Tuesday, September 07, 2010

“Xenophobic Singaporeans?”

What follows below is a translated reproduction of an opinion piece by Ms Li Hui Min (李慧敏), published in 《联合早报》/Lianhe Zaobao on 5th September 2010.

Xenophobic Singaporeans?

In his National Day 2010 Rally speech, Prime Minister (PM) Lee Hsien Loong explained in great detail the government’s population policy in the hope that it will influence Singaporeans to welcome foreigners. However, is the dissatisfaction experienced by Singaporeans against the increase in foreigner population in Singapore a result of xenophobia or is there some other reason at work? There are actually several aspects to the issue of foreigner population in Singapore but due to the lack of space, this essay will only discuss two of these aspects.

On the issue of bringing foreign workers, PM Lee said that he understands and empathise with the feelings of Singaporeans. He repeatedly explained the distinction between foreign workers and foreign talent, stating that what Singapore want is foreign talent, that foreign workers are only transient/temporary workers who will leave once the job is done. Such statements reflect the mentality that in the pursuit of economic growth, it is inevitable that the non-elite labouring masses get neglected. The word “only” [in that foreign workers are “only” temporary/transient workers] sounds most cold and perhaps some non-governmental organisations will feel uneasy about PM Lee’s statements about the distinction between foreign talent and foreign workers.

Although well-intentioned, PM Lee’s speech perhaps failed to grasp the real essence of why Singaporeans feel uncomfortable with the bringing in of large numbers of foreigners.

The issue of hiring foreign labour has also caused controversies in other places. For example, there have been protests in Macau by workers against the depressing of wages by an influx of foreign workers and which called for the protection of the rights of local workers. Even Hong Kong, which is one of the most globalised cities in the world, also faces similar problems. Not too long ago, Hong Kong passed a minimum wage law to protect local workers. In contrast, Singapore, claiming that a minimum wage law will negatively affect its economic competitiveness, chooses not to implement such a law. With the country prospering through the cheap labour of foreign workers while wages of low-income locals get depressed and with nothing seem to really be done to resolve this situation, how can we expect them to cheer for the country’s achievements?

Secondly, there is the question of how resources are allocated. Singapore is a society built on elitism with a strongly pro-talent government that will spare no expense to attract talent to Singapore. Yet, foreign workers, low-income individuals and ordinary citizens do not seem to get the same amount of attention or resources as the local and foreign “elite”.

The day after the National Day Rally, there was a letter published in the Forum section of Lianhe Zaobao entitled “Let’s review our scholarship system”. In this letter, it was claimed that after being awarded a government scholarship to study in the United States, a foreign student, who had achieved brilliant results while studying in a local junior college, decided to break his/her bond and not return to Singapore.

I was in a shock after reading this letter. I knew Singapore provided scholarships for foreign students to study in Singapore but I did not know that it is generous to the extent of providing scholarships to these students for them to study overseas.

It may also be gleaned from the letter that schools appoint teachers who are “especially caring” to oversee the studies of scholarship holders from overseas. In reality, these foreign scholarship holders are already highly proficient in their studies, other than perhaps having a weak foundation in English. Judging from the foreign scholarship holders I know, they are all single children who live in relatively well-off families and have parents whom are highly-educated.

It is not that local ordinary students and students from low-income families are incompetent at studying, it is just that they lack a good environment, guidance and opportunities. If the country is willing to spend more resources on these students, to the extent of diverting resources spent on foreign scholarship holders to them, and give them the same amount and quality of attention, are we so sure that these students will not be able to also excel?

The PM appeals for us to be patient and trust that the problem will ultimately be resolved. However, it is my opinion that the government also needs to be more patient. We often assume that a lack of population numbers is equivalent to a lack in talent but the population of Finland is no more than 5.22 million, of which only a small segment is from overseas, and yet they have cultivated outstanding talented students through their education system. Hence, the key here is whether we have the patience and correct method to cultivate our own talent.

In addition, there are many netizens who find fault with how while foreigners are able to study here with government scholarships, there are local students, in contrast, have to make hefty loans or even work part-time to make their way through school. It is little wonder that some will ask: between “ordinary” Singaporeans and the foreign elite, is the latter perhaps more in favour with the government?

To raise another example: some local tertiary institutions explicitly state in the application criteria for their scholarships that they welcome only non-Singaporean applicants. It is not hard to see why some local students will feel being discriminated against in their own country. This is already not a simple question of xenophobia but an issue of locals feeling disgruntled and alienated from their own country. Moreover, in light of how even ordinary foreign students are eligible for subsidies and bursaries, it is perhaps inevitable that people will question if this is an appropriate allocation of resources. With such a situation, it is little wonder that people will be sceptical about the “Singaporeans first” promise of the government.

The foreigner problem did not appear overnight. There were already several signs hinting at it several years ago but they were neglected, if not ignored. Now that the problem has become widespread and entrenched, it is imperative that policymakers patiently analyse and examine the issues involved. To resort to superficial means, such as spending more money to build more facilities or giving away goodies, will not fundamentally resolve the problem.

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