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Seah Chang Nee
An electronics firm that advertised last week for a “preferably non-Singaporean” engineer has added fuel to a worsening controversy in this migrant city.
It particularly stipulated that “permanent residents are welcome” to apply for this “mid-career job (salary negotiable)”.
A copy of the advertisement found its way onto the web.
This provoked strong reactions from Singaporeans who are already upset at the large number of foreigners allowed to work here.
One asked if such discrimination is legal. “This sort of ad would have landed this company in heavy trouble in most developed states,” he added.
Another writer said: “Now we know where we stand. The policy has downgraded Singaporeans to below foreigners.”
Archilles said: “I feel left out by my own government, which is desperately trying to attract foreign talent (and) overlooking our own ‘local talent’. It’s sad, very sad!”
A similar storm broke some years ago when another company told a fresh Singaporean graduate during a job interview that his chances were slim if he had to report for annual reservist duty.
“We prefer a foreigner who has no such obligations,” the executive had added. Besides, they are much less costly to hire.
The reservist withdrew his application in disgust.
This is not just another act of public whining. The fact is many Singaporeans are no longer sure about their own role or entitlement in society.
In recent years, the rate of entry has increased sharply as the economy flourished. Every year some 100,000 foreigners have been arriving, putting pressure on what was already one of the most competitive and over-crowded cities in Asia.
The controversy couldn’t have come at a worse time when the country is emerging from a severe downturn and the people’s uppermost concern is getting – or retaining – their jobs.
Last month Seagate (worldwide: 10,000 workers) moved out its manufacturing capacity, retrenching some 2,000 workers. “It is difficult to imagine the impact of Seagate’s loss on our economy,” said commentator Harrison Goh.
Its departure, he added, may have marked the end point of Singapore’s involvement in the global manufacturing market.
“It spells a deepening crisis that most Singaporeans may not yet fathom, thinking that the PAP government has a ready solution.”
It is within this context that the unpopularity of the open door policy becomes apparent.
Political leaders are now working hard to reassure embittered Singaporeans that their interests would always come first.
Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong announced last week that his government would reduce the inflow of foreign workers to maintain the “tone” of society. He gave no numbers.
At the same time, his Community, Youth and Sports Minister assured polytechnic students: “You have a birthright. Everything we do is for your long-term benefit. Foreigners are here to help make Singapore more viable and competitive.”
The other side of the coin is equally stark.
With 1.28 babies per couple, Singapore’s birth-rate is one of the lowest in the world and threatens its long-term survival.
Singaporeans are also ageing rapidly, which may require young people to pay higher taxes to look after them.
Both defects are already being felt in a manpower-short economy, which requires immigrants to correct, according to officials.
“Companies have been coming to us to ask ‘where are the workers, we can’t get them’,” a government official said.
Singaporeans, being descendants of immigrants themselves, have never been antagonistic to the presence of foreigners here – until now.
What they resent is not their coming, but the overwhelming numbers, which they feel are threatening their jobs and education opportunities.
They are also angry with uneven policies that benefit foreigners more than locals, especially national service (compulsory two years) and the subsequent annual reservist call-ups, a burden not borne by foreigners.
Permanent residents are exempted, but their children are not.
Not having to meet reservist call-ups and cheaper wages are powerful attractions for employers to hire foreigners, particularly in a weak economy.
Complaints have increasingly come from older or mid-career Singaporeans who have been replaced by lower-cost younger workers from China or India.
The foreigners, hungrier and without family responsibility here, generally work longer hours for less pay – something that married Singaporeans with a home mortgage to pay cannot possibly match.
A small industry has risen to recruit them in large numbers – as indicated by a recruitment agency, with this advertisement: “Do you find it difficult and expensive to hire local staff? Why not consider hiring foreign talents?”
Claiming it was licensed by the Manpower Ministry, the agency said that it had recruited thousands of workers from China, India, Vietnam and Malaysia for Singapore firms in the past five years.
Every time such an ad appears, it cuts into the popularity of the government, which won 66.6% of the popular votes in the 2006 election.
Several months ago, the government ordered its election machinery to prepare for a snap election in case one is called.
With the improvement of the economy, it is widely expected that it will take place next year, instead of 2011 as scheduled. The public discontent against massive immigration promises to be one of the hottest campaign issues if it happens.
This intensity of public feeling has been too sensitive to be reflected in the traditional media, which has toned down the coverage.
On the Internet, however, where Singaporeans can air their grievances, the mood is more sombre. It probably requires more than mere government assurances to placate.