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Confessions of a foreigner March 31, 2011

Posted by laïcité in Life in London, Politics, Society.
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I know many Singaporeans are not afraid to display their hostility towards foreigners. My days in university have taught me that; snarky comments, nasty nicknames and resentment against “china students” were anything but uncommon. Bur recently, after viewing a video posted by Yawningbread talking about the influx of foreigners becoming a chief concern in the coming elections, and after coming across a petition for employers to employ Singaporeans first, I’m beginning to sense that this antagonism is growing, or at least becoming a lot more visible and socially acceptable.

Or maybe it’s just me. You see, I am a foreigner now, so perhaps I have become more sensitive about these things. As a Singaporean student living in the UK, never in my life have I felt more conscious of how a country’s locals treat its foreigners. It’s not because I’m treated any differently here. It’s because I’m not treated any differently here. Unlike how we used to treat the students from China back in NUS, talking about how they screwed up the grading curve making it impossible for us locals to get As, letting them form their own enclaves and never really welcoming them into our own cliques, no one treats me like a foreigner here. No one complains about me stealing places that local students “deserve”, no one makes a big deal about my race or where I come from, and I can bet that no one actually blames me or other international students for congestion on the trains and buses (which I’m sure is actually worse than the situation back home).

That’s not to say that anti-foreigner sentiments are totally absent. But the key difference is that no one here can get away with blaming social and economic problems on immigrants without looking like a total bigot. Sure, you can criticize foreigners all you want here, but in everyone’s minds, that instantly relegates you to the likes of right-wing parties like the BNP, or salacious hate and fear mongering tabloids, or ignorant racist or homophobic countryfolk. You’d have to be pretty delicate and wise with your words here if you want to argue against foreigners and immigration. That’s a far cry from the brazen xenophobia that I sometimes see in Singapore, where foreigner-blaming is common to university students and busybody aunties alike.

Looking back on it, I feel ashamed of how nasty we were to other students simply based on their nationality. These students from India and China want success as much as any one of us, and they are probably more desperate to improve their lives than most of us privileged Singaporeans. Why should nationality make any difference? If they can qualify to get into our universities, then they have every right to be there. It doesn’t seem fair to me that we are more entitled to jobs or to places in primary schools or universities, simply because we had the privilege of being born in Singapore. Simply because by some stroke of luck, our grandparents decided to leave their villages but theirs didn’t.

Is it really fair to blame foreigners who want to work and study in Singapore? If you had the ability, the opportunity and the means to, would you pass up the opportunity to work or study abroad, thus improving your job prospects, increasing your potential earnings and broadening your horizons? Foreign students and workers are simply making that same logical choice for themselves.

I had a lengthy discussion with my British colleagues on this issue. I asked them what they thought of the growing unemployment problem in the UK and the opening of the “floodgates” to workers from all over the EU. My question was met with no anger, no hostility, and not a tinge of resentment. (I dare you to ask a similar question to a young jobseeker in Singapore and attempt to stop the xenophobic rant that would most surely ensue.) Many of the responses I got were startlingly applicable to Singapore. “It’s not like the locals would want many of the jobs that the immigrants take up, anyway.” “Where would our country be without the contribution of immigrants?” “They just want to be able to enjoy the high standard of living here that we take for granted.” My friend put it most aptly. In the most matter-of-fact manner: “We’re competing with the world now. That’s just the way it is.”

With all this talk of “competing with the world”, it’s easy to let a dog-eat-dog society take over. It’s easy to sink into a world where only the fittest survive, and the weaker members of society fall through the cracks. But this is not inevitable. Even as we welcome the talent and competition that immigration brings, there is no excuse not to have a safety net to ensure that all members of society – locals or foreigners – have a minimum standard of living, and this means minimum wage, affordable healthcare and bargaining power in the form of unions.

I’m pretty sure most Singaporeans really aren’t xenophobic; they’re just concerned about their livelihoods. I just hope they see that the solution lies in better welfare, better transport, and better schools, and not in demonizing foreign workers and students who are really just like us.



1. skeptic - March 31, 2011

You are comparing apples and oranges. The UK doesn’t have 45% foreigners in the population.

laïcité - March 31, 2011

How do you define what is a foreigner? They may not have as high a percentage of new foreign born citizens, but if you look at those whose parents or grandparents are foreign born, that number is huge.

Who is to judge that Singapore’s wealth only belongs to those of us whose grandparents and greatgrandparents decided to take over the land from the natives 200 years ago? What gives us that moral entitlement to exclude others from benefiting from our progress?

Fox - April 1, 2011

I don’t think anyone in Singapore is enjoying Singapore’s ‘wealth’. It is not as if oil is gushing out of the ground and everyone gets a cut. Furthermore, there is a price to be paid for Singapore’s prosperity. It’s called NS. Everyone who’s been through NS is told that NS is the price of the Singapore’s prosperity and they have to do it to be part of it. Imagine how dissimulating it must be when the kids in NS finish their stint, go on to university/working life and discover that they’ve paid for something that most foreigners get essentially for free.

laïcité - April 1, 2011

Don’t even get me started on NS. I could write a whole post on how much I disagree with the concept of conscription. With your argument, you could also claim that “they’ve paid for something that female Singaporeans get essentially for free”. Of course it is unfair to disadvantage male singaporeans by making them do NS. But I don’t believe with righting a wrong with another.

Fox - April 1, 2011

Of course, female Singaporean are getting something for free. Even so, most female Singaporeans have relatives who have served so and indirectly, the burden is partially spread to them. For example, my parents, neither of whom had every served NS, had to pay for my food and lodgings while I was in the army. Foreigners, who have no familial ties to Singapore, simply free-load off people who have served NS.

laïcité - April 1, 2011

NS is a funny issue. It’s funny that you argue from the perspective of doing NS being the normal position, and not doing NS means getting something for free. I would argue that NS should never be a prerequisite for citizenship, and that what boys and men have to go through in Singapore is positively unnecessary. Saying that girls and foreigners get something for free by not doing NS is like saying that people who breathe are getting air for free when you have to pay for it. It is the boys/men that are being ripped off.

2. Lee Chee Wai - March 31, 2011

I agree with you. I am a foreigner in the great state of Oregon. To the state and the people of Oregon, I am an individual, a resident and as much a member of their society as any other Oregonians.

It is, however, their prerogative to take care of their own as a first priority. That, I respect. My own employment there is contingent on the fact that I am deemed the best person for the job and that the hiring was an open process that practices no discrimination. At the same time, my visa is contingent on the fact that I will be paid as any American would in the same position – that I am neither exploited nor given an unfair advantage over an American candidate. I feel bad for the poor and the unemployed in my town, and I am trying to take it upon myself to find ways to help them. I do not, however, have to fear that I have stolen opportunities from them.

In Singapore, you have a situation where even the country a maid comes from determines their salary. That, I find disturbing. How can that be considered fair? Why aren’t they paid the same as a citizen who wishes to work as domestic help?

I personally think the stridency against foreigners in Singapore is the result of a failure on our society’s part to learn to treat our fellow human beings as individuals. As your (and my) experiences show, people in the UK and the US really can do far better.

laïcité - March 31, 2011

Hi Chee Wai, actually, interestingly enough, I did start out with a tinge of guilt, wondering if I had “stolen” someone’s place in school or if people thought I was mooching off the welfare state. But I soon realized this was unnecessary. No one blamed me for being an international student, no one accused me of trying to apply for jobs which were “rightfully” theirs. I realized that my apprehension was solely due to the animosity against foreigners that I had witnessed in Singapore – an animosity that is not visible anywhere else in the civilized world.

I agree with you, I think it has a lot to do with the Britons’ ability to see me not as my nationality or my race, but as a fellow human being.

Shae - April 1, 2011

What is your basis for saying that the Britons have an ability to see you as a fellow human being, and not your nationality and your race? Did you conduct an exhaustive survey? How many Britons have you spoken to? What type of Britons did you speak to? Even if you did speak to them, how can you be sure that their opinions have not been filtered in view of the fact that they were aware that they were speaking to a non-Briton?

3. HAHAH - March 31, 2011

How much school fees you pay vs how much locals pay?

Compare this to, how much school fees foreigners pay vs Singaporeans pay?

To work in UK, you have to pass a stringent points system, in Singapore?

You are over simplifying things. UK natives are much more well treated compared to foreigners.

laïcité - March 31, 2011

Actually, to work in the UK, all you need to do is to have a job offer. Once an employer accepts you, it will then be your visa sponsor and you’re visa is pretty much approved.

And unlike in Singapore, employers (at least employers in the highly skilled industry like law) cannot hire based on nationality because of the Equality Act. In this respect, foreigners are actually being held on the exact same level as locals. Compare this to the employers in Singapore requiring applicants to be Singaporeans/PRs.

HAHHAHA - March 31, 2011

I beg to differ:


Laicite: The points based system is just an explicit way of calculating whether an applicant is eligible for a tier 1 visa. It takes into account the exact same factors that Singapore does when it comes to issuing an employment pass: qualifications, skills, age, salary, employer, etc. I fail to see how this suggests that getting a work visa in the UK is a more stringent process than that in Singapore. In fact, I mentioned the point about the employer as a sponsor because in most cases of highly skilled workers, these workers from all over the world are not only able to easily meet the criteria for Tier 1 visas, they are also backed by companies who are not allowed to discriminate based on nationality – which makes this playing field a lot more level than in Singapore.

4. ivt - March 31, 2011

“Unlike how we used to treat the students from China back in NUS, talking about how they screwed up the grading curve making it impossible for us locals to get As… [etc]”

Er that’s probably because you’re, in effect, giving their university around 10,000 pounds each year as a foreign student. Try asking the British, who are already so angry about top-ups and what not (as they should be), to see how they would like it if they have to subsidise foreigners’ education on top of all that.

I don’t agree with xenophobia myself, but the UK is a completely different kettle of fish, and to compare Singapore and the UK directly is somewhat unfair to say the least.

laïcité - March 31, 2011

I agree with you that it’s hard to compare the UK and the Singapore system, but it is simplistic to say that foreign students in Singapore are gaining more vis a vis the locals than foreign students in the UK.

In Singapore, foreign students that are subsidised or awarded grants are often bonded to work in Singapore after graduation. All Singaporean students are subsidised but without bond, so they have the complete freedom to decide what they wish to do after graduation.

In the UK, yes, I do have to fork out more money than my British counterparts, but arguably, I am also enjoying the same benefits that a British student has. I have free healthcare, I have the right to vote, to join a union, and upon graduation, I will be on the same level as a British graduate because employers cannot discriminate based on nationality.

HAHHAHA - March 31, 2011

“I do have to fork out more money than my British counterparts, but arguably, I am also enjoying the same benefits that a British student has”

Pay more, get same benefit. Sounds fair. right?

Laicite: I’m afraid you didn’t catch the point I was trying to make. It wasn’t about “fairness”. It’s about how much I stand to gain as a foreign student in Britain (and how locals could potentially complain about these gains – but they don’t), such as the right to vote in parliamentary elections and my entitlement to free healthcare (which the British taxpayers pay for.) Aside from the subsidies, what does the foreign student in Singapore stand to gain? There is still a barrier to employment, and even PRs who may have lived here for years do not have voting rights. Singaporeans are still very much “first class” residents in that respect.

Shae - April 1, 2011

It is patently untrue that employers in the UK cannot discriminate based on nationality. This may be true for foreigners who are not British, but who are EU citizens, but it is definitely untrue for non-EU citizens.

With the tightening of the immigration rules (which is a result of the heightened anti-foreigner sentiments in the UK which you seem to think do not exist whatsoever), British employers have to prove that a job offered to a non-EU/British citizen cannot be offered to a British/EU citizen.

Have you actually ever applied for a job in the UK or is this just some politically correct opinion you have read in some newspaper or British textbook? If you have ever applied for a job, you would have noticed that in conducting interviews for job applications, EU/British citizens are normally given top priority, i.e. they are interviewed first and if found suitable, they are offered the job. Non-EU citizens who are placed after EU/British citizens therefore get a diminished chance of getting the job.

Compare this to the situation in Singapore. There are no rules, regulations, restrictions, limitations whatsoever when it comes to hiring an S Pass or an Employment Pass worker.

As for the bond that foreign students in Singapore are subjected to, I suggest you check out the terms and conditions of the bond before saying that foreign students in Singapore are worse off that their Singaporean counterparts.

laïcité - April 1, 2011

I am actually friends with quite a few Singaporean fresh graduates who are currently working in the UK or on training contracts and what I have to say about this is that it is DAMNED DIFFICULT to get a job here. One must be of extremely high calibre. Given that the average interview process involves multiple rounds of interviews and tests, there is little need to prove that a particular foreigner is a better choice than the other EU/UK applicants.

Similarly, if I wish to undertake a phd here, I will have to compete with a thousand other applicants from all over the world. What use is any kind of policy to do with UK/EU priority? To hell with it. Screen your applicants, get the best man/woman for the job, period.

Fox - April 1, 2011

“Similarly, if I wish to undertake a phd here, I will have to compete with a thousand other applicants from all over the world. What use is any kind of policy to do with UK/EU priority? To hell with it. Screen your applicants, get the best man/woman for the job, period.”

*Choke* EPSRC council fellowships/scholarships are mostly reserved for UK/EU citizens only and they form a substantial part of the funding for graduate studies in the UK in engineering and the physical sciences.

laïcité - April 1, 2011

Way to quote me out of context. I was merely (using my experience trying to find a phd in Cambridge – which does not place such restrictions) illustrating how when there are enough quality applicants for a position, one’s nationality becomes meaningless. Similarly, if you receive 100 applications, is it not fair to simply choose the best person for the job? Why should “singaporean first” or “british first” factor in at all, when, simply by the fact that you chose than one person out of a hundred, it means that he/she is superior to the other 99 regardless of nationality?

Fox - April 1, 2011

“Aside from the subsidies, what does the foreign student in Singapore stand to gain? There is still a barrier to employment, and even PRs who may have lived here for years do not have voting rights.”

You know that once they graduate from NUS/NTU/SMU, the foreign students almost always automatically qualify for PR status, right? This problem of finding work because of PR status is virtually a non-issue in Singapore. Try doing the same in Australia or the UK.

The right to vote in parliamentary elections in the UK for Commonwealth nationals is a holdover from their empire days. In Canada, and Australia, only citizens can vote for national elections.

ivt - April 1, 2011

“I have free healthcare, I have the right to vote, to join a union, and upon graduation, I will be on the same level as a British graduate because employers cannot discriminate based on nationality.”

You have free healthcare that is funded by taxation. Assuming you don’t work, you still pay to the third biggest contributor (after income tax, and national insurance contributions (just another sneaky income tax really)): VAT. Council tax is another big tax, which you also have to pay.

Voting, ah my favourite, for I actually did my bit against Tony Blair back in 2005 when I was still a student in the UK. But this is a relic of the Commonwealth: non-Commonwealth citizens don’t get this.

Now, employment. You’re right that employers cannot discriminate against you based on nationality (or anything else aside from skills and qualifucations), but that is only after you have already obtained the right to work. Is this right to work easy to obtain? Not at all, if you are not a graduate from their universities.

Taken from their migrant worker guidelines:

Sponsorship plays two main roles in the migrant’s application process:
it provides evidence that the migrant will fill a genuine vacancy in the UK that cannot be filled with a suitably qualified or skilled settled worker

The guidelines go on quite a bit, and it’s actually quite interesting reading, but all the same, I can understand this is only incidental to your initial point.

That is, why is there such animosity in Singapore towards foreigners? I go back to my initial question which you skirted: try making the British pay top-up fees, and at the same time lower the fees paid by foreigners to near local levels.

I agree with your last paragraph about making things better for “natives”, such that they won’t begrudge “newcomers”, but that is exactly what the UK has been trying to do all this while, and what Singapore adamantly refuses to.

5. Fox - March 31, 2011

Resentment towards foreign students is largely motivated by the generous government financial incentives used to attract them to Singapore. For example, generous undergraduate grants and subsidies are given to international students in NUS. I am pretty sure that state-funded UK universities do not have anything like that. Singaporeans are angry because they are told on one hand not to expect handouts from the govt but they see generous handouts to foreign students by the govt.

laïcité - March 31, 2011

But Singaporean students do get handouts. Our studies in Singapore universities are heavily subsidised with no strings attached. International students who do get subsidies or grants are bonded to work in Singapore after they graduate, forcing them to “give back” to the country.

Fox - April 1, 2011

For male Singaporeans, they have to serve NS. Given that the subsidies are conditional on holding Singaporean citizenship, you can say that their uni studies are paid for by NS. The three year bond that foreigners serve is not particularly onerous because the working conditions in Singapore are usually better than those in Indonesia, Malaysia, China or India. We get plenty of people from these countries even without paying offering them subsidies.

Shae - April 1, 2011

Do you know what the conditions of that bond which foreign students are subjected to?

Is it so onerous that foreign students who have enjoyed the subsidies have been subjected to an unconscionable bargain? Foreign students who may never have paid any taxes, contributed to Singapore whatsoever?

6. Not convinced - March 31, 2011

look at the percentages of the local vs the foreigners in UK and sg

7. LCC - March 31, 2011

As much as I appreciate the point you are trying to put across and as anti-xenophobia as I am, I unfortunately have to concur with the earlier commenters that comparing the situation in the UK with the situation in Singapore is perhaps not a valid comparison.

Since the earlier commenters have already put forth reasons why the comparison is not valid which I am in agreement, I shall not repeat them. But perhaps you can read this for reference.

laïcité - March 31, 2011

Hi LCC, thanks for your response and the link. I just wanted to ask, if one of the main problems with the influx of foreign workers is the issue of a decreased wage, shouldn’t the problem be solved by minimum wage and not with preventing these workers from coming over? Surely it is the most humane solution. Everyone, regardless of whether they are Singaporean or not, deserves a minimum standard of living.

Regarding education, I may be slightly off tangent here but I believe that i) competition from all over the world is absolutely necessary to create a world class institution and ii) there needs to be less focus on competing to get a place in university. The people who deserve to get in – Singaporean or not – will get in. Those who go to polytechnics or vocational institutions instead deserve dignity, social status and a decent wage as well. This is the area that needs to be addressed, not the constant fight to get into university and the resentment when a foreigner gets in instead.

Shae - April 1, 2011

I would ask you to apply your claim that “competition from all over the world is absolutely necessary to create a world class institution” to reality.

Questions: Do you think that there is fair competition in Singapore right now for jobs? Do you really believe that meritocratic processes are safely in place in Singapore to truly ensure that the best people get the jobs in Singapore and that the foreigners who get the jobs over Singaporeans are truly and surely better than Singaporeans? How would you assess a job candidate to ensure that this job candidate is the best man for the job – by his grades alone? Or by the mistaken conception that foreigners are more “hard driving and hard striving” compared to Singaporeans?

laïcité - April 1, 2011

I have never, ever suggested that the policies in Singapore are perfect, nor have I suggested that there is currently a level playing field.

All I am saying that anger at foreigners is misdirected. Instead what we should be fighting for are policies that ensure that the competition between locals and foreigners is fair. The UK has an Equality Act which means that employers cannot hire based on one’s nationality. Mind you, discrimination happens both ways as well. How can one justify job advertisements that explicitly state “must be Singaporean or PR”?

Some people claim that there should be no competition at all, that Singaporeans should always be placed ahead of foreigners. I find this concept absurd and unrealistic.

LCC - April 2, 2011

Hmm, so your stance is that instead of directing their negativity against immigrants, people should direct their negativity against the authorities which let them in in the first place?

laïcité - April 2, 2011

Well I would say that being hostile towards the immigrants themselves is always uncalled for, regardless of the circumstances behind them coming over. Like I said, most of us would not pass up the opportunity to live and work in a country that we think holds a brighter future for us.

If one must be angry, then the anger should be directed against policies that make competition with these workers/students unfair. Such as the fact that many foreigners have the advantage of being willing to work at lower wages. I agree that this must be addressed.

But if one were to be against letting them in and against level competition with them altogether, then I say that’s just being mean and selfish. Fair competition is necessary – for growth, for improving the quality of the workforce and for maintaining our attractiveness to foreign companies. Not to mention the principle that if the wage factor is not an issue, the most skilled/qualified applicants deserves the job regardless of his nationality. (I can’t imagine an employer having to pass up a potential “first choice” applicant simply because he isn’t singaporean.) If one believes in the “singaporean first” mentality simply based on singaporean “entitlement”, then he’s not being realistic, and neither is he being fair on a more humanistic level.

For example, it could be reasonable to be angry that the government gives subsidies to PRC students without requiring them the give back much. But it is unreasonable to be angry that I have to compete with them in school. Regardless of where they come from, they are clearly superior to me in motivation and in intellect (at least for most classes), and therefore deserve their As and their places on the dean’s list. That is not something I can contest, and it is simply absurd to want these people out of the school, lowering the school’s overall standards, just so I can get an A because I am Singaporean. What the? Why should such mentality apply to jobs?

LCC - April 2, 2011

Ahh, I see. Thanks for the clarification. I guess I agree with you that when it comes to immigrants: people are not the problem, policies are. But then again, perceptions and emotions, reasonable or otherwise, are difficult things to change.

And pardon me if I seem like a professor of sorts dishing out readings (haa) but seeing how you clearly been thinking quite a bit about the issue of immigration and have quite a strong interest in it, I guess you may be interested in “Immigrants: Your Country Needs Them” by Philippe Legrain.

laïcité - April 3, 2011

Thanks for the recommendation, and thanks for understanding my point.

When I share my opinions I’n not looking to pick a fight and neither am I looking for people to agree with me. As long as they understand where I’m coming from. Which is why it is so annoying to have people constantly saying it’s “apples vs oranges”, but so what, that doesn’t give people the right to act like jackasses to foreigners – a conclusion that I have reached only when I am placed in the shoes of a foreigner myself.

Fox - April 3, 2011

You’re missing the point. No one is saying that it is okay to treat foreigners badly. What most people here are doing is explaining why xenophobic sentiments are more obvious in Singapore. Explaining something is not quite the same as justifying it.

laïcité - April 3, 2011

Fair enough. I recognize that most of us here are level headed enough to know that xenophobia is wrong, whilst still recognizing that there is much to be done if we want a fair competition between foreigners and locals.

Yet in the heartlands and throughout the blogsosphere all I see are the extreme xenophobic anti-foreigner opinions expressed so freely as if there is no bigotry behind it. It is only the PAP – a hopelessly biased source – that is left to tell us not to be nasty to foreigners. Where is the voice of reason, the middle ground? Don’t people realize that it is possible to be anti-status quo/anti-PAP/anti-unbridled capitalism and not anti-foreigner at the same time? (this is not directed at you or anyone in particular)

8. Sgcynic - March 31, 2011

“Is it really fair to blame foreigners who want to work and study in Singapore?”

I do not blame foreigners who are simply seeking to improve their lives as any one would. I believe the resentment is because the deliberate, liberal, unrestrained government policy that led to the huge influx within the span of a few short years.

Try the same in UK such that the tipping point is crossed and then see what follows.

laïcité - March 31, 2011

The UK is now bound by EU Law to open up their “floodgates” to immigration from all over the EU. The tipping point that you mention is perhaps quite close now. It is very possible that like France, the UK will try to impose limits in the number of low-skilled immigrants from countries like Poland and Romania, but as far as I know, it does not limit its high skilled professionals. The UK is also now not allowed to limit the influx of students from the EU, and they get to pay home (i.e. cheaper) school fees compared to a real international student like me

Shae - April 1, 2011

I think your claim that anti-foreigner sentiments are so negligible in the UK that such sentiments are not noticeable is not true. I also do not see anything in your post or your replies which supports this claim.

First, I would not put too much stock in your conversations with your British colleagues. It could be that they are genuinely and sincerely welcoming of foreigners, but personally, I think that this possibility is remote. Bear in mind that when airing their opinions to you, they are also starkly aware that you are not a Brit, nor are you an EU citizen, and therefore, their opinions would have been filtered so as not to give offense.

I have personally spoken to many foreigners in Singapore, and I would never dream of telling them to “GET OUT OF SINGAPORE”! Instead, as an educated and civilised Singaporean whose manners have been drilled into her since young (and I don’t think I am the only one), I would dare say that I would have responded in exactly the same way as your British colleagues did.

Second, why don’t you try reading some of the comments to articles on the BBC website or some other British newspapers – I think that the sentiments aired on those websites would be vastly different from those espoused from your very civil and polite British colleagues.

Third, your British colleagues do not represent the British population. It is inaccurate and I feel personally, presumptuous to take the opinions of a small number of people in the same social group (and therefore likely to be similar in their opinions, habbits, lifestyles and thought processes) and think that it represents the opinions of an entire nation.

I am like you, a Singaporean living in the UK presently, and from what I have read (online and in newspapers), I do think that there is a fair amount of anti-foreigner sentiment going around. But like what another poster said, I don’t think that the situation in the UK is as bad as Singapore, so I agree that you are comparing apples with oranges.

Laicite: I think the situation in the UK is interesting, because on the one hand, there is an urban, professional, well-educated group that is staunchly against things like racism, homophobia and xenophobia, but then there is also a less well-off, suburban or rural population that is a lot more anti-foreigner. I find this interesting because it is actually the first group whose jobs are more threatened by the influx of foreign labor from the EU than the second group.

And what I’ve noticed from my friends is not really a sense of welcoming foreigners, but a sense of acceptance. They know this is the way their country and the world is moving, so it has become pointless to be angry at the foreigners. In addition, in the UK there are numerous safety nets: free healthcare, jobseeker’s allowance, minimum wage, the right to strike… At least the competition with foreigners is one of quality and competency, and not one of cheaper labor.

9. Marc - March 31, 2011

I take it you have never had a meaningful conversation with a member of the BNP.

laïcité - March 31, 2011

You’re kidding, right? That’s like saying, I bet you’ve never had a meaningful conversation with neo-nazis.

10. Chee Ken Wing - April 1, 2011

The situation is somewhat more complicated than that because the policy implementation in Singapore has been twisted beyond recognition.

For instance, why should a foreign student in Singapore be allowed to receive the tuition grant in return for serving a bond? Unless they are exceptional individuals, such as those who qualify for the ASEAN scholarship or similar, they should be paying full fees for entry into Singapore universities. Next, when they graduate, why should they be compelled to work in Singapore, instead of just competing against other Singaporeans on an equal basis? Is Singapore so devoid of talent that we need to subsidize foreign students to come to Singapore and then make them take up jobs that could possibly be done by locals? Why not allow them to compete for jobs on a level playing field, and pay whatever they need to pay to study and live in Singapore?

You also make a good point about minimum wage, which I am a strong supporter of. In Singapore, there is in practice a warped form of minimum wage. Maids, construction workers, security guards, cleaners, and the like are paid a pittance, and the government extracts an additional levy from the employer, thus inflating the cost of the foreign worker vis-a-vis a local worker. The result is a “minimum wage” pegged against the foreign workers wage plus the worker’s levy. Now, why should the government receive an incentive for each foreign worker that is allowed to come into Singapore? Should the foreign worker not just be paid a fair wage, and compete against the Singapore worker on an equal basis? In addition, the quota system is so lax that overall, the policy depresses wages in the lower-skilled jobs such that it is simply impossible for a Singaporean to make a decent living as foreigners are here on a low-cost arrangement. Are low-skilled Singaporeans supposed to live in packed dormitories in Tuas, and abandon their responsibilities to their family so that they can eke out a living at the same wage as a low-skilled foreign worker?

Also, the artificially low wage criteria for S and E-Pass holders in Singapore pits foreign workers directly against fresh local grads from our polytechnics and universities. This sets an artificial salary cap for fresh graduates, as foreigners could be hired for lower wages at any time to replace them. Again, the quota system here suppresses local wages, instead of supplementing local talent with foreign smarts.

For what it’s worth, it can be argued that the myriad of subsidies, grants, quotas, cross-subsidies, bonds, and levies has become so bloated and convoluted that it is difficult to ascertain whether the system is helping or harming Singaporeans and foreigners alike.

My guess is that the system is just creating lots of paperwork for civil servants, without serving any real purpose whatsoever.

laïcité - April 1, 2011

Thanks for your balanced and well thought out reply. I agree wholeheartedly with you that in Singapore, what is screwed up is the governments many indirect policies with regards to foreign students and labor, like what you mentioned about the subsidies, grants, quotas etc, and also the lack of a minimum wage or bargaining rights given to workers.

It is this that people should be angry about. Not the actual influx of foreign workers.

11. student - April 1, 2011

I’m a bit surprised by the comments here as I thought your post was very fair and comes very much out of your own personal experience. I know what you mean as I have for years wondered why Americans don’t hate me for taking their place in one of their fine institutions. As for whether the fees are subsidized, I have been paid (salary and fees) by the American government to study for the past 6 years, and there are many more like me here. In fact, in many departments foreigners outnumber Americans.

I think there is a sense here the individual is responsible for himself. If one is not skilled or talented enough, then it’s only fair that a foreigner who has the skill gets the job. Of course the barriers to entry is high (number of H1B visa is limited) and that encourages companies to hire Americans first before they resort to foreigners, but there are still lots of foreigners and little resentment in my opinion. They see me as an individual, a human being trying to make a little and do the best that I can in my chosen field.

laïcité - April 1, 2011

Thanks for your reply. I have always admired American institutions, even more than British ones. I like how they don’t differentiate home and international fees, and how postgraduate studentships are awarded based on merit and not on nationality. In this respect, it really seems that they are giving everybody a chance to pursue the “American dream”. (sounds cheesy, I know, but still admirable)

Fox - April 1, 2011

American state-funded public universities do differentiate between in-state and international students. The best and most financially attractive publicly funded scholarships (National Science Foundation, Department Of Energy, Department of Defense, etc) are almost always reserved for US citizens only.

laïcité - April 1, 2011

Tangentially related, but I think I know why postgraduate studentships for overseas students are so freely available in Singapore universities. Because Singaporeans are clearly not attracted to the academic or research fields, and those who are, are more keen to do their postgraduate degrees abroad. The reputation and research of our local universities depend on foreign talent because our local talent cannot, or does not want to support it. Overseas “brand name” universities do not have this problem and can thus be more discriminating about who they wish to award scholarships to, and even then, in most cases this is not done along the lines of nationality.

I speak only from the point of research because this is an area I am familiar with, but I wouldn’t be surprised if a similar reasoning applied to other fields where the pool of local talent is simply not enough to build an international reputation.

Fox - April 1, 2011

You have to differentiate between public and private universities. Fundingwise, US citizens are almost always favoured over foreigners in public universities, even the ‘brand names’ ones. In-state tuition fees are lower and international graduate students do not qualify for in-state tuition.

People come to the US not because of the parity in financial incentives but *in spite* of unequal financial rewards that clearly discriminate against non-US nationals.

Fox - April 1, 2011

You are paid a salary because you are doing research/teaching *work* as a graduate student. Foreign undergraduates in our local universities don’t do any work at all.

The barriers to entry in the US is extremely high. Only 65,000 H1B visas are released every year and the US has about 80 times our population. So, if we had a similar policy, the number of foreign workers would be capped at _800_ per annum.

12. Shaun - April 1, 2011

I am a Singaporean student living in the UK, and I would like to add that I do not and have not felt any hostile anti-foreigner sentiment. That said, I reside in London and it is perhaps one of the most multicultural societies in this world; I am aware that British residents outside London do openly express some resentment towards foreigners.

Respectfully, I disagree with Shae’s categorisation of EU/UK citizens vs Non EU/UK citizens; many UK citizens aren’t angry with all foreigners, they are angry with eastern European migrants. Other developed countries in the EU like France and Germany share such views, hence Sarkozy’s and Merkel’s comments about expelling the Roma gypsies. I would also like to disagree with his view of difficulty regarding difficulty in obtaining jobs as a foreigner, at least for multinational companies. Such companies look for talent from around the world, and are allowed by regulation to bring in as many of their employees from other countries as they wish. Employers are directed by Statute (equal opportunities legislation) not to discriminate against race, age, sexuality or disability. Also, from personal experience, I have applied for internships and jobs in the UK, and attended a number of assessment days and interviews. I have not felt unfairly treated in any way, and have in fact been made a number of offers.

One thing many people fail to note are the EU regulations. These regulations enforce the free movement of workers and people. There are no barriers whatsoever any EU national seeking employment in any other EU country. People from eastern European countries are flocking over to the UK to work for a fraction of the pay. Sound familiar? It is pretty obvious therefore that in this aspect, the situation in Singapore may be compared to the situation in the UK. At least this far, Laicite has made a fair point. The fact that there are a larger proportion of foreigners in Singapore is not within the scope of this discussion; Laicite is comparing the attitudes of people in the two countries. Either way, the difference in proportion may clearly be explained. The UK does not allow maids (at least the Singaporean definition of maid) and foreign construction workers etc. Notably, these are jobs Singaporeans themselves wouldn’t want to do anyway.

I feel that much of the anger here is misdirected. I do agree that Singaporeans should come first; the question which should be asked is how far. Are we to have protectionist measures which far favour Singaporeans over foreigners when it comes to jobs? I personally doubt that this would be a viable option. More than 50% of Singapore’s economy is attributed to foreign companies, and these companies are here purely because they can get exceptional talent for the price they are paying. Once such measures are implemented costs start rising and given the rate at which China and India are developing, companies will start leaving.

While it is clear that a continued massive import of foreigners is unsustainable and wrong, the opposite isn’t too attractive either. There has to be some balance to be struck. Perhaps we do need to see new and more capable leadership in Singapore, people who actually realise that this is a problem and are capable enough to find a decent solution.

Fox - April 1, 2011

“People from eastern European countries are flocking over to the UK to work for a fraction of the pay. Sound familiar?”

Yes but the numbers are not comparable… at all. What is the population of Poland versus the population of the UK? Do the math for China/India vs. Singapore. Heck, even if you throw in Latvia, Lithuania, Slovenia, Slovakia, Estonia and Bulgaria, it still does not amount as much. Furthermore, the wage differential between the UK and, say, Bulgaria is not as great as that between Singapore and China.

laïcité - April 2, 2011

Minimum wage, minimum wage, minimum wage, minimum wage. You seem to be repeating the same problem again and again and ignoring the obvious solution. If the gripe is that the playing field is not level, then level it, not restrict foreigners from even playing.

If we force employers to treat foreign workers as well as Singaporeans, there will be no more wage advantage. If we give all workers – Singaporean or non Singaporean – better bargaining rights for their wages, their hours, and their welfare, there is no more unfair advantage held by foreign workers willingness to work under conditions that most Singaporeans would not.

Shaun - April 2, 2011


I’d beg to differ. You proceed based on the numbers of the entire populations of China and India, which in my opinion, is a huge flaw in logic.

Further, I proceed with my point based on the types and numbers of jobs which Singaporeans do compete for, and in that sense, the situation in the UK is indeed comparable to that in Singapore. Take away the maids and the construction workers and the numbers do match up.

The wage differential in Bulgaria is arguably as great as that between Singapore and China. The average wage in Bulgaria is 250 Euros a month. The average wage in the UK is about 2000 Euros a month.

On the other hand, the average salary in China is about USD 6890 a year, compared to Singapore, which is about USD $50,000 (which is a heavily inflated number given the disparity between the rich and the poor in Singapore).

Kindly examine the facts before jumping to conclusions.

Fox - April 2, 2011


Let us look at the ratio of their GDP per capita.

GDP per capita of Bulgaria (2008): 4,700 euro
GDP per capita of the UK (2009): 25,300 euro
Ratio: 25,300/4,700 = 5.4

GDP per capita of China (2010): 4,300 USD
GDP per capita of Singapore (2009): 42,000 USD
Ratio: 42,000/4,300 = 9.8

Even comparing Bulgaria vs. UK and China vs. Singapore, it is clear that the disparity is significantly greater for China vs. Singapore. Bear in mind that Bulgaria is the poorest EU country and hardly representative of East Europe. I used it as the ‘worst case’. On the other hand, China is actually quite well-off at the per capita level compared to Vietnam, Myanmar and India. A more demographically representative country for the UK case would be Poland since there are many much Poles in the UK.

GDP per capita of Poland (2009): 8,100 euro
GDP per capita of the UK (2009): 25,300 euro
Ratio: 25,300/8,100 = 3.1

On the other hand, let us examine the India vs. Singapore case.

GDP per capita of India (2010): 1,200 USD
GDP per capita of Singapore (2010): 42,000 USD
Ratio: 40,000/1,200 = 35

Any way you look at it, the number are just not comparable. If we limit entry to Singapore’s labour market to workers from countries where the ratio of Singapore’s GDP per capita to theirs has to be 5.4 or higher, then we have to exclude the following countries: Thailand, China, Indonesia, Sri Lanka, the Philippines, India, Vietman, Pakistan, Cambodia, Bangladesh and Myanmar.

1. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_Asian_and_Pacific_countries_by_GDP_%28nominal%29_per_capita
2. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_European_countries_by_GDP_%28nominal%29_per_capita

Fox - April 2, 2011


“I am a Singaporean student living in the UK, and I would like to add that I do not and have not felt any hostile anti-foreigner sentiment.”

Well, you know, when you can afford to study in London, you are really in a different socio-economic stratum where overt racism may not be so commonly encountered. You probably wouldn’t disagree with me if I say that a Japanese expatriate’s experience of xenophobia would be quite different from a Chinese waiter’s in Singapore.

Shaun - April 2, 2011


Firstly, GDP per capita isn’t an accurate way of calculating an average wage. As admitted in my earlier figures, the GDP per capita of Singapore is grossly inflated. The gap between the rich and the poor is amazingly vast, with more than 80% of Singapore’s population living in HDB flats. Likewise for the UK, with the top 1% the population paying more than 50% of the tax. The figures I drew were from World Bank stats, which actually said “average wage” instead of “GDP per capita”.

Secondly, don’t attack the socio-economic background I come from, without knowing a single thing about me. I engage heavily in grassroots and counselling work in Singapore, and completely understand the plights of many Singaporeans who cannot even afford to pay their power bills and afford basic amenities.

Once again, read the sentence I following the one you quoted. If you want to quote me, at least quote me in context.

“That said, I reside in London and it is perhaps one of the most multicultural societies in this world; I am aware that British residents outside London do openly express some resentment towards foreigners.”

I do acknowledge that there exists some anti-foreigner sentiment. Quoting Japan as an example is highly irrelevant. The xenophobia the Japanese exhibit stem directly from their culture, a culture completely different from that of Singapore. Xenophobia exists everywhere. It is simply a matter of degree.
For the third time, look at the stance I have taken. I am NOT criticizing the xenophobia. I openly acknowledge that Singaporeans should come first. My question is how far and what measures should we implement.

Shaun - April 2, 2011


“Well, you know, when you can afford to study in London, you are really in a different socio-economic stratum where overt racism may not be so commonly encountered.”

Have you ever considered that I might be on a scholarship? This was a topic which I deliberately left out because I felt it wasn’t fair to judge someone based on his or her socio-economic background. The fact that you have done so is something I take issue with. I didn’t want to question yours, and I believe the same level of respect should be reciprocated.

Fox - April 2, 2011


Merely pointing out that you probably move in a different circle and that most Singaporean expatriates in your position would have a different social spectrum hardly constitutes a personal attack. I was merely trying to explain why you would encounter little discrimination in London. Whether you are on a scholarship or not is not relevant.

Secondly, wages are usually a percentage (45 to 60 pecent) of GDP per capita. So, comparing the GDP per capita ratios would be a good proxy measure of the differences in wages. Your numbers look a little unusual to me. It is quite unlikely that UK workers make 2000 euros per month because that implies wages form 96 percent of the UK GDP per capita.

There is no reason to believe that the Britons are holding up better than Singaporeans in the face of a massive influx of foreign labour because the former simply do not experience the same kind of wage pressure and cost of living increases. I strongly disagree with you that the situation is comparable. As many of the other commentators have pointed out, it is an apples vs. oranges issue. Also, while there are massive disparities in the income distribution in Singapore, the same can be said of India and China. There is simply no credible way to explain away the arithmetic. There are very poorly paid people in Singapore and there are also very poorly paid people in India. Do very poorly paid Indians also not compete with very poorly paid Singaporeans?

I use the example of the Japanese *expatriate* in Singapore to merely highlight the point that the level of overt xenophobia experienced is highly contingent on the person’s socio-economic status. I am an expatriate of sorts and have grown to distrust my own experience as a reliable barometer of anti-foreigner/immigration sentiments in the US.

Fox - April 3, 2011

BTW, you mentioned that you are on a scholarship (assuming that it is not a studentship) and you have applied for internships and jobs in the UK in your posts. That is a little unusual.

Shaun - April 3, 2011


I appreciate you clarifying your position. I applied to internships here mainly for the exposure, and many other people on scholarships in my situation have done the same too.

Do note my initial point, that this isn’t really about numbers. If you consider the consequences of an influx of migrant workers, both economies are feeling the same effects. Both British and Singaporean economies face a huge increase in migrant workers, driving the average wage down, displacing many locals from potential jobs, and overloading local transport and healthcare infrastructure. Even accepting the point that there are more foreigners in Singapore than there are the UK, the problems we face remain the same. The British people have recognised this as a problem and have embarked on measures to curb the migrant population. I feel that Singapore should realise this as a problem as well, but perhaps put much more thought into the issue rather than push through legislation like the British Parliament did.

Regarding my experiences as a student, they are purely personal, and I have acknowledged that they may be skewed. Perhaps, to advance this discussion instead of stagnating it, it would be much more helpful to arrive at a feasible conclusion as to what Singapore should do to take this problem.

Fox - April 3, 2011

“Do note my initial point, that this isn’t really about numbers. If you consider the consequences of an influx of migrant workers, both economies are feeling the same effects.”

But I disagree with you. I think it is about numbers. That’s what everyone has been saying. The numbers suggest that the effect of the influx of foreign workers is much more severe in Singapore than in the UK. The problems we face may be qualitatively the same but quantitatively, very different. This goes a long way in explaining the prevalence of xenophobic sentiments in either countries. Singapore have had a higher pain threshold simply because we are not really a democracy.

Shaun - April 4, 2011


Note too that I am not addressing the xenophobia sentiment, I merely stated that Laicite wasn’t entirely wrong in drawing an initial comparison between the UK to Singapore, based on the number of similarities in the two situations. It therefore isn’t an entirely “apples and oranges” type of comparison.

Many other factors play a role, like the difference in cultures, which I feel provides a much more adequate explanation compared to a focus centralised around numbers. In truth, it is perhaps a mix of both.

With regards to your last sentence,

“Singapore have had a higher pain threshold simply because we are not really a democracy”, I entirely agree. While we speak based on our differing opinions, which obviously cannot be said to represent that of all Singaporeans, it would be great if a study or poll of some sort could be done to provide an accurate gauge.

Shaun - April 4, 2011


It would be useful to approach this issue in two stages, firstly, whether or not the situations involving the influx of migrants in Singapore and the UK are comparable, and secondly, whether or not there is xenophobia in the two countries and whether or not it is justified.

Both economies are suffering the same drawbacks. The point you make about the quantitative difference does perhaps impact the level of xenophobia, but it should it no way affect whether or not the situations may be compared; it comes at a later stage in the discussion on the difference in public opinion on migrant workers. The fact that both economies face a significant drop in average wage due to the same reason should be enough of a similarity for them to be compared.

13. Fox - April 1, 2011


I’m sure when you find a job in the UK, you are not going to settle for a low-paying clerical one. You will probably work in a bank, a law firm, university, etc. Most Singaporeans who venture overseas usually have the skills and/or money to do well.

When they complain about foreigners, Singaporeans are not railing against investment bankers, lawyers, research scientists, etc coming to settle in Singapore. Their grievance is against people coming into to work as cleaners, bank tellers, clerks, plumbers, waiters, etc. It is clearly absurd to say that restricting the entry of foreign workers into these jobs would lead to foreign companies shutting down their Singapore operations. Waiters in MacDonald’s in Australia make much more than their counterparts in Singapore. Do you see MacDonald’s making a loss in Australia or transferring their operations to Singapore?

There are many jobs that Singaporeans want. These jobs would be better-paying if not for the entry of foreign workers. And no, they will not be shipped out to China or India if we somehow restrict the entry of non-Singaporean workers.

laïcité - April 1, 2011

I have made my point for minimum wage again and again in my post and in the comments. Do you not see this as a possible solution to the problem? Minimum wage, together with bargaining rights for both Singaporean and foreign workers would at least level the playing field in terms of the cost of labor, so that employers can thus employ based on skills and productivity. This reduces the unfair advantage that foreigners have in terms of cost. Additionally, minimum wage would also mean a decent standard of living for workers in these fields – regardless of nationality. Is this not a more humane solution than simply kicking foreigners out?

Fox - April 1, 2011

When you impose minimum wage, employment falls and there will be fewer jobs for Singaporeans and non-Singaporeans alike. In fact, what happens is that more foreigners will come to Singapore to compete for the higher-paying jobs. So, in fact, unemployment amongst Singaporeans will go up if you increase minimum wage. When you raise the barrier to entry for foreigners, demand for Singaporean labour goes up, which leads to higher wages AND more employment.

laïcité - April 1, 2011

There’s nothing wrong with more foreigners coming in to compete for the higher paying jobs because the playing field is now level. And if you do lose, it will not be because the foreigners had an unfair advantage, it will be because they had better qualifications or skills. Many have always argued that Singaporeans should focus on skilled labor, not cheap labor. Well there you go. There’s our focus, and there’s our advantage.

While I do agree that there definitely should be a limit to the influx of foreigners (only for practical reasons) I disagree with the “Singaporean first” mindset. We do not have the moral entitlement to progress simply because we had the fortune of being born in Singapore. We took the land from the natives 200 years ago. It is hypocritical to deny jobs to people who would’ve otherwise been our village neighbors in China if not for a single decision made by our grandparents.

Fox - April 1, 2011

I do not know why it is so difficult to accept the notion that a country ought to favour its own citizens. You find that this is true in most countries and even so in the UK. In the UK, a foreigner cannot qualify for public housing except under extenuating circumstances. A foreigner has to pay full fees for university. The same goes for the US.

Furthermore, Singapore got where it was precisely because its people sacrificed. Large amounts of cheap funds sourced from compulsory savings (CPF) were and still are used for investment capital. Mandatory national service enabled and still enables the country to save on defence expenditure. A lot was and still is asked of its people.

laïcité - April 1, 2011

I’m afraid that goes beyond the scope of this discussion, but in short, to me it is simply a matter of principle, and nothing to do with a comparison between country. I don’t believe that non Singaporeans, or anyone who had the misfortune of being born in a less developed countries, should be denied the opportunities that their more fortunate counterparts are privileged enough to have. I believe that it is grossly unfair how billions of dollars are spent on research into curing the diseases afflicting the developed world, but so many diseases endemic to Africa are left neglected. I believe it is selfish not to grant amnesty to refugees. Being born in a less than ideal country is not their fault, and yet most of the time they are expected to simply deal with it.

I know it is not practical, but at least on principle, i oppose the idea that citizens should have better treatment than others, because I oppose the idea that politics or the notion of states should take precedence over humanity.

Fox - April 1, 2011

It’s a bit rich to compare PRC undergraduates in NUS, many of whom come from privileged/semi-privileged backgrounds in China, to starving people in Africa, don’t you think so?

laïcité - April 2, 2011

Actually I know of a couple of PRC undergraduates whose families had to sell their house and farm just so they could send their son over to study in Singapore. When I heard about it, I was literally stunned.

Anyway, same principle. It’s not their fault their country’s poor, their government is corrupt, their opportunities are limited. Who are we rich guys (yes, rich. even the poorest person in singapore is richer than half the world) to say that we’re entitled to special treatment.

Fox - April 2, 2011

Why don’t you tell the UK govt to open its doors to Chinese/Indian workers who make a tenth of what the average UK worker makes? There is no basis for comparing the foreign labour policy of the UK and Singapore. As many of the others commenting here have said, unless you take into the context the kind of wage pressure that Singaporean workers are facing, the beating up of Singaporeans is blatantly unfair.

laïcité - April 2, 2011

Still not an excuse for xenophobia. There are plenty of other policies to be angry at, plenty of other solutions.

From my post: “I’m pretty sure most Singaporeans really aren’t xenophobic; they’re just concerned about their livelihoods. I just hope they see that the solution lies in better welfare, better transport, and better schools, and not in demonizing foreign workers and students who are really just like us.”

Fox - April 2, 2011

What xenophobia? I’ve merely pointed out that Singapore’s labour policy is much more open to 3rd world countries. Singapore is much much open to labour from 3rd world countries like China and India than the UK is. It is this openness and the consequent effects on wages and cost of living that is feeding the groundswell of unhappiness with the policy. Most Singaporean would be very happy support a labour policy like the UK’s in which the entry of medium-skilled workers are restricted.

Another example: A naive reading of your post suggests that Singaporeans hold prejudices against PRC students simply because they are from the PRC when in fact, much of the unhappiness stems from the privileged treatment that they receive. The 3-year bond that you failed to mention is hardly onerous, especially for someone coming from a 3rd world country. Let’s put it this way, if British universities offered similar terms to Singaporeans (75 percent fee subsidy for a 3-year ‘bond’), there would be no one of calibre left in NUS or NTU.

I’m happy to welcome international students to NUS/NTU/SMU as long as they pay full fees. Does that count as xenophobia?

laïcité - April 2, 2011

Not xenophobia on your part, but on the part of many Singaporeans.

In essence, my post was not about immigration policies or economic issues. My post was about attitudes towards foreign workers and students. Regardless of how biased one may think the government’s policies are towards foreigners, in no way does that excuse xenophobia, or anything less than civility towards foreigners.

Many people have responded to my post with “you can’t compare sg with UK” etc, and I have proceeded to discuss this with them, but that does not change one salient fact, which is that rudeness, snarkiness and animosity towards foreigners as individuals is always wrong. When people try to point out how the situation is “worse off” in Singapore, I get the feeling that they are simply trying to make excuses for xenophobia. Basically, people should be unhappy with policies, not with other people, because it is not those people’s fault.

Shaun - April 1, 2011


Thank you for your comment.

I would, however, like to question your premise. Are Singaporeans really only displeased with the “cleaners, bank tellers, clerks, plumbers, waiters, etc.”? I’d like to see what the rest of the people commenting here think about this.

It is not absurd that restricting entry of foreign workers will result in business shifting away. We have clearly proceeded based on different facts, and are therefore entitled to arrive at different conclusions. To reinforce my earlier point, MNCs are only in Singapore because of the comparatively cheap labour. Foreign workers are paid much less than Singaporean workers, so having more of them helps to keep costs down. Restricting entry of foreign workers will increase operating costs, and when MNCs do find cheaper alternatives, they move away. It’s all about operating costs and how much profit they can make. If costs go up, they move. It’s why Pfizer’s moving away from the UK. It’s why HSBC might shift their global headquarters from UK to Hong Kong.

Waiters in McDonald’s in Australia make more money than their Singaporean counterparts simply because they have minimum wage there. Perhaps, as Laicite suggests, minimum wage is the way to go?

The analogy you drew clearly does not address the point I was making; I commenced my arguments based on the presumption that Singaporeans were displeased with foreigners in a different bracket of jobs. You clearly proceeded on a different presumption, and are entitled to your view. We may both be wrong; maybe Singaporeans are just angry with the huge influx of foreigners, whatever occupation they may hold. Though your arguments do not address my points, I do see the merit in what you have said.

Fox - April 1, 2011


“To reinforce my earlier point, MNCs are only in Singapore because of the comparatively cheap labour.”

That is probably not entirely true. If not, you’ll find no MNCs in Singapore at all because wages are certainly a lot lower in India and China. Firms are here because of favourable taxes, business-friendly regulations, political stability, etc.

And even if what you say is true, a significant portion of Singapore’s economy is not MNCs. The local F&B industry is entirely dependent on domestic consumption. Surely, they cannot shift to China and India but yet you see an invasion of foreign workers in this sector.

Shaun - April 1, 2011


MNCs are in Singapore because of the “comparatively” cheap labour. We speak good English and bear the necessary skills they need. Accepting your point, it is also true that we have favourable taxes and political stability. However, there’s always Hong Kong. Their taxes are lower, and giving up some political stability for not being surrounded by Muslim countries appears to be a fair trade-off.

Manufacturing accounts for 25% of Singapore’s economy. More than 67% of that is attributed to MNCs. Likewise for financial and business services, which account for almost 30% of Singapore’s economy. Not looking even looking at other industrial sectors, MNCs account for more than 30% of the economy. Not a significant proportion? Think again.

That said, I am not advocating the view that Singaporeans shouldn’t come first; the question is how far. My stance is one of caution. Singapore’s economy is not huge enough, and domestic consumption is not significant enough for us to pass legislation without giving the issue enough thought. We have to bear in mind the cost / benefit analysis of such foreign firms before we start imposing measures to curb entry of foreigners.

14. GTH - April 1, 2011

If this article appeared 20 to 30 years ago, most would not know what it was all about.

Then, there was a good number of Malaysian, Bangladeshis etc working in our offices, factories, hawker stalls, worksite, town council and also studying amongst us in our uni or poly or etc.

They were Not treated any differently.

In fact, most would be invited openly to be Singaporean, and then later wonder, while walking back to our 3 or 4 rooms cocoons, why they flatly said no but would rather send the money back to buy their terrace house, semi-D or plots of land, in their “home town”.

Even while tiding up in the office, to be ready for their weeks of reservist the next day, some will look at these “foreigners” pitifully thinking they don’t have their “own” country to serve and to protect.

The older folks would also warn their children about the need to study hard, listen to their teachers, so that they wouldn’t end up doing the jobs of some of these “foreigners”.

So, what gives ?

On the other hand, let’s walled London up or surround it with a 1.6km wide moat, cutting it off from the rest of UK politically, then flood it with foreign born by another 40% diluting the “white” populace to 50%, at the same time take away all their social safety nets, medical benefits etc, thereby pushing more of their aged parents to clean tables at food courts, work at McDonalds, while enacting law requiring all Londoners to spent time away each year regardless of their family situation, financial condition or work commitment etc, and finally get Boris to announce he needs to increase his salary by 20 times (using Big Mac parity) for all these “achievenments” to bring the city into the 21th century globalised world ……

Brits have shown to travel far and wide, in good number, just to support their football team and frequently display their own unique brand of “patriotism” – you don’t think someone in there will be “demonised” pretty quickly in that similar environment?

laïcité - April 1, 2011

Precisely. The problem is not the foreigners, and the problems are not caused by the foreigners. The problem is the lack of safety nets and the gross income disparity. That’s what we should be angry about and should try to change. The anger at foreigners is misdirected.

15. Melbourne - April 3, 2011

I can’t believe that after so many posts, the obvious has yet to be mentioned.

“The anger at foreigners is misdirected.”

Right on every count, but most Singaporeans are too gutless to speak up against the Government. That’s why they take it out on the foreigners.

It may be wrong, but that’s the only option the man in the street has. Simple as that.

16. Melbourne - April 3, 2011

Having seen something about the Brits here, I’m going to address this question to laïcité.

In your experience, would you agree that Brit culture is generally very PC (politically correct)?

More often than not, I’ve found that they may give you prim and proper answers to your questions, but you’ll never know what they’re really thinking about you.

Food for thought.

laïcité - April 3, 2011

Well, yes and no. I do get the general feeling that many segments of society are PC on the surface, perhaps for a myriad of reasons: the desire not to stir up trouble, wanting to be polite, the association of angry racist/homophobic/xenophobic opinions with the “lower class” country bumpkins.

But as you build up a relationship with individual people, naturally, as with all friendships, those PC walls tend to come down a bit and you get to see their honest selves. But even so, from my personal experiences, my friends’ views about foreigners still tend to be less angry and more level headed than what I’ve encountered in Singapore – even whilst they’re being honestly bitchy and nasty about some other aspect, like complaints about others’ eastern european accents, for example. Like some have mentioned, it is possible that they may be acting carefully around a foreigner friend. But even the fact that they make foreigner friends that they talk and lunch with every day is more than I’ve witnessed in Singapore.

17. Fox - April 4, 2011

Actually, come to think of it, I don’t remember any instance of outright xenophobia towards international students by Singaporeans, at least while I was in university and working in Singapore in the early 2000’s. I do remember feeling quite jealous about the financial incentives they received to study in Singapore, especially since I did better in school than most of them, I had to work to partially support myself in NUS and had pretty good A-level grades. I also remember that, in unguarded conversations with my international classmates, a few of them defended the policy of how international students had to be better treated than the locals. Strangely enough, when I came to the US, all of the PRCs and Indians that I spoke to did not display at all that sort of arrogance even though I was now in the same boat as they were.

I was quite a meek person back in Singapore.

18. Melbourne - April 5, 2011
laïcité - April 5, 2011

Thanks for the article, Melbourne. I have always found myself see-sawing between multiculturalism vs melting pot, and most of the time, I prefer the idea of assimilation rather than foreigners forming their own little enclaves. I like how the author mentioned that this is a two way process: it’s not just how the host country treats its foreigners but how its foreigners behave in the host country. Interestingly, I found that among my friends here at least, the main barrier to local students trying to befriend international students is the fact that many international students prefer to hang out with people of their own nationalities.

19. dukepeter - April 25, 2011

“I did start out with a tinge of guilt, wondering if I had “stolen” someone’s place in school or if people thought I was mooching off the welfare state” <– unlike you, when i came to Singapore, i had no such guilt. now, however, i feel like i am "stealing" someone's place and need to serve the NS to gain my right to "mooch off the welfare". hmmm

laïcité - April 25, 2011

Don’t worry, as a Singaporean female, I don’t think serving NS has anything to do with deserving to be in Singapore. It’s just a cruel and unusual (and sexist) requirement for half the population. There are plenty of better ways to give back to the community that serve more fruitful purposes than NS.

Fox - April 26, 2011

NS is never about giving back to the community or gaining citizenship. It’s about providing a cost-effective military reserve force. It’s cost-effective because male Singaporeans are taxed through their mandatory service. The costs of NS are unfairly imposed on a small proportion of Singapore residents.

People who don’t serve NS are effectively mooching off those who serve and have served.

laïcité - April 26, 2011

I have many issues with NS, one being that it is unfair against males (or females, depending on how you look at it), probably due to presumptions being made about gender roles and/or differences. Another issue is that I am against mandatory military service because the state should not be able to force one to do something that carries a small but real risk of injury or death. Your life is not their’s to gamble, cost effective or not.

You’re right, the way it is now, people who don’t serve NS are mooching of those who have, but the solution is not making everybody serve. The solution is to not have NS in the first place. Cost effectiveness should never be able to justify playing with people’s lives. Just because male Singaporeans have wasted 2 years of their lives being cheaply exploited by the government, it does not mean they deserve to be citizens any more than those who haven’t. I’m sorry the government has screwed you over, but your problem should be with them, and not with us women or foreigners who were lucky enough not to be screwed over.

Fox - April 27, 2011

Firstly, NS is not a social institution to provide gender equality or anything like that. It is there to provide cost-effective military defence. That’s all to it.

Secondly, I never said that the solution to the iniquities of NS is to make *everyone* serve. Nothing along those lines.

Thirdly, if you don’t want NS, what do you propose that we have in place of NS? An all-volunteer force? A mercenary force? You can’t just dismiss NS out of hand without providing credible alternatives.

Fourthly, you seem to dismiss the cost of NS so lightly. Oh, it’s not your problem that you got to mooch off people who served. I’m sure you have plenty in common with people who continue to buy oil from Gadhafi while he’s shooting his own people. It’s not their problem that their money went to someone who then used it to buy bullets to shoot others.

How convenient.

laïcité - April 28, 2011

1. Just because an institution does not seek to promote gender equality, it does not give it the right to perpetuate sexism by implementing sexist policies. How does it justify requiring all men, but not women to serve the country? I am interested if there is a reason that goes beyond “women are too weak/fragile/etc.”

2. I was merely responding to the prevailing opinion that foreigners who did not serve NS do not deserve to be citizens. That is not the solution. You don’t drag everyone down with you just because you had been screwed over to begin with.

3. A mercenary army would be the best option in my opinion. Yes, it is not cost effective and yes, it may be a huge drain on resources. But life is not something for the state to gamble with. Even if it can be calculated down to sacrificing one life for the potential to save a million lives. That is still not up to the state to sacrifice. Ultimately, the notion of a nation is simply an idea – just like religion. If people want to die for their nation, fine. But if no one does, and the nation ends up collapsing, well, then, that’s still better than forcing people to risk life and injury against their will.

4. I don’t dismiss the cost of NS. I have seen what my boyfriend and my male friends have sacrificed for NS, which is why I am so against it in the first place. But I resent any negativity that men express towards females and foreigners because of NS, as if they want to drag the rest of us down to be together in misery. For example, if as a result of Singapore’s economic policies, I get rich at the expense of the poorer workers, it is still not right for the workers to be angry at me for mooching off their cheap labor, and neither is it fair to expect me to give up my money just to be poor with them. The rational response is to sympathise with them and fight for fairer policies that directly deal with this unfair situation.

Fox - April 28, 2011

Look, where and when have I ever said that foreigners/females should serve NS? That’s a red herring.

Rather than venture into the territory of theoretical platitudes, I prefer tried and tested solutions: I want additional income tax on people who do not serve NS, like they do in Switzerland, with the additional tax revenue going to NS-serving people. It does not create more misery but merely rebalances the inequities of NS.

laïcité - April 28, 2011

We’re talking about pretty much different things, then.

You think that NS is unfair and you want to solve that inequality. But then do you not wish to make the state address why it perpetuates this unfairness on the basis of gender? Economically it may work out, but in the end, men end up risking life and limb, and women just sacrifice a bit of cash simply because they are female?

I think NS is unfair, but also wrong in principle.

20. Fox - April 28, 2011

“But then do you not wish to make the state address why it perpetuates this unfairness on the basis of gender?”

That’s irrelevant to the issue of resentment towards foreigners and unfairness.

Furthermore, defence policies are usually decided on grounds of military cost-effectiveness. You want a mercenary force? Fine. Spit out the numbers and strategic calculations to show that it is a workable solution.

The worry over loss of life and limbs is exaggerated. The chances of dying are very very small. I’ve never encountered who’s completed NS and thought that he had had a significant risk of dying. As with anything in life, it is a matter of calculated risk. More people in that NS-serving age group probably die of car accidents than in NS.

laïcité - April 29, 2011

It does not matter how big or small the risk is. The issue is consent.

Cheap labor without consent – isn’t that modern day slavery?

21. Fox - April 29, 2011

Only if you consider compulsory schooling brainwashing and compulsory taxation theft.

laïcité - April 29, 2011

To be honest I have some reservations about compulsory schooling. And there is a difference between so called “theft”, which merely concerns money, and slavery, which concerns personal sovereignty.

Fox - April 29, 2011

The salient issue is consent, isn’t it? Does the government seek your consent when it taxes you? Obviously, the risk of dying in military service is not really the point here. After all, you are willing to use mercenaries.

Do you acknowledge that there are reciprocal obligations between the state and the citizen? For example, does the state owe its people the obligation to provide a safe environment, a functional economy, social safety nets, etc? If so, does the citizenry have any obligations to the state?

laïcité - April 30, 2011

How about a choice? How about a volunteer service whereby you could choose to join the military and in exchange you pay a smaller percentage of tax? That way, you can choose whether you want to sacrifice your money or your time.

The issue is not with whether we are obligated to give anything back to the state. The state exists purely and only to serve its people, and for practical reasons, it needs some of our money and time. Civil servants are paid a decent wage, and so are doctors and nurses and firemen. Those people have signed up to serve the public because they want to, and in exchange, they get paid a reasonable wage.

The issue is with the state not even giving young men a choice when it comes to their own bodies and their own lives. Hell, they don’t even care if being in the military is inconsistent with one’s personal beliefs. It is unacceptable for a state to weld such power over an individual. The state only exists because we let it exist: it has no right to force us to risk life and limb simply to perpetuate its existence.

You’d have to agree that the line must be drawn somewhere. Surely you don’t think that it would be reasonable for the government to force all women to perform their civic duty of bearing at least 2 children? Surely you’d agree that the state should have no control over her own body? Then why is it okay for the state to enforce involuntary servitude for young men?

22. Fox - April 30, 2011

1. You haven’t really answered why it is okay for the state to impose taxes without consent. Why is it okay for the government to take away my money without giving me a choice to pay or not pay? What if I do not believe in paying certain taxes? Aren’t my rights violated too when the government taxes me? In that case, shouldn’t taxation be voluntary too?

2. NS is not about sacrificing one’s body. It is about sacrificing one’s time.

laïcité - April 30, 2011

Since you want to bring up the issue of taxes.

Payment of taxes is actually voluntary, the same way paying for your meal at a restaurant is voluntary. The time for your choice has already passed because you had already consumed the services provided by the state. But you always have a choice for the future: you can choose not to pay taxes to this government by choosing not to be a citizen anymore. You could retort by saying that the same is true for national service. But then there is a big difference between the state demanding monetary payment for a service, and demanding cheap labor.

Firstly, monetary payment for a service is and always has been an acceptable form of payment. But mandatory labor isn’t.

Secondly, time can never be equated to money. I assume you have been for National Service before and you should know that the 2+ year period of career stagnating, time wasting, energy consuming, physically demanding, peanut-paying, morale-draining servitude can hardly be compared to paying higher taxes.

Thirdly, tax translates into tangible benefits to the taxpayer. But NS was precisely designed to be cheap labor – by definition you do not get adequately reimbursed for the level of freedom that you give up.

Finally, you are not just sacrificing your time, you are sacrificing your self. You should know better than me that NS is not simply a job. Without voluntarily signing up for it, your actions, schedule, accommodation and who you interact with are now under the control of someone else. The act of bodily sacrifice is not obvious because the current risk of death or injury is low. If singapore were at war, and NS involved going into active duty, would you not consider that sacrificing your body/life?

PS, I can’t believe I even have to explain why monetary payment and sacrificing 2 years of your time, labor and freedom are two completely different things.

23. Fox - April 30, 2011

“you can choose not to pay taxes to this government by choosing not to be a citizen anymore.”

Nonsense. Taxation is based on residency, not on citizenship. Giving up Singapore citizenship in Dec 2010 doesn’t free you paying income tax on income earned in Singapore in 2010. You can choose not to pay but that is tax evasion.

“Firstly, monetary payment for a service is and always has been an acceptable form of payment. But mandatory labor isn’t.”

Really? What are labour contracts?

“Secondly, time can never be equated to money.”

I didn’t say that time is completely equivalent to money. Nothing is equated to anything. You can’t say that an apple can be equated to one dollar but that doesn’t prevent you from doing an exchange of one dollar for one apple.

“tax translates into tangible benefits to the taxpayer”

Erm no. You can’t get any tangible benefits from a lousy government that taxes but doesn’t provide services.

laïcité - April 30, 2011

Fine, if you want to be technical. If taxes are like paying for dining in a restaurant, you can choose not to pay choosing to live in a community or country with minimal taxes and minimal public services. I don’t see how your argument on the nitty gritty has any pertinence to the matter. All I am saying is that if you have consumed a service, it is fair to be expected to pay in the form of taxes.

What is not fair is to pay for something in the form of slavery. Why do I choose to use the word “slavery”? Because by definition, National Service is compulsory labor that pays way below what the work deserves. Therefore in my opinion there are 2 separate things wrong with it: its compulsory nature, and its inability to properly reimburse the worker for his labor.

Furthermore, I am talking about a principle here, not about exceptions with inefficient or kleptomaniac governments. Let’s keep the discussion to what the principle behind taxation and national service is.

Using your apple analogy, imagine that the market rate of apples are $1 per apple, and the market rate for 1 day of work is $1. Taxes would be like me paying $1 to the government, and an ideal government would somehow work to give me one apple back (of course in reality it would be less than that, but we’re talking about the ideal here). NS would be like the government forcing me to do one day’s worth of work, but only giving me $0.05, despite the fact that my work is actually really worth $1. It never had the intention of giving me anything close to $1, because the very definition of NS is in its cheap(er than market rate) labor! Where is the fairness in that? I could have spent that time earning myself $1 to buy an apple, but instead I am forced to serve the government and only get back $0.05. Don’t I get more bang for my buck if I simply paid taxes and get my money’s worth for all government services – healthcare, education, and military force? Why should the military be singled out as the only form of government service that should be supplied by cheap, forced labor?

Ultimately, tax dollars should eventually be channelled back to you. But the main aim of national service is to underpay you for your labor.

Furthermore, you failed to consider my last point:
Finally, you are not just sacrificing your time, you are sacrificing your self. You should know better than me that NS is not simply a job. Without voluntarily signing up for it, your actions, schedule, accommodation and who you interact with are now under the control of someone else. The act of bodily sacrifice is not obvious because the current risk of death or injury is low.

Clearly you end up having to give up a lot more in NS compared to paying taxes, and what you are getting back from NS is even less that what you would have been paid working at McDonalds.

24. LCC - May 15, 2011

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