Monday, 12 October 2020

What Singaporeans think about foreigners

Most Singaporeans remain open to foreigners here: Poll by government feedback unit REACH
Those who are jobless are more likely to express unhappiness 
By Tiffany Fumiko Tay, The Sunday Times, 11 Oct 2020

More Singaporeans feel positive about the presence of foreigners here rather than negative, although such sentiments are influenced by one's employment status, a poll by government feedback unit REACH has found.

About half of the more than 2,000 people surveyed said they were neutral about non-citizens in Singapore, while 35 per cent felt positive and just 14 per cent were negative towards them.

Those who were unemployed were more likely to express unhappiness, with 26 per cent saying they felt negative or very negative about foreigners here. Job-related concerns about foreigners were also more pronounced among this group, REACH said in releasing its results yesterday.

The majority of those surveyed, or 63 per cent, agreed that it is important for Singapore to remain open to foreigners, with only 10 per cent disagreeing and 25 per cent neutral. Respondents who were unemployed were more likely to be neutral, at 34 per cent.

The findings were based on a telephone poll of 2,100 randomly selected Singapore citizens aged 15 and above in August.

The issue of foreign professionals in Singapore's workforce has been a hot-button topic, as rising unemployment and uncertainty amid a recession have fuelled debate over discriminatory hiring practices.

Manpower Minister Josephine Teo said in Parliament last month that 400 firms are on a Fair Consideration Framework watch list because they may have engaged in such practices.

These companies have an unusually high share of foreign professionals, managers, executives and technicians compared with the rest in their industry, she noted.

Until they improve, their work-pass applications will be rejected or held back as the Tripartite Alliance for Fair and Progressive Employment Practices helps them hire more Singaporeans, Mrs Teo said.

Respondents in the REACH survey were also presented with an open-ended question on the top three things that bothered them most about foreigners.

Nearly half did not cite any, while 23 per cent mentioned job-related concerns and 16 per cent said they were bothered by the social habits of foreigners, such as talking loudly.

A separate online poll of 1,050 Singaporeans found that the majority felt the country's status as a regional hub is beneficial for job creation. But one in five said it would be better for the Republic to do away with this status in order to reduce the number of foreigners, even if this meant fewer job opportunities for Singaporeans. Respondents who were unemployed were again more likely to indicate this.

REACH chairman Tan Kiat How said in a statement that Singaporeans are understandably anxious over job security and career opportunities during this difficult period.

The Government is committed to helping them keep their jobs or find new ones, said Mr Tan, who is Minister of State in the Prime Minister's Office and for National Development.

"Nevertheless, it is heartening to know that many Singaporeans understand the need for Singapore to remain open to global talent," he said of the survey findings.

A spokesman for REACH said it regularly conducts surveys on topics that may be of interest to the public, and, in this instance, the survey was meant to understand public sentiments towards foreigners during this time of economic uncertainty.

High proportion of neutral responses in poll shows Singaporeans' mixed views on foreigners here: Experts
By Clement Yong and Tiffany Fumiko Tay, The Sunday Times, 11 Oct 2020

A new poll finding that 49 per cent of Singaporeans are neutral about foreigners here suggests that many people here have mixed views on the matter, said observers.

Just 14 per cent of respondents in the telephone poll of 2,100 Singaporeans had negative views about foreigners, while 35 per cent had positive views.

"(The proportion of neutrals) is usually quite small in other surveys I am familiar with," said National University of Singapore sociologist Tan Ern Ser. "It suggests that people are either ambivalent, just unwilling to commit, or basically lukewarm."

The proportion of those unhappy with foreigners creeps up among the unemployed, with 26 per cent of them expressing negative views, compared with 14 per cent of those who are employed.

The poll was carried out amid poorer economic conditions caused by the coronavirus as well as sentiments arising from a general election and parliamentary debates that highlighted potentially discriminatory hiring practices among firms recruiting professionals, managers, executives and technicians.

Associate Professor Tan said the results suggested a significant number of unemployed people feel they have been discriminated against, and that they are in competition with foreigners.

"Singaporeans want to be fairly treated with regard to jobs which they desire and for which they are suitably qualified. I don't think they are anti-foreigner; they are just unhappy about hiring and promotion practices that seem unfair to them."

Institute of Policy Studies (IPS) senior research fellow Mathew Mathews said the big proportion of neutrals suggested people's conflicting feelings.

While most Singaporeans recognise foreigners' importance to the country's economy and society, he said, they may not be overly positive about their presence here during economic downturns.

At the same time, the results suggest that xenophobic online vitriol is not reflective of how the majority of Singaporeans feel.

He said: "It is expected that there will be a small portion of Singaporeans who are really upset about the foreigners' presence here. The reality, though, is that this group is much smaller.

"Even if (most Singaporeans) may not always be happy with immigrants, they accept that, on balance, there is a real need for them here."

Singapore University of Social Sciences associate professor of economics Walter Theseira said there is a natural tendency to be biased against immigrants, and that people who are more biased tend to have more direct interaction with immigrants, especially lower-income, less educated workers.

He said what is more helpful than asking for sentiments about immigrants is to highlight facts, such as the number of them here and the percentage who are unemployed.

"This allows for comparing perceptions of facts with the actual truth... People (also) tend to respect hard work and feel better about migrants if they are reminded migrants do work and have aspirations for their future like everyone else."

Keeping doors open to global talent: Singapore's reputation for being open to talent at risk?
While talent is wanted for 'Team Singapore', foreigners have mixed experiences about the welcome mat
By Justin Ong, The Sunday Times, 11 Oct 2020

When the Singapore Government announced in August another billion-dollar round of subsidies and incentives to promote local hiring, Australian Paul Schmeja was elated.

The 46-year-old, based here on an Employment Pass (EP), is chief executive of a company servicing corporate real estate. He says his aim is to employ a 90 per cent local workforce by tapping customer service talent recently displaced from the tourism and hospitality industries battered by Covid-19.

But a British shipping professional, who wants to be known only as Tom, and has worked in Singapore since 2010, took the news differently. He was disappointed when, later that same month, Minister of State for Manpower and Education Gan Siow Huang told Parliament that employers should give preference to Singaporean job seekers, and where retrenchment was necessary, to "retain the Singaporean over the foreigner".

Not mincing his words, Tom says: "The message the Government is sending to people like me is, it doesn't matter how long you've been here, or how much tax you've paid; when things aren't going well, we're just going to (let you go).

"If I leave, it'll be because Singapore has become a country that's not welcoming anymore."

Speaking in Parliament last month, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong urged caution against giving "the wrong impression that we are now closing up and no longer welcoming foreigners".

Cabinet ministers have followed his lead in recent times, espousing the importance of Singapore remaining open and connected.

Earlier this month, Trade and Industry Minister Chan Chun Sing stressed Singapore's commitment to attracting businesses and talent to join "Team Singapore", and providing a "business-friendly" environment for them to operate in.

A Ministry of Manpower (MOM) spokesman says the Government values the contributions of foreign workers, as they "complement the local workforce in keeping Singapore an attractive host to investors from around the world".

Insight spoke to 15 expatriates based in Singapore to see if they still feel welcome.

Most requested anonymity for fear of hurting their employment chances, jeopardising applications for permanent residency or having their families doxxed.


Faced with a pandemic-induced recession - the country's worst since independence - the Government has moved to preserve what it calls its "Singaporean core", in part by increasing barriers to entry for foreigners to find work here.

These measures, coupled with anti-foreigner rhetoric online, led to Western media outlets Financial Times and Bloomberg concluding earlier this month that the "lure of the dream" expatriate life in Singapore had "faded", and that foreigners were now spending "a lot of time looking over their shoulders".

Tom cites an example that while volunteering as a counsellor, he recently encountered three clients who asked why he was "taking a Singaporean's job" - even though this was a pro bono role.

Others relate what they perceived as recent instances of micro-aggression, such as Grab drivers asking questions on their immigration plans.

But a good number also say that Singaporeans overall have remained friendly.

"I've found Singapore has always embraced expats as a part of the fabric of society," says Mr Schmeja, who is married to a Singaporean.

Still, the expatriates say anti-foreigner sentiment has always been bubbling under the surface in Singapore, and was brought to the fore during Covid-19 - primarily by a case in May of expatriates flouting lockdown rules by drinking and mingling openly at Robertson Quay. They point to the social media outpouring of opinion that followed, with comments zeroing in on the expatriate identities, accusing officials of "double standards" and demanding the violators be kicked out of the country.

Then came the general election in July, and with a downturn looming large, several political parties turned their attention to the faltering economy and pressure on jobs.

A key plank of the opposition Singapore Democratic Party's campaign narrative read: "No to 10 million population - Don't allow more foreigners to come in to compete for our jobs."

In a live televised debate between candidates from four parties contesting the most seats at the polls, Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan said "the only reason we have foreigners here is to give an extra wind in our sails when the opportunity is there... Now we are in a storm, and we need to shed ballast". The next day, Manpower Minister Josephine Teo described foreign workers as serving as a "buffer" in uncertain times. Employers might then opt to shed this group when business conditions worsen.

It was later announced that foreign employment had fallen by 5.7 per cent in the first half of this year, compared with 2.7 per cent for Singaporeans, with 60,000 foreigners losing their jobs in the same period.

In the latter half of the year, amid steadily rising retrenchments and the jobless rate climbing to its highest in over a decade, financial institutions came under scrutiny for their workforce composition, fuelled by online chatter and claims of top management positions being dominated by foreigners.

The Government said in August that non-Singaporeans made up 57 per cent of senior roles in the financial sector. That same month, it put 47 companies on a watch list for possibly pre-selecting foreigners for jobs; raised the qualifying salaries for foreign work passes for the second time this year; and expanded wage subsidy schemes for local workers.

Francis (not his real name), an expatriate running an offshore company in Singapore for eight years, thinks these measures are "crossing the line a bit in terms of interfering in private companies".

"Although - and even though I'm potentially on the receiving end - I respect the fact that Singapore has a hard line, and that they have to look after their own people first," he says. But he adds: "I also think it's more politically motivated than trying to solve problems."

Associate Professor Leong Chan-Hoong of the Singapore University of Social Sciences points out that it is both a matter of political survival as well as social cohesion and not making Singaporeans feel marginalised.

"You can never please everybody, so some groups will feel upset," he notes.

"To them, these policies might naturally give the impression of being unwelcoming, discriminatory and biased. So the question is, what will be the political price?

"Given that these are not your residents, the choice is quite straightforward."


This year, Singapore's total population shrank for the first time in the last decade, mainly due to declining foreign employment numbers in the service sector.

MOM data shows there were nearly 750,000 foreign work-pass holders in Singapore (excluding domestic helpers and low-wage workers in the construction, marine and process sectors) in June, down from almost 800,000 in December last year.

Expatriates recounted to Insight their struggles grappling with retrenchment and trying to either fly home or secure new jobs here. For the latter, several spoke of interviews that went well, only to end with employers openly stating that they would have to "think twice about hiring a foreigner, because of the way things are at the moment".

For Tom, this factor has sat at the back of his mind when going for interviews.

"There's the possibility that (the job) just gets pulled away from you, for no other reason than not being Singaporean," he says.

A South Korean consultant on an EP here, who wants to be known only as Kim, thinks this could make changing jobs a bit more difficult.

Tom warns that the perception of Singapore becoming more isolated and inward-looking has already taken root.

"I know three companies which were looking at shifting to Singapore, then this all started... and they began wondering if they really wanted to go to a country that's going to have so many restrictions in terms of employment," he says.

"They decided to go to Shanghai instead."

But Mr David Kelly, executive director of the British Chamber of Commerce Singapore, says its members remain confident here, with its latest polls showing that almost 80 per cent have no intention of relocating any part of their business.

Says Prof Leong: "The larger picture is that we're in a global recession. And no matter where you go, a tightening of immigration quota is happening, even in traditionally immigrant societies like Canada.

"Given the fact that nobody can give us a very clear idea when the recession could be over, with that uncertainty in mind, it'll be challenging for any political leadership to say that they are having a very open-door policy."

Dr Mathew Mathews from the Institute of Policy Studies at the National University of Singapore notes that the country has always been open to people who can contribute to its development.

"It's important that the public understands that there are policies in place to ensure that expats here are in positions which ultimately can contribute to the overall goal of job creation," he says.


The expatriate running an offshore company, Francis, believes that foreign workers, perhaps more so than others, are well aware of the fact that they have to give back and do something for Singapore.

"It's not all take, take, take for those here - most work hard to contribute," he says.

The father of one adds: "The ones who got here have passed through quite a few hoops in the first place. They've put a lot into their careers their entire lives, and they've got a lot of experience and responsibilities. Many of them are above-average to have even got here."

Even then, being an expatriate is by no means a risk-free endeavour, he notes.

"If an EP is cancelled, we have to be gone in 30 days. We don't have that security," he says.

"We actually got rejected for PR, so I think realistically we can't be here long term, and it makes it difficult when we put our children in schools, or when we plan our careers. We have a little bit of instability which Singaporeans would never have."

Prof Leong suggests a "more humane" way of managing the work-pass process for the Government to consider taking up.

"For example, you can give a slightly longer visa. So after being laid off, instead of the usual two weeks or one month, they can extend to two months or even three months, so that you can help them ease into deciding if they can afford to stay in Singapore as a non-employed non-resident or choose to go back," he says.

A Bangladeshi analyst, who wants to be known only as Manas, says the precarious nature of being an expatriate pales in comparison to the potential concerns he could face back in his home country, which remains one of the poorest in the world.

"In terms of social security and job opportunities, coming from that reality, Singapore is a way better place to try and build your future," says the 25-year-old EP holder. "Even if it's not Singapore, I would still not want to go back to where I came from.

"Maybe I'll look for some other country to settle in, where immigration laws might be a little easier or less competitive."

Other expatriates spoke of a similar need for perspective when it comes to the local-foreigner divide in Singapore.

"Here, when people complain about foreigners, they complain that they cannot get the highly paid jobs they want," says Markus (not his real name), a German professional who has worked in Singapore for eight years.

"In Germany, when people complain about foreigners, they are complaining about crime - there are foreigners who are criminals who steal, rape, rob and deal drugs."

Says Tom: "Singaporeans, in general, don't realise how good they have it here. One train breaks down every 10 months and the world has come to an end as far as Singapore is concerned.

"In London, you would have just described my morning commute.

"(Singaporeans) could find out what's going on in the rest of the world, and don't just focus on what's happening here. Because things that are considered a big deal here - in other countries, it's just life."

Integration into Singapore: 'Takes both Singaporeans and expats to tango'
By Justin Ong, The Sunday Times, 11 Oct 2020

He has lived in Britain, France, Italy, Dubai and Singapore, but only one of these places "feels like home" to 45-year-old Francis (not his real name) every time he touches down at its airport.

"When we land in Changi, it just always feels good to be back. It's true," says the British expatriate who has been based in Singapore since 2012.

His experience appears in sync with Singapore's high rankings across global surveys of the best overall destinations for expats.

After holding first place in HSBC's popular annual Expat Explorer survey for four straight years, Singapore finished just behind Switzerland in the latest 2019 poll, and remains the only Asian location in the top three.

Yet a closer look at the survey's "Living" pillar, with its specific questions on "open and welcoming communities" as well as "ease of settling in", reveals a more modest ranking of 15th across both areas.

Similarly, in a 2019 survey by InterNations - a global network of 1.8 million expats - Singapore comes in at a respectable fourth place among cities. But zoom in on the category of "ease of settling in" and Singapore ranks 11th; for the categories of "friendliness" and "finding friends", it falls outside the top 15.

Conversely, a study by the Institute of Policy Studies and racial harmony advocacy group, which ran from 2018 to last year, found that 67 per cent of over 4,000 Singapore citizens and permanent residents (PRs) polled felt that immigrants were not doing enough to integrate into Singapore.

Since then, Covid-19, a stricken economy, job losses, tightened policies on foreign hiring and xenophobic online chatter have left some expatriates feeling unwelcome in Singapore.

Those Insight spoke to have had varying degrees of local interaction, but all acknowledge that the onus is on them to do more and make a conscious effort to better integrate.

Associate Professor Leong Chan-Hoong of the Singapore University of Social Sciences says that to be successful, integration needs to rise above superficial levels to take on a more intimate, deeper level of understanding between parties.

"It's a two-way street; it takes both to tango," he notes. "So Singaporeans must keep their minds open, but expats, at whatever level, also need to respect local culture."


For Prof Leong, the school system is one approach to better local-foreigner integration.

"Among expats, education is an important component for their kids as well," he observes. "Moving forward, perhaps we can consider to what extent we can allow Singapore's education system to increase intake of foreign students into both 'good' schools and neighbourhood schools."

International students can apply to local schools but there are limited places and Singapore citizens and PRs are prioritised.

"If the (foreign) child is immersed in the local culture or school system, then that will have the effect of cascading to the parents, the family," says Prof Leong.

"And Singaporeans can also have a better appreciation of what these families can bring."

Dr Mathew Mathews from the Institute of Policy Studies at the National University of Singapore also called on businesses that employ expats to do their part.

"They could highlight to their hires that their experience in Singapore could be greatly enhanced if they integrate with Singaporeans not only at the workplace, but also at the neighbourhood and broader societal levels," he says.

"There probably could be more local ground-up initiatives too, which offer opportunities for expats to interact with Singaporeans from a range of backgrounds in meaningful ways."

A Bangladeshi professional in Singapore on an Employment Pass, who wants to be known only as Manas, points out that locals lead very "self-sufficient" lives.

"You already know your people around you, so you don't feel the need to see the foreigner who might be living just next door. So maybe that's something that has to change a little - for locals to reach out," he suggests.

But Manas, 25, also feels that expats keep too much to themselves. "Most of the programmes the Bengali community would do are based on the Bengali Community Singapore and the Singapore Bangladesh Society. These are very country-based, as opposed to something more holistic with more people attending."

Dr Mathews says the foreigners would do well to find ways to connect with "ordinary" Singaporeans, rather than staying in their "expat bubbles".

A spokesman for the Ministry of Culture, Community and Youth notes, though: "These things take time. Foreigners must show some willingness to learn and adapt to local norms. Locals can do their part by being inclusive, patient and reaching out to newcomers."

For engineer "JD", a PR originally from France, sport is the answer.

"I did rock-climbing for more than 10 years, where there were all kinds of nationalities, and right now I'm playing disc golf with people from everywhere too. I would say sport is the easiest way to get to know the local people," says the 37-year-old.

Other expats say that regardless of the medium, the answer lies in properly getting to know the other person, and reaching a stage where preconceived ideas fall away.

"I think expats need to just actually start making friends with Singaporeans," says Tom, a British citizen who has been based in Singapore since 2010.

"Accept that you are in someone else's country, and that you have to adapt, or you will always get anti-foreigner sentiments.

"Don't exclude yourself from local society - if you are going to move somewhere, then actually live there."


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