Sunday, October 12, 2008

The 'Them and us' divide

Oct 12, 2008

Singapore is a cosmopolitan, multi-ethnic city built by immigrants, so why do people here display intolerance and snobbery towards foreigners?
By Tan Dawn Wei
Singaporeans have long been uneasy bedfellows with the foreigners in their midst.

Whether it is study mamas, service staff, maids, construction workers or expatriate professionals, Singaporeans' feelings towards them have generally been a mishmash of uneasiness, distrust, disdain and envy.

This 'them and us' divide has become especially apparent when you look at what has been happening lately: First, when China-born paddlers brought home Singapore's first Olympic medal in 48 years.

Some griped that the win wasn't on Singapore's own merits because the athletes were imported sports talent.

Then, when the Government announced that 600 foreign workers would become neighbours with the middle-class residents of Serangoon Gardens, some 1,600 residents signed a petition protesting the siting of a workers' dormitory at their doorsteps.

Maid abuse, too, has periodically made the news.

After the country started importing foreign labour and luring new citizens in great numbers, unflattering stereotypes of the newcomers have been cast.

Young Chinese females: husband-snatchers.

Manual labourers: potential criminals.

Middle-management expats: second-rate workers who can't cut it back home.

At the other end of the spectrum are your top management expats who head banks, information technology firms and other global companies whom this country would love to have for their money, status and impeccable tastes.

But in a Sunday Times poll last year, six in 10 Singaporeans felt that foreigners in top corporate positions are paid too much.

Why is a cosmopolitan, global city and multi-ethnic country built by immigrants, and which prides itself on five decades of picture-perfect racial harmony, displaying such intolerance and snobbery?

'They're just not comfortable with what they're not familiar with. Sometimes, it comes to the fore in conditions of stress,' said Mr John Gee, president of advocacy group Transient Workers Count Too (TWC2).

When people encounter others unlike themselves, especially in 'competitive contexts' like jobs, resources, space and attention of spouse, discrimination is likely to surface, said Associate Professor Tan Ern Ser, a sociologist at the National University of Singapore.

And so, 'they're taking away our jobs', 'they're driving up our property prices' and 'they're money-grubbers out to seduce our husbands' have become common refrain.

'They have no shame,' said housewife S.L. Lim, 60, of China women whom she sees openly soliciting outside massage parlours in Chinatown. 'And we Chinese are supposed to believe in modesty.'

Moral arguments aside, a sense of intrusion is primarily what drives people to turn resentful - especially when their livelihoods are at stake and their lifestyles compromised.

It is one thing to turn Lucky Plaza, Golden Mile Complex or Serangoon Road into ethnic enclaves on weekends, but another when people feel their own backyards have been invaded.

Residents in Buffalo and Chander roads near Serangoon Road have put up steel barricades around their blocks to keep out foreign workers.

Last year, things turned nasty at a Jurong West HDB block when foreign workers were accused of getting drunk at the void deck and peeing in public.

Incensed residents retaliated by hurling pee bombs - packets of urine - at the workers; blows were even exchanged.

Last month saw the residents of Serangoon Gardens signing a petition to protest against the Government's plan to site a workers' dormitory in their midst.

Reasons for their objection are fears that the workers would commit crime in the area, seduce their maids and dampen property prices there.

The authorities relented a little by relocating the entrance to the dormitory to another street that will be built-to-order and away from the Serangoon Gardens estate, and giving the dormitory space to male and female workers from the manufacturing and service industries rather than the construction sector.

Mr Jolovan Wham, executive director of migrant worker charity, Humanitarian Organisation for Migration Economics, believes the Serangoon Gardens saga is as much a class issue as it is a racial one.

'As Singaporeans, we are socialised to view race and ethnicity as taboo. But this does not mean that race is not a factor. It's just that racist sentiments do not become so publicly expressed,' he said.

The fact that the Government is giving the dormitory to mostly Malaysian and Chinese workers now is perhaps a quiet acknowledgement of the veiled racism that exists.

Such hostilities aren't going to disappear as long as Singapore continues to rely on foreign workers and welcome new immigrants.

With a surge in the number of foreigners living and working here now, the pressure to compete with them, and yet accept them, has increased.

In June, Singapore's population shot up by a record 5.5 per cent to 4.84 million - the biggest annual spike since such data was collected beginning in 1871 - thanks to foreigners.

Their numbers grew by 19 per cent to 1.2 million, based on statistics by the National Population Secretariat.

There are now 757,000 work permit holders, 143,000 on employment passes and 85,000 foreign students.

Study mamas - who can apply for a long-term visit pass to look after their children who are studying in Singapore - number about 6,500, said the Immigration and Checkpoints Authority, with the majority coming from China.

The number of citizens and permanent residents (PRs) is also set to hit a new record this year. In the first half of the year, there were 34,800 new PRs and 9,600 new citizens.

Dr Terence Chong, a sociologist at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, believes Singaporeans tend to treat foreign workers - those on work permits - with unease and fear, while foreign talent - those on employment passes - are viewed with resentment and envy.

'Singaporeans intuitively understand that we need foreign workers to do the jobs Singaporeans no longer want to do, and yet there is a desire to erase them from our landscape,' he said.

'We're okay when they are working, but we do not want to see them having fun or at leisure because they are expendable economic units.'

As for foreign talent, there seems to be a lingering sentiment that many are doing jobs that Singaporeans can do, said Dr Chong.

'This sentiment becomes tinged with neo-colonial politics if these foreign talent are Caucasians,' he said.

But the tensions with foreigners are principally not racial in nature. It is the local Chinese who do not like the Chinese study mamas, and the local Indians who resent the foreign Indian professionals who cluster in exclusive enclaves such as the Meyer Road area.

The irony is that foreigners generally say they like Singaporeans. Migrant welfare groups say foreign workers and domestic helpers do not often complain about being discriminated.

'If they have bad experiences, they will blame those that got them into their predicament, rather than say all Singaporeans are bad,' said Mr Wham.

Welder R. Jeyavel, 27, who came here from Tamil Nadu a year ago, has only good things to say about his host country.

'It's nice here, the work is good and I'm earning good money,' he said in halting English, which he picked up after arriving here.

Madam Cynthia Phua, an MP for Aljunied GRC, said residents in her ward specifically ask for Bangladeshi workers to clean their corridors because they are hard-working, while Singaporeans are seen as 'lazy'.

They shun China women too, because they think they might make a move on their husbands.

'You do see some China women in coffee shops sitting among old men. There are cases for them to see. Not all are like that, but people form an opinion when they read newspaper reports and see this,' she said, referring to unfavourable reports in the press about China women working in the sex trade.

'But when they get to know them, they will have no objections.'

Whatever it is, such class, cultural or economic prejudices could get worse with the financial crisis and impending rising unemployment.

Migrant workers' welfare in such shaky times is a big worry for welfare groups like TWC2, because 'it's very easy to project fears onto foreigners to see them as the cause of the problem', said Mr Gee.

He expects the lower-paid foreign workers to be hit - there will be an increased number of cases of default on payment and workers being sent home, given that the construction industry will slow down.

Domestic workers, too, may be asked to pack their bags when families want to tighten their belts.

To be fair, such anti-immigrant sentiments aren't solely a Singaporean complex.

Throughout history, ethnic tensions have surfaced in countries that have experienced an influx of immigrants, and those from poorer countries have typically filled up jobs on the lower end such as working as cleaners, factory operators and construction workers.

Most will remember the 1992 Los Angeles riots when stores owned by Koreans and other Asian immigrants were targeted.

Or a certain Ms Pauline Hanson, who, in her maiden speech to the House of Representatives after being elected in 1996, said Australia 'was in danger of being swamped by Asians'.

Reported cases of hate crimes against foreigners here are rare, even though the police have no such statistics.

How then, to tackle this problem of the 'them and us' divide?

Dr Chong believes Singaporeans are lodged in a Catch-22 situation.

'On the one hand, we need some sense of exclusive identity if we want to foster national identity, and on the other hand, we are told we need to embrace foreigners and hope the right ones become citizens,' he said.

This conflict is a result of Singapore's unique status as both a nation-state and a global city.

'We're fated to live with such conflicting impulses.'

Perhaps the logical thing to do is to see 'them' as 'us'.

After all, as Mr Gee put it: 'Many aspirations they have are pretty much aspirations that Singaporeans hold too - they all just want a better life for themselves and their families.'

Scholarship holders

While the Government happily hands out scholarships to talented foreigners in the hope that they will take up citizenship, some people have seen red, accusing these academically brilliant foreigners of taking away their opportunities, setting the bar too high and adding pressure to already stressed-out Singaporean students.

Foreign workers

They take on jobs that Singaporeans don't want, yet these labourers - who work mostly in construction and at shipyards - have borne the brunt of some deep-seated prejudice.

Migrant welfare groups say South Asians are the main targets.

Singaporeans say some of these workers have unsavoury habits, like littering, getting drunk and rowdy at HDB void decks, and peeing in public.


With 180,000 foreign domestic helpers from Indonesia, the Philippines, Myanmar, Sri Lanka and other regional countries working in Singapore households, employers and employees have had to cope with cultural differences at home, some of which have led to reports of maid abuse.

Some employers, too, have had to deal with errant maids.

Service staff from China

China workers at foodcourts, hawker centres, malls, supermarkets and petrol stations came under fire last year when at least four readers wrote to the Forum page of The Straits Times complaining of their inability to speak English.

But a Sunday Times poll of 50 people showed that more than half of them believe that foreign front-line staff provide equal, if not better, service than their Singaporean counterparts.

Expatriate professionals

In a poll of 448 Singaporeans by The Sunday Times last year, nine in 10 feared foreign talent would take away their jobs, while almost two-thirds believed that foreign talent enjoy all the privileges of living here, but none of the responsibilities.

Nearly half also believed that the Government cares more about foreign talent than Singaporeans while six in 10 felt that foreigners in top corporate positions are paid too much.

Foreign-born athletes

The table tennis trio of Li Jiawei, Wang Yuegu and Feng Tianwei - former Chinese nationals, now Singaporeans - broke this country's dry Olympic medal spell of 48 years with a team silver in August. But not everyone appreciated their efforts - Singapore didn't really win at the Olympics since all three paddlers were China-born, they said.

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