#SG50: Foreign workers less welcome in Singapore?

SINGAPORE – Dining in Singapore could be disorienting for a Filipino visitor. There is the familiar friendly smile from the manager checking the reservation. The chatty waitress describes dishes with gusto. With all the Filipinos in the room, it sure feels like home. 

Filipinos are a major force in the city-state's services sector. Along with Filipino engineers, nurses, lawyers and more, they contribute to the vibrant economy that made Singapore the world's second most competitive city. Yet it has become increasingly difficult for foreign workers like them to land a job. 

“You have to fight for it and justify it, especially if it's a Filipino,” said Karla Mendoza, the Filipino executive chef of Mario Batali's Pizzeria Mozza at the iconic Marina Bay Sands. 

“We go through the application, and when it gets denied, the HR will advise us to make the salary a bit higher so that the Singapore government would give you a pass. It wants to keep the jobs for the Singaporeans to be able to compete.” 

The restraints are a response to Singaporeans' strong opposition to an open door immigration policy. Since the 2011 elections where the ruling People's Action Party lost the most seats since independence, the government cut foreign worker quotas even while admitting that it needs so-called foreign talents to support one of the world's fastest aging populations. (READ: Fewer jobs for Pinoys, foreigners in Singapore)

A socio-political, economic and even an emotional topic, immigration is a key issue in the future of Asia's little red dot. In its first 50 years, the immigrant country built a multicultural society and a global economy. Will it now be less welcoming of the world's minds and hands? 

'Don't take away our rice bowls'

“Singapore for Singaporeans” was the angry cry of 4,000 protesters in 2013. Rare for a docile citizenry, the rally was directed at a government white paper projecting the population to grow from the current 5.5 million to 6.9 million by 2030, with immigrants accounting for nearly half of the figure. 

There are now 1.35 million foreign workers in Singapore, including 157,000 Filipinos. They have been the subject of hate blogs, and vicious comments on Internet forums. 

Filipinos also cancelled an Independence Day celebration in 2014 because of an online campaign against holding it on the famous shopping strip Orchard Road. (READ: Anti-Filipino protest rekindles anger vs foreigners in Singapore)

Kenneth Paul Tan, vice dean at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, told Rappler that the sentiment against foreign workers began emerging only 10 years ago when the government liberalized its immigration policy. Since then, concerns about congestion and property prices often come up as Singapore tops the list of the most expensive cities. 

“All of a sudden, Singaporeans were feeling in a very palpable way that Singapore is not their own country anymore. It's not the familiar place they are used to. They walk around the streets, and they hear languages that they do not speak or are not used to hearing. Singapore felt like a country being taken away from them. It's a very recent feeling you're seeing,” Tan said. 

Aggravating the feeling is competition in the workplace. Filipino workers, for instance, no longer just consist of domestic workers but are now mostly professionals, managers, executives and technicians. 

Singaporean journalist Clement Mesenas, who founded the magazine OFW Pinoy Star, said that many employers prefer to hire foreign workers because they demand less income. In contrast, Singaporeans reject lower salaries because of housing mortgages to pay, along with car loans, children's education, and supporting elderly parents. 

“There have been tensions with Singaporeans who felt their jobs have been threatened. Some Singaporeans reacted and said, 'Don't come here and take away our rice bowls,'” said Mesenas, whose grandfather and wife are Filipinos. 

There is also talk among Singaporeans that Filipinos who become managers end up hiring fellow Filipinos and relatives. The same perception goes for Indians, who like Filipinos, become leaders in the IT sector. 

Mozza's Mendoza though said that having a restaurant staff that is 85% Filipinos is not intentional. 

“Sometimes out of 10 applications, there's maybe one Singaporean or Malaysian for every 10 Filipinos. I don't know if it's a function of there being 100 million Filipinos but we look for the desire to be exposed to this kind of global quality of service.” 

COMPLEX ISSUE. Singaporean journalist Clement Mesenas, who has Filipino roots, says the sentiment against foreign workers is partly due to the difference in salaries Singaporeans and foreigners get. Photo by Adrian Portugal/Rappler

COMPLEX ISSUE. Singaporean journalist Clement Mesenas, who has Filipino roots, says the sentiment against foreign workers is partly due to the difference in salaries Singaporeans and foreigners get.

Photo by Adrian Portugal/Rappler

Low-wage workers appreciated but...

While foreign professionals grapple with competition, low-skilled workers do not experience the same hostility but many suffer abuse. One of the NGOs campaigning for their rights is Transient Workers Count Too (TWC2). 

TWC2 treasurer and dissident blogger Alex Au said that some domestic workers – mostly Filipinos and Indonesians – do not get days off, have their salaries cut while one was not even fed properly for 4 months. 

The NGO also deals with workers in the construction and marine industries, often male Indians and Bangladeshis, whose employers do not give compensation or medical treatment for injuries.  

Au said that the Singaporean government has not been proactive in holding abusive employers accountable. 

“Too much of our regulatory framework is predicated on economic benefit. The problem with that as the chief criterion is we see human beings as commodities: people we can use, extract value from or treat as disposable. That creates a lot of personal suffering when a worker hits some misfortune. That also disturbs a lot of Singaporeans' conscience that's why we have a lot of volunteers signing up with us,” Au told Rappler. 

Despite government lapses and comments on social media, Au said that many of the workers TWC2 engages with have pleasant experiences with Singaporeans. A worker on crutches even recounted how locals helped him get on the train.  

“Maybe those who are taking the jobs that Singaporeans want feel the brunt of the envy whereas no Singaporean wants to be a construction worker or domestic helper  so I suppose it depends which sector you are in. On the whole, I think we, Singaporeans, are not xenophobic,” Au said. 

Easing rules in long term? 

Balancing immigration and births is the challenge Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong sees for Singapore in its next 25 years, with “no easy choices” in sight. Despite economic incentives, the island-nation's fertility rate remains one of the lowest in the world.

Economists see continued tightening of the immigration policy, at least in the near future. The government aims to raise productivity by pushing companies to invest in technology and training instead of relying on low-skilled, low-wage foreign workers. 

Still, Vice Dean Tan said the approach so far has not addressed the issue. 

“When they do that as they have kind of done in the last few years, it has created problems for the small and medium enterprises who find that they cannot staff themselves adequately. The danger is they close down. What happens to SMEs when they're non-viable?” 

In the long-run, the Economist Intelligence Unit predicted that Singapore will swing to another direction. It said in a report: “The changing population profile and the need to remain competitive will lead the Government to ease its immigration laws.”

Observers are also watching the upcoming elections expected later this year or early next year, and how it will impact on the immigration debate. 

For now, tensions simmered after the government imposed more restrictions. Mesenas said one way of resolving the issue is to offer equal wages to foreigners and Singaporeans.  

“Why should it be different if they are doing the same kind of work? Companies will take their businesses where there are good skilled workers, not cheap labor. You try to do cheap labor in civilized countries, see what will happen. In Singapore, we don't want slave conditions, long hours, etc. This is a retrogressive step,” he said. 

For employers like chef Mendoza, hiring is not a matter of politics or nationality. “Passion, thirst for knowledge, potential for leadership – those are the things we look for in justifying any foreign worker here, any worker in fact, local or foreign.”  

“It's not where you come from.” – Rappler.com 

This week, Rappler puts the spotlight on Singapore as the city-state celebrates its 50th anniversary on August 9. We take a look at the forces that shaped it, and what lies ahead.