Sunday 3 June 2012

The Singaporean-foreigner divide

Most welcome foreigners but want slowdown
ST survey shows citizens' main gripes are over-crowding and jobs
By Rachel Chang & Cheryl Ong, The Straits Times, 2 Jun 2012

MORE than eight in 10 Singaporeans feel the country needs foreigners, but mostly to do jobs that Singaporeans do not want to do.

At the same time, fewer than four in 10 believe they are needed here because Singapore has more jobs than workers.

Overwhelmingly, those polled say they accept foreigners being allowed in to work - but at a slower pace.

When asked why locals and foreigners do not get along, almost seven out of 10 ranked 'over-crowding on public transport and common spaces' as a top reason.

These were among the findings of a Straits Times survey to gauge sentiments towards foreigners. The survey of 400 Singapore citizens shows 'a clear majority believe in the need for foreigners', said Dr Leong Chan Hoong, senior research fellow at the Institute of Policy Studies. But the question on many minds is 'how and under what conditions', added the expert on intercultural relations and migration.

In fact, the responses on why Singaporeans have problems getting along with foreigners indicate that their unhappiness stems from their negative impact on jobs and the environment, rather than discomfort with social or cultural differences. Almost 70 per cent of those interviewed by phone last month blame foreigners for causing 'over-crowding on public transport and common spaces'.

The next factor fingered by most is that 'they take away jobs from Singaporeans'. In contrast, factors such as 'they do not speak English' and 'their presence in my neighbourhood makes me feel unsafe' are ranked almost at the bottom.

This shows Singaporeans are fundamentally open to diversity, say experts.

So the anxiety over immigration is about 'the policy, not the people', noted Dr Leong.

The findings also reflect the widespread view that public infrastructure, such as the MRT network, has not grown in tandem with the population over the last half a decade, said Tampines GRC MP Baey Yam Keng.

'People are anxious to see the infrastructure catch up first before letting more foreigners in, which I think is valid,' he said.

Added Ang Mo Kio GRC MP Inderjit Singh: 'It's not that Singaporeans are xenophobic. If we had built infrastructure ahead of the rapid influx, then maybe Singaporeans would not be so upset.'

When asked how foreigners contribute, more saw them 'taking jobs that Singaporeans do not want' rather than complement Singaporeans as 'there are more jobs than workers here'.

Those polled are not as comfortable with foreign presence at other levels of society, although about six in 10 count foreigners among their circle of friends.

The findings show Singaporeans are fundamentally open to diversity, experts said.

Still, experts said it is puzzling that the jobs factor should be so highly ranked, given that unemployment is at a historic low rate of 2 per cent. A plausible reason, said National University of Singapore sociologist Tan Ern Ser, is a manifestation of the 'not in my backyard' syndrome.

Just as some people do not want nursing homes built in their estates, people do not want immigration where the personal impact - in terms of competition for the same set of opportunities - is negative. Singaporeans also see the competition to be unfair on several facets. For one thing, foreigners, especially those from the region, will accept lower wages, and are not beholden to the same obligations like National Service reservist training, said Mr Baey.

About four out of 10 Singaporeans also accuse foreigners of driving up property prices.

Measures have been taken to ramp up the building of new HDB flats and to improve the public transport network with more trains and trips as well as buses. But most experts interviewed felt that the effects had yet to be felt on the ground.

Despite the lingering misgivings, the survey shows the Government's move to curb the inflow of foreigners and policy changes to sharpen the differentiation between locals and foreigners in areas such as housing, education and health-care subsidies, have not gone unnoticed.

When asked if the Government puts Singapore citizens first, about two-thirds said yes.


Foreigners are frenemies?
Rachel Chang and Cheryl Ong unravel the complex relationship between 'us' and 'them' in the Singaporean-foreigner divide.
The Straits Times, 4 Jun 2012

IT BEGAN with a German woman. Until she became his boss, trading consultant Samuel Pang, 40, barely noticed the foreigners working in his industry.

In 2008, he quit his job, driven out by falling performance and morale in the department of his investment bank that the German was brought in to lead as a regional director, he charges.

Today, he still harbours lingering suspicions that foreigners are 'being invited to fill up the jobs we can fill up, leaving us with no chance to climb up the corporate ladder'.

It is a view shared by some other Singaporeans who have their own stories of foreigners edging them out of jobs.

This 'them and us' sentiment is a recurring feature of conversations in Singapore, and the antipathy appears to be growing.

But it is hardly a clear-cut one - Mr Pang, for all his 'German housewife' baggage, has foreign friends and finds them humble and respectful of their adopted home.

This complex relationship with foreigners in the midst of Singaporeans is emblematic of a population that is still coming to terms with the effects of an influx of foreigners in recent years.

In the last decade, a period of rapid growth pulled the population up by a quarter to five million today.

The influx was particularly intense from 2006. Between 2006 and 2010, population growth averaged 3.2 per cent a year, compared to the 1.1 per cent it averaged in the first half of the decade.

Today, foreigners make up 26.8 per cent of the population, compared to 18.7 per cent in 2000 and 10 per cent in 1990. Among the resident population, the number of permanent residents has almost doubled in the last decade, from 287,500 in 2000 to 541,000 in 2010.

These increases catalysed anxieties about jobs, overcrowding and a reliance on cheap foreign labour.

A year ago, the hotly-contested General Election heightened anti-immigration sentiment to the point that one foreigner wrote to The Straits Times Forum page of being in 'an atmosphere of loathing'.

Last month, Insight commissioned a telephone survey of 400 Singaporeans to gauge where things stand when it comes to 'us' and 'them'. What emerged was near unanimity on the country's need for foreigners, and a recognition of their role in the economy.

But how they fit into the Singapore workforce, and on what terms, remained issues of contention.

Resentment lingers over the strain on infrastructure that the population surge has caused. This was the top reason respondents cited when asked about the source of problems between locals and foreigners.

The perception that foreigners are taking away jobs from Singaporeans was the second-highest ranked reason, never mind that the unemployment rate is at a historic low of 2 per cent.

Significantly, it was the fear of economic competition, rather than racism or xenophobia, that seemed to define the resistance to more immigration.

Reasons for objecting to immigration like 'they do not speak English' or that 'they do not observe our social norms' limped behind overcrowding and job anxiety. Not one person among the respondents ranked 'they make me feel unsafe in my neighbourhood' as a top reason.

Some 81 per cent of respondents accepted foreigners living in Singapore and 62 per cent counted them among their friends, with close to half socialising with foreign friends at least once a week.

Experts say that this picture gels with their empirical research. Despite the extremist fringe in some pockets of the Internet, racism or xenophobia does not appear to feature much in this debate, they say.

Dr Lai Ah Eng, a senior research fellow at the Asian Research Institute (ARI), emphasises that there is no history of xenophobia or organised forms of anti-foreign sentiment in Singapore the way there is in homogeneous societies in parts of Europe.

'It's not the people, but the policies,' says Dr Leong Chan Hoong, a senior research fellow at the Institute of Policy Studies. 'The message is not that we do not want foreign talent, but whether we can absorb them, and if Singaporeans will be disadvantaged in the process.'

We are talented too

THE central, and thorniest, issue in the immigration debate is where foreigners fit into the local economic hierarchy.

When asking respondents in what way the Government should keep the doors open, Insight defined foreigners broadly as 'high-end' and 'low-end'. The former refers to the qualified professionals who come in mostly on employment passes (EPs), and to a lesser extent, S-Passes.

The latter are those on work permits - the transient mass of construction workers, cleaners and domestic helpers.

The majority of respondents preferred to keep the door open, but to slow the influx of all foreigners across the board. This reflects a general wariness at the pace of change over the past half-decade, say experts.

The second most preferred option among respondents was to keep the door open to low-end foreigners, but not high-end ones.

This was buttressed by respondents showing the most support, in another question, for foreigners coming in only to take the jobs that locals do not want.

'The majority of Singaporeans are in mid to high-end jobs,' notes National University of Singapore sociologist Tan Ern Ser. 'They benefit from having low-end foreign workers at lower costs, but they face competition from foreigners at the higher end.'

Ang Mo Kio GRC MP Inderjit Singh sees two levels to the discomfort with 'high-end' foreigners.

When it comes to the super-rich elite, locals see their plush lifestyles as beyond their reach: 'You've been working for so long but cannot afford a house, and you read reports of foreigners buying high-end property and so on.'

But, he qualifies, there is general acceptance that Singapore must be open to the Eduardo Saverins and the Piyush Guptas of the world if it is to maintain its international standing. One is a founder of Facebook, the other the head honcho of DBS.

But white-collar professionals resent working with, and for, 'foreign talent' they consider to be not that talented. And the Government's message, that foreign professionals are here to pick up the slack as there are more jobs than workers, does not seem to have won many over.

Asked about foreigners' contributions to Singapore, 60 per cent agreed and strongly agreed that they take up jobs that Singaporeans do not want to do. Only 37 per cent agreed and strongly agreed that they 'are needed here because there are more jobs than workers' - the least supported of five options.

But given that unemployment is at a historic low, what accounts for this perception of intense economic competition?

One reason experts suggest is that Singaporeans see foreigners as having priced them out of options like being a waiter, a salesgirl or call-centre operator. This extends upwards to mid-level professional jobs in engineering, draftsmanship and IT.

Immigrants from other Asian countries can stand lower wages than a Singaporean counterpart, and have no obligations like national service reservist training, notes Tampines GRC MP Baey Yam Keng. So, locals perceive a threat, even if they are gainfully employed themselves.

But some employers deny this picture of things, charging that such arguments are self-serving.

'A lot of people think that employers go for foreigners because they are cheaper,' notes Mr Leonard Tan, managing director of search engine firm Purple Click. 'But actually we pay more for them.

'Their productivity is higher than locals, they are more driven and take work more seriously.'

His bottom line: 'I don't think it's a matter of foreigners taking away locals' jobs, but locals losing them.'

Left out and left behind

BE THAT as it may, there are Singaporeans whose sense of economic besiegement stems not from wage or skills-based competition, but from the belief that, as Dr Lai puts it, 'foreigners hire and promote their own'.

Mr Joshua Yim, chief executive of recruitment firm Achieve Group, recalls once being asked by an Indian boss to find a hire not just from India, but also from the same region in India.

Foreign supervisors who would rather employ candidates from their own countries comprised one-sixth of all complaints that Singapore's fair employment watchdog, the Tripartite Alliance for Fair Employment Practices (Tafep), received last year. It was the second most common type of complaint. The most common, said Tafep, was over job ads by companies saying they want to hire foreigners.

Tafep's response is to seek out those companies which complaints have been filed against, and remind the management that such practices are not acceptable. This has worked, emphasises Whampoa MP Heng Chee How, who is co-chairman of Tafep: 'Everybody has played ball.'

But given the unease over foreigners' perceived advantage over locals, is it time to harden the 'soft touch' approach?

Several immigration experts have called for the Government to seriously examine a further step: Making employers show that they cannot find a Singaporean to fill the job before they turn to foreigners.

Countries like the United States, Australia and Britain have variations of this law. It usually involves the employer proving that after advertising for a position for a certain period of time, there were no eligible local takers. Of course, there are exemptions and different requirements for different sectors.

But the Government's aversion to such labour market intervention is longstanding. It has always maintained that persuasion, rather than legislation, is how it sees fit to deal with employment discrimination. This is out of concern that the ensuing labour market rigidity would actually hurt those the law is trying to help, as employers steer clear of the group completely.

In April, Minister of State for Manpower Tan Chuan-Jin said at a Tafep event that a 2001 study on anti-discrimination laws for the disabled in the US found that they had the effect of raising unemployment among the disabled.

But ARI's Dr Lai disagrees. 'It is time for us to look at local conditions and do local studies so that we are in a better position to consider laws and structures against discrimination in our own context.'

Mr Heng does not think that the evidence of discrimination against locals is conclusive enough to warrant such a move yet. Of complaints that foreigners favour their own, he offers this analogy: 'What is the crime situation? Is it that you have been robbed, or is it that you have heard of people getting robbed and you are repeating hearsay? We must delve deeper when asking these questions.'

Prominent businessmen like Mr Phillip Overmyer, chief executive of the Singapore International Chamber of Commerce, share this view. He insists that there is no glass ceiling for Singaporeans of merit in foreign firms, citing Mr Lee Tzu Yang, who has risen to the position of chairman of Shell Singapore.

Mr Overmyer also argues that making employers prove that they cannot hire a local before they can hire a foreigner will not work in Singapore because of its small domestic market. Unlike in the US or Britain, companies base themselves here not for the local business, but as the centre of their regional operations.

'So I want to hire someone to work in the Singapore office who knows the Chinese market, or the Australian market. They are likely to be Chinese or Australian,' he notes. If MNCs no longer feel able to do this, they will leave Singapore, he cautions.

Institute of Policy Studies' immigration expert Yap Mui Teng acknowledges that such measures will indeed cost employers time and money. But she adds: 'Personally, I think it's the least that employers should do, especially if they are benefiting from all kinds of government subsidies.'

More info needed

EVEN if no new measures are taken, experts say that steps such as being more transparent in the way employment passes are granted - or not - may ameliorate the anxiety on the ground.

Over the past two years, firms that hire low-end work permit holders have been subjected to a prolonged tightening of screws: The levies they must pay for each worker are rising as the quota of foreign workers they are allowed to hire is falling.

These moves have put such pressure on employers of low-end workers that their manpower needs dominated parliamentary debate of the Budget Statement in March. The criteria at the higher end have also become stricter: for example, the income threshold for an EP has been raised from $2,800 to $3,000.

But given that the exact criteria to get an EP to begin with have never been made public, there is much less awareness that foreign professionals are also being curbed, noted observers.

'Last year, there were eight foreigners and two locals vying for one job. Now, there are two foreigners and two locals vying for it. The average Joe will not see the change,' points out NUS sociologist Paulin Straughan.

In fact, the Ministry of Manpower declines to reveal even the distribution of EPs by sector.

Recruitment experts say they are concentrated in the IT, finance and engineering industries.

The oft-made call for more information on EP criteria and the profiles of EP holders has always been countered by the Government with the argument that more information might lead to abuse: People will 'game' the system, tailoring their applications for the maximum chance of success.

IPS' Dr Leong Chan Hoong says this could be addressed with a policy caveat that 'the authority has the right to accept or reject any applicant without an explicit explanation'.

'Anyone with malicious intention can take advantage of the system regardless of whether the policies are spelt out clearly or not,' he argues. 'On the other hand, an opaque system can only undermine and erode public trust and confidence in the institution.'

Easing the strain

DESPITE this all, Insight's survey also finds that the Government's efforts to address the strain of the foreign influx have not gone unnoticed. Asked if the Government puts Singapore citizens first, 65 per cent said yes - a figure, MPs point out, that is higher than the People's Action Party's national vote share of 60.1 per cent in last year's General Election.

Over the past three years, the Government has not just tightened the inflow of foreigners, but also sharpened distinctions between citizens and foreigners when it comes to health-care subsidies, housing privileges and school places.

New flats and public transport networks are being built; last week, National Development Minister Khaw Boon Wan said that public infrastructure provision would improve 'significantly' in four to five years.

Those who profess anti- immigration anxiety say that is all they want: To see the deterioration they have felt in their quality of life reverse, and for things to return to the normal they remember.

'We used to be a country of three million. Now it's twice that. We are a small place,' lamented security officer N. Suman, 54. 'I am a Singapore-born Indian, but nowadays people ask me if I'm from India.'

In the survey, 31 per cent of respondents wanted to close the doors to foreigners, a proportion which observers noted was not insubstantial.

Ang Mo Kio GRC MP Inderjit Singh took this as a sign of a desire for space and time for the nation to catch its breath.

'They are saying we should not add to the pot any more,' he notes. 'Let's stabilise it first, let's make it work. Then we move forward.'


Hostility comes from a small minority
By Cheryl Ong , Rachel Chang, The Straits Times, 4 Jun 2012

HE IS far from home, his job as a cook is tough and the hours long.

So when Singaporeans turn unfriendly, Chinese national Jiang Kang Ning, 42, finds it difficult to swallow.

That happened once when he was lost in the alleys of Geylang. He asked an older Singaporean woman for directions but she snapped at him, saying: 'We're not like you Chinese people. Our streets aren't that complicated!'

Mr Jiang, who has worked here for four years, found her hostility 'unnecessary'.

'I'm not saying that all Singaporeans are nasty but I'm just here to work and earn a living... I work 12-hour shifts, and the pay isn't so much higher than back in Shanghai,' he says.

Indian national Biramaya, a construction site supervisor, has become used to some Singaporeans' discomfort with foreigners, especially large groups of them. He says: 'We can't do anything if they see us on a train or bus and refuse to sit down next to us. There are many other Singaporeans who will not mind sitting with us.'

Foreign workers like Mr Jiang and Mr Biramaya have suffered the fallout from citizens unhappy with government policies that allowed a large inflow of foreigners from 2006 to 2010.

That put a strain on the provision of public housing and transport, and adversely impacted the quality of life.

Now, the Government is tamping down on foreign worker numbers, and some communities have already seen their numbers shrink.

Reverend Shachen Pradhan, a Nepalese pastor, estimates the size of the Nepali community here has shrunk from 12,000 to just 7,000 today. He believes that is due to many not having their work permits renewed, and new applications being rejected.

Although foreign worker numbers are still on the rise overall, the pace of increase has slowed. Work-permit holders, for example, have seen their ranks grow by 4 per cent from 2010 to last year, and 2 per cent from 2009 to 2010. That compares to a high of 15 per cent in 2008.

In contrast, the number of S-Pass holders rose 15 per cent, and that of employment pass holders grew 23 per cent from 2010 to last year.

Though less visible, the bar has also been raised on foreign professionals seeking permanent residency (PR) status. The number of PRs fell from 541,000 in 2010 to 532,000 last year, whereas it rose 6 per cent a year between 2005 and 2009.

Anti-foreigner sentiments have been in the spotlight of late, especially after a Chinese national crashed his Ferrari into a taxi last month. He and two others died.

But university student Zhao Yu Qiao, 25, said he was not aware of any negative feelings towards foreigners like himself until a fellow student from China got into trouble for insulting Singaporeans on Facebook.

'Ever since then, I became interested in the issue. I browsed the Internet to see how Singaporeans felt about us... What I saw was hurtful, but I think these are just a small minority who go around posting their comments. In real life, I have never encountered any negativity,' he says.

Health-food business owner Alicia Maronilla-Seva, 49, a Filipina, believes isolated incidents in which foreigners behaved poorly contributed to ill feelings. 'I think if you treat people nicely and behave yourself in Singapore, Singaporeans will treat you fairly as well,' she says.

Australian Peter Breitkreutz, 45, a senior vice-president at Citibank, thinks the pace of immigration and certain government policies have added to local unhappiness.

'It could be due to the rising cost of resale flats. A lot of people say foreigners are pushing prices up when actually, there are a lot of other underlying causes,' he says.

Mr Sugino Kazuo, secretary-general of the Japanese Association and a PR here, understands why Singaporeans are frustrated by traffic congestion and inflation.

Still, life here is better than elsewhere, he says. He contrasts Singapore's economic vibrancy to the situation in Japan, where restaurant staff often have to tout in a bid to keep business afloat in a shrinking economy.

Mr Kazuo, who uses the word 'we' when speaking about Singapore, says: 'In order to sustain the vibrant economy, I think we have no choice but to take in foreigners. We need some size of population to sustain the economic growth. Otherwise, the economy of Singapore will begin to shrink.'

The racial discrimination South Africa-born Chinese Mark Sing faced in his birth country is worse than any he has observed here. The vice-president of a financial advisory company says: 'I have experienced being discriminated against, and I do not want to see this happen in Singapore. It will not be good for anyone if we discriminate against people because of their race or nationality.'

Mr Zhao, the undergraduate student, hopes newspapers can do more to highlight the good that foreigners do, and not just their misdeeds. He says: 'I've read very few such good news, and I think that's why people don't think very well of foreigners.'

Many foreigners also try to do their part. Chinese national Wang Tong Tong, 25, a cook, found it tough when he first arrived here, but adapted.

'I couldn't understand the accents, and the culture was different from that in China. It's a multicultural country, and it's only natural that I learn a little English to work with my Singaporean colleagues,' he says.

Reacting to the foreign influx
More people are crossing borders to live and work in another country. While they might help plug gaps in their host countries' labour force, their presence in large numbers can also be a strain on public resources and trigger local resentment. Governments have responded in various ways, and some have cut back on rights for foreigners, as The Straits Times' correspondents found.
By Li Xueying, The Straits Times, 2 Jun 2012

BRITISH-BORN Alex Lombardo, 46, has called Kuala Lumpur his home for six years. He has long got the hang of local lingo like 'alamak', mastered fiery sambal belachan and last year, settled down with his Malaysian wife, a freelance writer.

But when the couple went shopping for an apartment, Mr Lombardo, who is also a writer, found that he would have to hew to a new restriction: Like all foreigners, he can buy only more expensive property valued at at least RM500,000 (S$205,000) - up from RM250,000 two years ago.

Wait any longer, and his options could narrow further: The government is mulling over raising the floor to RM1 million.

Mr Lombardo is feeling the effects of the Malaysian government's tightening of entitlements for foreigners, in a move to emphasise that Malaysians come first.

Across the Causeway, something similar is brewing. Over the past year, Singapore has been sharpening the distinctions between citizens, permanent residents (PRs) and non-resident foreigners, in response to growing disgruntlement among Singaporeans over the influx of foreigners.

In recent months, this stance has extended from education (priority will be given to Singaporean pupils enrolling in Primary 1) to entry to tourist attractions (Singaporeans will pay $20 to enter the new Gardens by the Bay; foreigners $28).

Across the world, other governments are taking steps in the same direction.

In Australia, for instance, non-citizens have seen their entitlements, particularly access to health benefits and social security, shrink. From the late 1990s, PRs have had to wait two years before they can claim unemployment benefits. There is also a 10-year wait for disability handouts.

The 'us-versus-them' demarcation in the provision of public services is hardly new; simply put, locals get more, and outsiders get less.

But it now appears to be more pronounced in some places, as governments strive to mollify citizens upset over the increase in foreigners entering their countries to live and work.

Globally, more people are crossing borders - an estimated one in every 35 people at the beginning of the 21st century was an international migrant. At play are two factors: globalisation, propelling labour to follow the flow of capital and goods; and demographics, which has forced countries with ageing labour forces to open their doors to foreigners.

But this also has domestic populaces baulking at the increased strain that public resources are coming under. In Britain, for instance, public housing is open to all, including foreigners. There are no restrictions, so long as they fulfil needs-based criteria such as low income levels, and are legally settled.

But with five million people on the waiting list, the scheme is now under debate, with Mr Frank Field, a senior MP from the opposition Labour Party, preparing to table a Bill that gives priority to citizens.

As Sir Andrew Green, head of non-governmental organisation Migration Watch, argued: 'There is no reason why (foreign nationals) should be entitled to subsidised housing provided by British taxpayers while British citizens spend years in the queue.'

He called for 'a new policy which would ensure that only those who are, or have become, British citizens are considered for social housing'.

Hong Kong has also seen a reversal in a specific area in recent weeks following the election of Chief Executive-elect Leung Chun Ying. Traditionally liberal in extending public services to foreigners, whether PRs or non-PRs, Hong Kong - bowing to public pressure - will next year ban mainland Chinese mothers from giving birth there unless they are married to a local.

Currently, they are entitled to do so, with their babies reaping benefits such as permanent residency, subsidised health care and free education.

This has given rise to what sociologist Hayes Tang of the University of Hong Kong describes as 'the discontent of Hong Kongers that mainlanders enjoy the benefits at the expense of Hong Kong taxpayers'.

'Culturally, the different habits of mainlanders and Hong Kong residents also pose some 'cultural shock' to Hong Kongers, whose public space has been transformed due to the large number of mainland tourists and migrants in Hong Kong,' he adds.

Sometimes, rolling back benefits for foreigners could be a deft sleight of hand by governments striving to strike a balance between economic exigencies and political considerations.

In Australia, for instance, the government of former prime minister John Howard, in power from 1996 to 2007, wanted to welcome more immigrants to bolster the labour force.

But to address the political fallout, Canberra reduced their access to benefits.

Professor Mary Crock, an immigration expert at Sydney University, noting Australians' 'very ambivalent' feelings towards immigrants, says: 'The Howard government was very determined to make sure that (immigrants) came and contributed to society from the get-go, and did not get anything in return.'

On the flip side, the tension appears to be less in countries with far fewer foreigners.

In Japan for instance, where only 1.5 per cent of the 128 million population are foreigners, the latter enjoy privileges similar to the locals. Foreigners can enrol in the national medical insurance scheme and pay only 30 per cent of medical bills, just like the Japanese. They are also allowed to buy property of any sort, even land.

Similarly in Indonesia, there is little resentment towards foreigners living there, because their numbers are so low - less than 0.05 per cent of the 240 million population. There is also widespread recognition that foreigners create employment opportunities at various levels.

The country is thus looking at loosening up its strict rules on foreign ownership of property, in a bid to boost the property sector.

China, which also has minuscule benefits for its 600,000 foreigners, is also mulling over giving them more, as part of overall efforts to attract foreign talent. In April, a Ministry of Human Resources and Social Security spokesman said it will provide 'effective social security to an increasing number of foreigners who stay permanently and enable them to enjoy equal treatment'. He did not give details.

As some countries move towards tightening up rights for foreigners while others bump them up, one impact that governments have to weigh is that mobile foreign talent may shift accordingly.

But Dr Leong Chan Hoong, who studies immigration issues at Singapore's Institute of Policy Studies, notes that there are also other factors that globetrotting workers consider.

For instance, he says, Singapore - despite its moves to put Singaporeans first - remains an attractive place for foreigners to live in because of factors such as public safety, low taxes and a family-friendly environment.

'Hence, sharpening the distinctions between the different residential categories has limited impact,' he believes.

Locals versus foreigners
The Straits Times looks at how host territories differentiate their policies in three areas: housing, education and health care


Population: 62 million people, of whom about seven million are non-British. Of these, two million are permanent residents (PRs) and one million European Union (EU) nationals.

The number of PRs has gone down and is set to reduce further with a new 'temporary PR' status without the right to remain indefinitely. But this may do little to alleviate the squeeze on public resources as the numbers of immigrants from Eastern European states that are part of the EU go up.

Housing policies: Foreigners are entitled to public housing if they are legally settled and fulfil needs-based criteria. They can also buy property including land but bank mortgages are rarely given to non-PRs.

Education policies: No restrictions on publicly funded schools but in private schools, foreigners are usually ineligible for scholarships. University fees for Britons and EU nationals are heavily subsidised but foreigners pay four times more in fees.

Health-care policies: Britons and PRs are entitled to National Health Service treatments, but not foreigners. EU citizens can receive emergency treatment.

Hong Kong

Population: Seven million people, of whom 92 per cent are of Chinese nationality. Only 60.5 per cent of the total population were born in Hong Kong while 32 per cent were born in mainland China, Taiwan and Macau.

There has been recent tension over the number of babies of mainland parents born in Hong Kong. They accounted for 46 per cent of all births last year.

Housing policies: Foreigners can apply for public housing if they have resided in Hong Kong for seven years and fulfil needs-based criteria; there are no restrictions on buying property, but Chief Executive-elect Leung Chun Ying has announced plans to sell land for developments restricted to locals.

Education policies: Government schools are open to all children.

Health-care policies: Resident foreigners, even non-PRs, pay lower fees in public hospitals.


Population: Only 1.5 per cent of its 128 million people are foreigners, mainly from South Korea and China. This proportion has gone up very gradually. The government has relaxed visa rules for high-skilled workers such as researchers while students and trainees fill the need for unskilled labour in services. There are few social issues as numbers are low.

Housing policies: Public housing is available for rental; PRs can apply for it if they are residents in the municipality that manages the public housing of their choice; foreigners can buy all property but banks tend to give loans to only PRs.

Education policies: Foreign children can apply to public schools, where they pay the same fees as Japanese children.

Health-care policies: Foreigners can enrol in the national medical insurance scheme.


Population: 28.3 million people, 8.2 per cent of whom are foreigners. This is up from below 6 per cent in 2000. The rise is in the number of migrant workers including two million illegals. There are about 375,000 PRs.

Some Malaysians resent the presence of migrant workers who compete for jobs and use public medical services.

Housing policies: Foreigners can buy only property valued at at least RM500,000 (S$205,000).

Education policies: Foreigners cannot attend government schools; fees at international schools are steep.

Health-care policies: Foreigners have to pay more at public hospitals, for instance RM160 a day for a bed compared to RM80 for citizens.


Population: With 240 million people, it has just 112,000 foreigners. This number is rising as foreigners see opportunities increasing.

Education and health-care policies: Foreigners can use public services but most prefer private schools and hospitals.

Housing policies: They can own property only through a company, and some apartments directly through 25-year leases. But the government may let them own property directly in special economic zones such as Batam.


Population: 22 million people, of whom one million are temporary visa holders and tourists. Another 200,000 are PRs - a number that has grown.

Education and health-care policies: Policies vary by state. PRs can generally access public schools and health services; the rights of temporary residents vary.

Housing policies: PRs can buy houses, but most temporary entrants cannot. PRs are also eligible for public housing.

Online video company values diversity in multinational workforce
By Cheryl Ong, The Straits Times, 2 Jun 2012

AT ONLINE video company ViKi, the only shared language is in computer programming.

Currently, fewer than half of the employees in the 40-strong company are Singaporeans, even though its head office is based in Singapore, on the second storey of a converted shophouse in Tras Street.

The rest of the employees form a mini-United Nations, representing over a dozen nationalities and varying in their grasp of English.

ViKi has an organised volunteer community that uses its software to subtitle films and TV shows in 170 languages, including English, Korean, Chinese, Spanish and Russian.

While some Singaporeans may rankle at what they might see as an under-representation of their countrymen in the company, ViKi's boss and staff say it adds diversity to a creative-focused environment.

Chief executive Razmig Hovaghimian, 36, is keenly aware of the recent anti-foreigner sentiments, and says the make-up of foreigners and Singaporeans in his company was unintentional.

'At the beginning, we were just a start-up. We opened up our positions to everyone but not many Singaporeans came forward. It could be that the nature of the start-up turned off some who wanted more stability and a higher salary,' says Mr Hovaghimian, who was born in Egypt.

'We consider ourselves 'nationality-agnostic'. We hire whoever is the best.'

Singaporean Nadine Yap, 43, who is vice-president of the product team, says it helps if employees have worked in start-ups similar to those in the San Francisco Bay Area, home to the world's leading tech firms, as they would be familiar with how ViKi functions.

Product manager Fabian Lua, 30, agreed that it is expertise, and not nationality, that factors in the company's hiring process. 'It was only when they were filling out the paperwork for me, after confirming that I was hired, that they found out I was Singaporean,' he says.

'The culture here is very diverse, and I think it's natural that a company that subtitles online programmes in different languages hires people of different nationalities.'

The firm's vice-president of engineering, Hungarian Andras Kristof, 42, who recently became a permanent resident, expects more Singaporeans to sign on as ViKi establishes itself in the industry. 'We're seeing more locals applying, so there will definitely be more of them in the company,' he says.

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