Frankly, I was slightly surprised at the strong reaction of Singaporeans towards Mr Lee Kuan Yew’s comment on the issue of foreign talents: “Foreign talent allows Singaporeans to punch above its weight” (Yahoo Singapore 22 Jul). I just checked today that there were about 1,500 comments on the Yahoo Singapore website and most were anti-foreign talent. The article must have been read by more than 30, 000 Singaporeans.
Singapore has a low unemployment rate of around 1.7% currently but the government has an ambiguous way of recording its’ statistics and there are many gaps that remain unanswered. Transitioning.org continues to receive many emails from readers stating that they are jobless and some were replaced by foreigners.
I remembered working in Central Singapore CDC few years ago and we used to get instructions to delete the database for those who remained on the unemployment list for more than six months – regardless of whether they are working or not. This showed plainly that the unemployment statistics collected is flawed and there are more people unemployed than officially recorded.
This piece of news probably overshadowed the killing of 92 Norwegians which happened about the same time as Mr Lee’s comments. This also reflected the significance of Mr Lee’s views as many have speculated that he still carries much weight even though he has stepped down from the current cabinet. His past policies have left a huge imprint that will be difficult to erase even though he is not seen as active in the current governance anymore.
It is apparent that many Singaporeans are still somewhat affected by the issue of foreign workers as besides the intense competition they pose at the job front, their presence is also acutely felt on our clogged transport services and the sky-high resale HDB flats as permanent residents can buy our flats now. Many MRT trains are now largely filled by foreigners as local Singaporeans prefer to buy their own cars – more to escape from the foreign invasion on our MRT trains than anything else.
Even if you are a civil servant – largely unaffected by foreigner staffing, you can still feel their presence as you have to move around the island state and chances are you will bump into them even if you drive as I heard that many foreigners now also drive. Some of the salaries of our foreign workers bordered on the ridiculous – their starting salaries can be about $5000 and this does not include housing allowances!
More significantly, most Singaporeans also felt “sold out” as foreigners began to invade our transport system, homes, jobs, shopping malls, play ground, nurseries, schools and hospitals. This is a dangerous phenomenon which the government is trying to balance as it is apparent that there is still very little integration between the locals and foreigners. Many foreigners I saw tend to stick with their own kind even though this is unadvisable.
There is also the belief that foreigners bring with them more crimes as our island state is suddenly besieged with extremely horrible murders such as the infamous watertank murder of a foreign maid. Bodies were found all over the island and most of them belonged to foreigners.
At the local job front, many Singaporeans also feel that more can be done to protect the welfare of our own local workers first before inviting foreigners to our shore. The fact that some of the jobs performed by foreigners can be done by local workers also irked many as it means there is no level playing ground when it comes to hiring competition.
Using the Employment Pass (EP), employers can now hire 100% foreigner workers without any consideration for the welfare of local workers. Some readers have wrote in stating that they are the minority workers in their companies. Companies such as Land Transport Authority. Hans Cafe, Singapore Computer Services, Dutsche bank, Barclays Capital among others are largely staffed with foreign workers – especially in the IT department. Many hiring managers are also foreigners and they tend to bring their own kind to the workforce.
I recently visited a Hans cafe at Tampines and was saddened to see that it is 100% staffed by foreigners – jobs that many Singaporeans can perform as well if not better. Employers apparently prefer to hire cheaper, younger and faster foreign staff over our older Singaporeans – at the same cost and why not? Given a choice, no sane employer will not capitalise on such employment ease to save cost and improve productivity. The government has enabled employers to hire foreigners so easily that our local workers felt displaced and left out.
Employers have also all along cried out that there are not enough Singaporean workers answering to their advertisement for workers. A check with the advertisement reveals that the pay is not only inadequate but the working hours are tortuous. This is probably why 70% of the jobs at our two integrated resorts are filled by foreigners.
A 62-year-old friend took up work as a service crew at the casino in Sentosa two years ago and his pay is a paltry $1100 a month. He was fortunately only required to work two shfits due to his age – most of his younger foreign colleagues has to work three shifts.
The term “foreign talents” also remain murky as if the work carried out by the foreigners can also be performed by local workers how then can they be called “foreign talents”? Many foreigners took over our jobs as customer service officers, waiters, administrators, clerks among others – jobs that do not really require much talent at all.
To Mr Lee Kuan Yew, all that matters is economics and I believe that Mr Lee Hsein Loong also has that bearing when it comes to the issue of foreign workers. The financial industry has hired tens of thousands of workers and their income I heard is no peanuts: most are paid at $5, 000 or more excluding housing allowances!
Yet ironically, cost remains one of the main consideration when companies consider hiring foreigners and the need to implement minimum wage must be seen as a crucial protective cushion for our local workers. Without minimum wage, employers can hire foreigners using the low salary platform to deter our local workers from stepping out to apply for many service jobs available now. Foreign workers from many poor third world countries will flock to our island state even if the salary is as low as $800 a month with only two off days and a 12-hour work day. It is still better than slaving away in their own countries where the pay is only less than $200 a month.
In Sydney where I stayed for 2 years, it is really difficult to hire foreigners as they need to produce evidence of interviews and they can be hired only if the company has tried for 6 months to hire local Australians. The company also has to post a bond on the foreigner worker when the work permit is processed. Little wonder that there are fewer foreigners in Australia these days as the government is trying to curb its influx due to rising unpopularity at having too many foreigners at their shore. In fact, the Howard government lost the election due to its’ foreigner-friendly immigration policy.
Mr Lee has been a noted advocate of the foreign talent policy due mainly to economic reason. Most Singaporeans will know that he was the one who preferred that our optimal population should be six million.
Yet there are many Singaporeans who realise that there is a main hidden agenda for having more foreigners in our midst. As many as 150, 000 foreigners became naturalised citizens during the past 5-6 years and they are eligible voters – these new voters will mostly vote for the ruling party out of gratitude.
I remembered my NSP colleague Steve Chia informing me that foreigners make up 30% of the voters at Pioneer SMC during the recent election. I trusted him as I joined in his campaigning for three days. We came across many flat owners who were Filipino, Indian, Chinese, Thai and Mymarese among others.
I realised that Steve has a tough chance of winning Pioneer SMC as most foreigners who became citizens will not vote for him. It is natural for them to vote for the one who provided them the golden chance of a life time at turning their lives around.
More worrying, the government seems to have lost its economic bearing as it continues to depend on the growing service sector to strengthen its GDP. As many as 70% of last year’s 170, 000 jobs created belonged to the service sector - a sector that depends on cheap manpower. Foreign investors continue to flock to the island state and start all kinds of businesses and their main attraction is the availability of cheap labour. We all know too well that cheap labour means foreign workers and the economic growth does not seem to have benefit the local workforce at all.
Our local workers continue to struggle with low wages as more than 350, 000 workers aged above 40 years old earn less than $1500 and below a month. More than 400, 000 Singaporeans workers applied for workfare last year – a state-funded welfare incentive scheme that supplements the wages of low-waged local workers to the tune of $2,800 a year. Applicants must earn $1,700 and below and must be above 35 years old. However, as much as 70% of the workfare money comes in the form of CPF contribution and thus it does not really provide any financial relief to our cash-strapped workers.
There are also many political analysts who observed that the issue of foreign talents could polarise the society further and many Singaporeans will continue to leave the country by the tens of thousands yearly. Many also commented that the influx of foreigners may cause the government to be toppled by the next election or that their majority votes will drop to below 60%.
As Singapore grabbles with another five years of PAP governance, my heart goes out to the many thousands of Singaporeans who are unemployed right now. Do email me at firstname.lastname@example.org if you need our counselling or coaching services.
We are here for you – even though our own government does not.
Written by: Gilbert Goh