Saturday, May 14, 2011

Get Them Working For Us

A friend of mine who has lived in Singapore for the last two decades has just left a posting on his Facebook wall expressing his frustration with the sudden burst in hostility towards foreigners in Singapore. This friend of mine is British. He has lived in Singapore for the past two decades and runs a niche PR practice that produces a decent amount revenue for the government.

It's always interesting to see how different people feel about different topics. In the last few months leading up to the General Election, the key buzz topic in cyberspace has been about how foreigners are overrunning Singapore and stealing jobs and sexual partners and driving up the prices of property.

As a local Singaporean who has lived overseas for quite a few years, I sometimes appear to get involved in "foreigner" bashing. I get frustrated living in a society where I am expected to comply with certain social norms and being Yellow Skinned in Singapore means you're supposed to accept "Pink Blotchy Faces" as the superior guide from elsewhere. I don't see why I should. At the end of the day, the Pink Blotchy Faces are as human as the rest of us. When I lived in the UK, I had to accept that being a minority in someone elses country meant following certain rules. Now that I'm back in Singapore, I have to be an obliging and indulgent host to people who were at best indifferent.

Having said what I've just said, I have friends who are Caucasian and as a friend of mine pointed out, you can't blame the White expatriates who come to Asia. Let's put it crudely, would you rather be in a place where you're an average Joe or would you be in a place where people worship the ground you walk on? As one Liverpudlian said,"I don't have a lot going for me, so if my pink blotchy face works in my favour, why shouldn't I use it." He's right!

My issue with race in Singapore is with the way Singaporeans, particularly Middle Class Graduate Chinese behave towards race. One of worst traits I've seen within this group is the automatic tendency to treat people of darker complexion on a level closer to dirt. I get agitated listening to the way Singaporeans talk about their maids and the way they complain about people from India, China, Vietnam and so on. These people will happily kick their maid in public and the moment a Pink Blotchy Face arrives on the scene, they're all smiles and sweetness.

This attitude is part of official policy. I actually met a White South African who was working a dental technician, who had his work permit turned down. When he showed up at immigration and they saw he was White - he was granted the permit instantly. Let's face it, being dark in Singapore is tough. Although official policy says it isn't - the people who make official policy function do have issues with dark skinned people and the way policy is carried out is quite different from the way it is thought out.

However, as my friend's Facebook posting has shown, it's not easy to be White, either. Despite living here for twenty-years, once in a while he gets told to "piss off back to...." This is not fair to a man who has stayed and contributed as an entrepreneur rather than as a digit in a multinational. So, I have to ask myself, what is it about foreigners of all colours that gets us "The Locals" so worked up.

On the most basic level, anyone who isn't born and bred here is competition for jobs, houses and general living space. Singapore's infrastructure was built to accommodate so many people and having so many more people puts a strain on things. As someone pointed out to me,"Your not buying a house so you don't feel the strain of competition." If you look at things from one perspective - that's true. Foreigners with cash drive property prices up. These days its not just expatriates from the West that we have to contend with but also from places like India.

The foreigners do have an advantage when it comes to jobs. At the lower end of the market, they're usually cheaper and willing to work longer hours. At the higher end of the market.....they actually have a skill or two that we the locals do not have. Furthermore, unlike the local men, they don't come with things like "reservist" liability. It's no surprise which group the employers go for. It's also no surprise that the locals get rather cheesed off - "Damn It, why do I have to serve the military to protect the foreigners right to take the job meant for me" is the basic feeling.

As much I can sympathise, I don't think the solution is to "kick out" or "limit" foreigners. Like it or not, it is a fact that Singapore has a limited supply of talent. Like it or not, we are in many ways constantly short of cash. The foreigners do provide the necessary short fall for both these items.

We have to accept that Singapore does not have the resources to tell the world to get stuffed. We are a trading port and we prospered by being open to the world. If Singapore adopts isolationist policies, the rest of the world can do the same to us and it is a challenge we simply cannot win.

I do agree that citizenship should have some perks but these perks should be like what goes on elsewhere - that is in the area of certain government subsidies. You can't expect the Singaporean tax payer to subsidise every old and sick person who comes to our shores. You cannot expect the Singaporean tax payer to provide free education to the rest of world. We don't get it when we study elsewhere (As much as my father might have wanted it) and we shouldn't expect it either.

However, let's not begrudge the foreigners who come here and work. They pay taxes (GST is also paid by maids and construction workers) and they don't use public funds. The people at both ends of the market do in someway or another end up contributing to the economic well being of the nation.

So, the answer here is not to kick out or place quotas on foreigners. The actual answer lies in making sure that Singaporeans are able to compete with the foreigners in a fair competition.

Let's start with the obvious place - skills. It has long been argued that we need "foreign talent" to make up for the lack of skills in the market. While I can see the validity of this argument, I have to ask myself why Singaporeans entering the job market don't have the skills that are needed to keep the economy ticking. Something has to be done with the education system to ensure that the local graduates in todays economy have the necessary skills to get involved in its basic functioning. This takes time to do and while you can use foreigners with the right talents, the long term sustainability of any economy is to make sure that your locals have what it takes.

Secondly, we need to examine our attitude towards competition. Yes, competition does make life harder but it also makes life better. Nobody can disagree that having Filipinos manning the call centres ensures that we get better service.

Which leads to the point of perspective. Are foreigners are threat or are they an opportunity? Generally speaking, Singaporeans are trained to be employees for big multinational firms. We're still stuck in the mindset that the economy only ticks when you have big factories employing people in the thousands. Jobs are considered a com oddity - there are x number of factories and each factory has y number of jobs. When you think like this, every extra person is a threat to you - they are competition for scarce jobs.

However, if you shift your mindset and look at a healthy economy as being a collection of small enterprises consisting of one or two people trying to sell this and that - things become rather different. When you "own the job" you tend to look at every person as a customer rather than as a competitor.

The bars at Clerk Quay have done well out of the high end of the market. However, small businesses have also done well out of the lower end of the market. I think of people who rent rooms to foreign students. I think of the companies that make phone cards to provide foreign workers with cheap phone calls back home. Look at the market in second hand phones and accessories that has popped up in places like Geylang and Serangoon. These enterprises may not grab headlines but they keep people busy and provide them with a living.

The government should look at things like lifting restrictions of sub-letting of flats and encourage people to get involved in home based businesses. The influx of foreigners means that there is market of sorts for people with certain needs that need to be filled.

Seriously, protectionist policies have been proven to be a miserable failure. Let's not go down that road and focus on how we can create opportunities for ourselves out of the foreigners who come into the country. Rather than complain they are exploiting us - find a way to get them to work for us.

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