asian countries.
But the foreign crowd is a boon for Singaporean entrepreneurs, providing a number of niche markets that many business people are happy to exploit for a number of reasons.
“Thai people are very friendly, more friendly than Singaporeans, they don’t bargain with you over a five-cent difference, not like locals,” said Jimmy Phua, owner of a mobile phone shop at the Golden Mile Complex.
Las Tang, a Singaporean saleswoman at a fashion accessory shop in Lucky Plaza, agrees.
“The Filipino customers are better than the locals, they’re all very friendly,” she said.
Maids like Rico look forward to spending their one day off a week at the mall, which on Sundays looks more like a busy Manila shopping centre.
“This place reminds us of home,” Rico said with a smile.