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Saturday, 17 May 2014

Easing up on the foreign talent spiel

The government is taking steps to ‘sharpen’ the differences between Singaporeans and foreign residents.

LAST week I met up with a small group of friends, a few whom I hadn’t seen for a while. We were a mix of Singaporeans and current and past permanent residents (PRs).

One, a PR originally from India, was in the midst of packing up and moving to Europe with her German husband and daughter.

Even though they prefer Singapore’s ­warmer climes, they were leaving because both her husband’s business and her own had not done well in the last couple of years, and they felt that the costs of living had risen so high that it no longer made economic sense for them to live in Singapore.

Another friend, a PR originally from Europe, said that she had in the last year or two felt distinctly less welcome in Singapore than when she first came about a decade ago.

The Singapore government had in the past facilitated the entry of large numbers of ­foreigners because the economic goals they set could not be met by the small indigenous workforce alone.

But in 2011, emotions over jobs, housing and transport (all issues which voters linked to the rapid inflow of outsiders) bubbled to a boil at the ballot box.

Since then, the government has tightened the rules for hiring non-Singaporeans and eased up on the “foreign ­talent” spiel – this was maybe why my friend was now feeling less welcome.

I have always felt that there was a place for newcomers in Singa­pore. I enjoy the cultural diversity and the cosmopolitan buzz that foreigners bring to Singa­pore.

But when my Euro­pean friend said that the hiring rules should not be tightened because “Singapore is where it is today all because of foreigners”, I had to correct her.

Foreigners have made contributions, but they were surely not entirely responsible. And they certainly did not, and do not, choose to live here simply to help the country.

They come to Singapore in search of a better life than the one they would have in their home countries, for the warmer climes and/or the money that could be made here.

Take my friend, a former journalist. Six years ago, after having lived here for more than 10 years, she decided to return home because “the Singapore dollar goes a much longer way in India”. With the money she had earned here, where she could not even buy one property, she could buy two there.

At the core of the host country-guest resident relationship is, quite simply, self-interest. And when the relationship no longer works for either party, they part ways (as in the case of my two Indian friends) with no hard feelings on either side.

Let me state categorically that my European friend is no Anton Casey, the notorious Briton who wrote about his distaste for the “stench of public transport” and “poor people” in Singa­pore.

I suspect she had heard frequently – and over time, internalised – the messages about the all-important role of “foreign talent” from the overzealous rhetoric that the government had used in the past to justify the influx of newcomers.

She lives in a private condominium, travels mostly in taxis, sends her son to a foreign private school, and moves primarily in expatriate social circles and, through her job, with some very rich locals. Her life in Singapore was simply such that she would have heard little of the perspectives of ordinary Singaporean citizens.

These are the perspectives that Linda Lim of the University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business sums up succinctly in Donald Low’s recent book, Hard Choices: Challenging the Singapore Consensus.

Young Singaporeans, Lim observes, “are faced with ever-increasing costs of living, declining quality of life, increasing job competition and a growing perception of discrimination vis-à-vis foreign talent and immigrants”.

She writes that “the over-representation of foreigners or immigrants in the leadership and even middle ranks of many organisations also suggests that a “glass ceiling” exists for the locally-born such that upward career mobility may be more limited than in other, larger countries”.

In the final analysis, if things do not work out for foreigners in Singapore, they can return to their home countries. Most Singa­poreans do not have the option of moving away.

So some measures have to be taken to ensure that the expatriates who come are in fact qualified, and do contribute to our economy and enrich our society.

And that, even as we keep Singapore open and attractive to skilled foreigners, Singa­poreans may also compete for the jobs on a level playing field, have access to affordable housing and transport and not feel discriminated against in their own country.

The adjustments that the government is making to “sharpen” the differences between Singaporeans and foreign residents are probably necessary to correct the policies that were perhaps pursued too far in the past.

Now, it is up to all residents in Singapore, both local and foreign-born, to make their adjustments.

I am writing this because I believe that with a little consideration and willingness on both sides to see the other’s perspectives, we could all, for the most part, live together if not happily, at least not unhappily, in a mutually ­beneficial relationship.

> Peggy Kek is a local-born Singaporean who has worked in Asia, Europe and America in both international and Singaporean organisations. She currently works at a Singaporean institution of higher learning. She tries hard to be an open-minded cosmopolitan and a responsible global citizen by reducing her electricity consumption, reusing plastic bags and recycling newspapers. The views expressed here are entirely her own.

Tags / Keywords: Opinion , Peggy Kek


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