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Sunday, February 1, 2015
- The crash of a million-dollar Ferrari driven at high speed by a wealthy Chinese expatriate in the early hours of a weekend morning earlier this month has reignited the stormy immigration debate here, highlighting many Singaporeans’ resentment towards foreigners living and working in this small island nation.
The deadly accident opened an old wound. The spate of online comments and media reports expressing anger towards Chinese residents was so extreme it prompted the Chinese embassy, in a rare move, to issue a letter – subsequently released to the Straits Times – urging its citizens in Singapore to be conscious of their conduct and abide by local laws.
In February, Forbes Magazine ranked Singapore the third richest country in the world with a per capita income of 56,700 dollars. This affluent island republic, covering just 640 square kilometres, is home to four million inhabitants, of which about 25 percent are foreign workers.
As a result, immigration has become a hot topic in Singapore, with increasing coverage in the local media since last year’s election, where the ruling People’s Action Party (PAP) saw its share of the vote drop to its lowest level since independence, largely due to local opposition to the government’s liberal immigration policies.
“Central to the feeling of antipathy (towards foreigners) has been the issue of fairness (towards locals),” said former minister of parliament Viswa Sadasivan.
Local journalist Jaya Prakash argued that the number of foreigners in Singapore has reached an “unacceptable” level. He believes that the government is biased towards foreigners, allowing them to sweep up jobs that should be given to locals and fill places in schools meant for Singaporeans.
As a result, he said, the latter are forced to accept lower pay, for less desirable work, which ultimately results in a lower quality of life for many locals.
In an interview with IPS Sadasivan explained that the two most incendiary issues surrounding immigration are education and military service.
While all young Singaporean men past the age of 17 are required to spend two and a half years in the armed forces, foreign nationals are only obliged to send their sons, while the principal immigration applicant is exempt from compulsory military service.
Meanwhile, a growing number of Chinese and Indian nationals are being admitted to Singaporean universities while many eligible Singaporean students are denied access to higher learning institutions, a situation that has fueled widespread discontent.“Singaporeans feel shortchanged,” Sadasivan noted, adding, “In many other countries such issues could become emotionally charged enough to topple governments.”
Tang Li, principal consultant of Tang-Asia Consultancy, argues that the root cause of ‘anti-foreigner’ sentiment can be traced back to 2004, when the government opened its doors to immigrants before putting in place the necessary infrastructure to efficiently handle the situation.
“Suddenly you had people competing for the same spaces in buses and trains, for housing and places in schools. When things started to get more crowded and less comfortable, frustrations turned onto the most visible target – the new arrivals,” he told IPS.
The number of foreigners surged after the government relaxed immigration rules in 2004, allowing thousands of people, mainly from places like China, India and the Philippines, to work in professional jobs while over 250,000 workers from other Asian countries entered ‘unskilled’ labour markets such as construction and domestic work.
Prakash pointed out that much of the local resentment stems from the S-pass scheme, a government programme that allows foreign diploma and degree holders to work jobs that pay a fixed monthly salary of at least 1,800 Singapore dollars (about 1,450 U.S. dollars). The minimum salary for a local graduate is usually 1,900 U.S. dollars a month.
The Tripartite Alliance for Fair Employment Practices, a labour watchdog, said in its annual report released last month that complaints about employers preferring foreigners over locals have, for the first time, topped Singaporeans’ list of grievances over unfair employment practices.
Singapore has a multiracial community that includes Chinese, Indians and Malays that have lived here for generations.
Sadasivan, who is an outspoken advocate of multiculturalism, said about the prevailing tension in the country, “Essentially what we are witnessing is a cumulative response to a pent up emotion of citizens feeling that their rights have not matched responsibilities; that their government has ignored their reasonable appeal for (a more) paced inflow of foreigners.”