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The Big Read: ‘Us’ and ‘Them’ — can the twain meet? Examining the Singaporean-foreigner divide

SINGAPORE — When Ms Fiona Jia first visited Singapore in 2017, she was at first puzzled to find a mobile phone left unattended on the table at a cafe.

Singaporeans told TODAY that while they are quick to help their foreign co-workers adjust to the Singaporean way of life, not all of the locals are able to form deeper relations beyond the professional setting.

Singaporeans told TODAY that while they are quick to help their foreign co-workers adjust to the Singaporean way of life, not all of the locals are able to form deeper relations beyond the professional setting.

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This article was written in partnership with the National Youth Council. Join us in our Instagram Live webinar on 12pm, Wednesday (May 4) on the topic of bridging the Singaporean-foreigner divide.

  • Around the world, tensions between foreigners and citizens always bubble to the surface amid major crises
  • It was no different in Singapore during the Covid-19 pandemic, with the Singaporean-foreigner divide coming to the fore be it in the economic or social sphere 
  • Such a divide often stems from a lack of integration among Singaporeans and foreigners in everyday life
  • Some expats admit to keeping to their own circles due to a variety of reasons, especially during the pandemic given the community restrictions. On their part, some Singaporeans also say they do not proactively reach out to foreign colleagues or acquaintances 
  • Without building bridges, fault lines will deepen and experts pointed out the need for society to continuously work on integration, which is a two-way street  

SINGAPORE — When Ms Fiona Jia first visited Singapore in 2017, she was at first puzzled to find a mobile phone left unattended on the table at a cafe.

Just as the Chinese national was about to pick it up and pass the phone to the cafe staff for safekeeping, she was stopped by a friend, who informed her that this was a patron’s way of reserving a table. 

“My friend told me that people here ‘chope’ with their bank card, keys and other valuables.

“I was shocked. It’s never something I would ever think of doing in any other country,” said the 34-year-old, who moved to Singapore a year later in 2018.

Today, Ms Jia, who works in an e-commerce company, has come to embrace the Singaporean quirk of “chope-ing”, or reserving a seat with a personal item like a tissue packet.

“I don’t chope with valuables, but I do use my office’s access card,” she said, adding that she is more relaxed now about doing so given the level of safety in Singapore.

Ms Fiona Jia, 34, who moved to Singapore in 2018, said that outside of work, her social circles remain limited to mainly fellow expatriates.

Another foreigner, Mr Goutham Devulapally, has his colleagues to thank for introducing him to the hawker centres here.

“I’d never seen a foodcourt like that in India, where it’s all individual restaurants… My colleagues helped me adjust to the hawker culture and taught me about nasi lemak and chicken rice,” said the 39-year-old Indian national who has been in Singapore for six years and works in a medical devices company.

Despite having learnt the quirks and way of life in Singapore, both Ms Jia and Mr Goutham said that outside of work, their social circles remain limited to mainly fellow expatriates.

On their part, Singaporeans told TODAY that while they are quick to help their foreign co-workers adjust to the Singaporean way of life, not all of the locals are able to form deeper relations beyond the professional setting.

Singaporean Gouthaman Haridass, a 33-year-old consultant in the fintech industry, said that he has invited his foreign colleagues over to his home to celebrate local festivals or tell them about places in Singapore beyond the usual expatriate haunts like Bugis, Orchard or Holland Village. 

On the other hand, Ms Nur, who works as a manager in the banking industry, does not feel the need to proactively educate her foreign colleagues on local culture as most leave their jobs in a few years, and conversations on local culture may not be of relevance or interest to them.

The 28-year-old Singaporean is also not as comfortable sharing about her personal life with foreign colleagues as she feels that they may not relate to her experiences.

“I feel like they maybe cannot understand me when I try to express myself in Singlish too. I have to speak in proper English and I’m not really myself when I speak to them that way sometimes,” added Ms Nur, who declined to provide her full name.

Indeed, even as Singaporeans and foreigners live and work alongside each other, both groups have found it difficult to break out of their existing social circles and build deeper relationships with people from the other side.

Based on a recent poll by the National Youth Council (NYC), only 17 per cent of Singaporean youth feel that locals and foreigners get along well here despite their differences, compared to 38 per cent of foreigners.

Both Singaporean and non-Singaporean youths recognise the existence of local-foreigner conflicts in Singapore, though more than half of the Singaporean youths acknowledge that the conflicts are not as pressing as other issues facing the nation.

The NYC Youth Local-Foreigner Relations Sentiment Poll surveyed 700 Singaporean citizens and non-citizens — comprising a mix of foreigners and permanent residents — between the ages of 16 and 34 for their views on relations between locals and foreigners here. It was conducted from April 6 to 11.

Separately, views from foreigners and Singaporeans whom TODAY spoke also reflected some degree of an “us versus them” mentality which has been exacerbated by the economic upheaval brought about by the Covid-19 pandemic in the past two years. 

The hot-button issue, which comes in various disguises, saw Parliament debating more than once in recent months about the Government’s foreign talent policy and job competition.  

In July last year, Parliament debated the merits of the Comprehensive Economic Cooperation Agreement (Ceca) with India, amid some disquiet that such free-trade pacts allow foreign professionals easy entry into Singapore. 

In September last year, the House revisited the topic of the country’s immigration policy to address concerns that foreigners were displacing Singaporean workers in a tight economic market.

Separately, the pandemic has also brought to the fore the plight of low-wage migrant workers here, after the coronavirus spread like wildfire in early 2020 through crowded and unsanitary worker dormitories.

While Covid-19 has thrown the foreign-local divide into even sharper relief, the issue became a lightning rod about a decade ago when foreigner numbers rose sharply.

Singapore’s non-resident workers went up from 612,200 in 2000 to 1,113,200 by 2010, a rise of more than 80 per cent, as the nation’s robust economic growth, along with a local labour shortage, fuelled demand for foreign workers.

The issue of immigration took the spotlight during the 2011 General Election, with Singaporeans airing their grievances over the competition posed by foreigners for jobs, the strain placed on public infrastructure amid the imported population boom, as well as the changing social fabric of Singapore.

The issue came to a head again in 2013, when the Government released its Population White Paper with a 6.9 million population planning parameter for 2030 which was, however, misunderstood by the public as a target and created some anxiety over a potential influx of foreigners.

Foreigners and Singaporeans whom TODAY spoke to reflected some degree of an “us versus them” mentality which has been exacerbated by the economic upheaval brought about by the Covid-19 pandemic in the past two years.

Fast forward to present day, sociologist Tan Ern Ser from the National University of Singapore (NUS) observed that public sentiments on foreigners have, on the whole, become more positive amid ongoing integration efforts.  

“However, from time to time, when locals feel threatened by foreigners at the workplace, in the labour market, or even when using public space and amenities, their negative sentiments could spike and be amplified by social media postings and chats,” he said.

With relations between Singaporeans and foreigners perpetually a work in progress, in a country that has little choice but to embrace globalisation, TODAY examines the main issues underpinning the divide and what it would take to bridge the gap — including making the first step. 

MAKING THE FIRST STEP ON A TWO-WAY STREET 

The NYC poll found that while two in five Singaporean youth feel that foreigners are able to integrate into local culture comfortably, a slightly higher proportion of half think that foreigners tend to stick to their own social circles.

Foreigners in the professionals, managers, executives and technicians (PMET) category whom TODAY spoke to also acknowledged that their social circles comprise predominantly other expatriates.

Although they are keen to get to know more Singaporeans, the foreign PMETs cited limited opportunities, existing networks and “reserved Singaporeans” as among the reasons they are unable to do so.

Foreigners said that since the pandemic started, the slew of Covid-19 curbs have also reduced their opportunity to meet and mingle with Singaporeans through activities such as sports.

Ms Jia, for instance, said that her friends are mainly expatriates from the United States or Europe as she got to know them through her American husband who is also working in Singapore.

And while she is open to making Singaporean friends, Ms Jia said that foreigners tend to seek each other out as there is a sense that they should “get close and help each other out” in a new country.

Mr Goutham, the Indian national, said that his relationship with his colleagues does not extend beyond work. 

He attributed this to Singapore being a “reserved society”, where Singaporeans do not like to get too personal during their interactions.

Other foreigners said that since the pandemic started, the slew of Covid-19 curbs have also reduced their opportunity to meet and mingle with Singaporeans through activities such as sports.

In response to TODAY's queries, the National Integration Council (NIC) said that due to Covid-19, its partners have had to adapt many of their programmes and initiatives to online formats where possible. As a result, opportunities were limited for organic and informal interactions between participants.

Nonetheless, many of NIC's partners have used this time to adapt and improve programmes to make them more meaningful and impactful for participants despite the challenges faced.  

For example, Singapore Indian Fine Arts Society organised virtual productions to reach a wider audience in collaboration with other local Indian and non-Indian community groups, said Dr Leong Chan-Hoong, a member of NIC who noted that integration is a "two-way streeet".

The council was set up in 2009 to encourage ground-up integration efforts between Singaporeans and newcomers such as permanent residents, naturalised citizens and expats. 

Associate Professor Laavanya Kathiravelu, a sociologist from the Nanyang Technological University (NTU), said that structural barriers in society make it difficult for foreigners to form networks and connections with Singaporeans through everyday interactions.

For example, foreigners who are not permanent residents or naturalised citizens cannot buy public housing and do not work in the Civil Service, which has a predominantly Singaporean workforce, thus limiting their interactions with locals to some extent.

As such, foreigners require extra effort to break out of their expatriate circles and join local community groups or civil society organisations or reach out to Singaporean colleagues, she added.

Most of them are really just here to do their job and leave after a few years. Having that kind of conversation with them is not relevant... So I only share when they ask out of curiosity.
Ms Nur, a 28-year-old Singaporean, on why she doesn’t usually strike up meaningful conversations with her foreign colleagues

Compounding the situation is a general reticence among some Singaporeans to proactively build bonds with foreigners in their midst. 

On why she does not usually make the first step to strike up meaningful conversations with her foreign colleagues, Ms Nur, the 28-year-old who works in a bank, said: "I think it’s because a lot of them are not here for the long haul. Most of them are really just here to do their job and leave after a few years. Having that kind of conversation with them is not relevant... So I only share when they ask out of curiosity."

THE COMPETITION FOR RESOURCES

A perennial concern among Singaporeans when it comes to the presence of foreigners on the island is the anxiety over the increased competition — be it in workplaces, schools or the larger community. 

The NYC poll found that half of the Singaporean youth surveyed are concerned over competition with foreigners for career or educational opportunities, with two in five indicating that they have personally experienced or witnessed someone they know lose an opportunity to foreigners.

And while half of the Singaporean youths also recognise that foreigners help to fill workforce gaps and make Singapore more economically competitive, 37 per cent of this group feel that there are too many foreigners in leadership positions in the private sector.

Singaporeans interviewed by TODAY had mixed views about the question of whether foreigners are “stealing” jobs.

A 30-year-old fintech professional, who wanted to be known only as Mr Sim, said that his industry lacks Singaporeans with the relevant skills and that working alongside foreigners has been beneficial for his professional growth.

However, Ms Nur felt that foreigners in her company have been given roles that Singaporeans are qualified for. Still, she acknowledged that it could be because foreigners are more willing to ask for these opportunities compared with more introverted Singaporeans.

Some Singaporeans interviewed also felt that their foreign counterparts are sometimes hungrier and more competitive at work. 

On this, Mr Goutham, the Indian national, said: “There’s a perception that as a foreigner, you need to perform well. Otherwise, you might lose your job and be thrown out of Singapore. That very feeling makes you work a little harder because you need to keep the job."

Mr Goutham Devulapally, an Indian national who has been in Singapore for six years.

Mr Irvin Seah, a senior economist at DBS Bank, reiterated that it is “not tenable” for Singapore to be closed off to foreign workers, given that the country is deeply integrated into the global economy, and has an ageing and shrinking population.

Still, a large inflow of foreigners could lead to a pushback from the Singaporean workforce as the foreigners are seen as competition. In lower-skilled industries especially, wages may also be depressed, he said.

On the other hand, a labour policy that is too tight could lead to a manpower crunch, driving costs up in industries. It will also potentially deprive the economy of its ability to attract and retain talent, in turn affecting Singapore’s attractiveness to foreign investors, he added.

IMPACT ON S’POREAN IDENTITY, SOCIAL NORMS

On the social front, some segments of society also worry that the influx of foreigners could change the Singaporean identity, norms and way of life as they know it.

A 2018 study by the Institute of Policy Studies found that more than six in 10 of the 4,000 Singaporeans and permanent residents surveyed feel that immigrants are not doing enough to integrate into Singapore.

However, integration can be easier said than done. 

Speaking to TODAY, both foreigners and naturalised citizens said that it takes time for them to adapt and adjust to local norms — from language and everyday behaviour to Singapore’s orderly nature.

For Mr James Ye, a naturalised citizen originally from China, picking up the English language was a challenge when he arrived here in 2006 as a university student.

The 34-year-old real estate agent also had to grapple with Singlish, but was able to pick it up in two years after interacting with Singaporean friends and watching local movies such as Ah Boys To Men. 

Employment Pass (EP) holder and Indian national Prasan Arora, a 38-year-old business manager at a technology company here, said that despite finding hawker smells “sharp” at first, he has since come to appreciate and assimilate into the Singaporean culture of communal eating at hawker centres.

Both foreigners and naturalised citizens said that it takes time for them to adapt and adjust to local norms.

If assimilation doesn’t come easy for them, developing a sense of belonging and an emotional bond with Singapore is even harder for some.

A change in the colour of their passports did not automatically translate to a feeling of citizenship overnight, said some naturalised citizens.

You cannot wake up the next day and become a Singaporean although on a document you are… It takes time to be a part of a country’s culture and heritage and society.
Mr Nitin Kakaria, 43, who hails from India and became a Singaporean citizen last year

Mr Nitin Kakaria, 43, who hails from India, became a Singaporean citizen last year. He said that since he first moved to Singapore for work in 2007, he has come to appreciate the country and see it as his long-term home.

Apart from Singapore’s hawker culture, Mr Nitin, who is in-between jobs, cited the efficiency of the public transport system and the Government’s dedication to ensure affordable housing for Singaporeans as some reasons for his choice to be a citizen.

But while Mr Nitin, who previously worked in the banking industry, now sees the island as his home, it will take him a few years to “fully integrate and consider (himself) a pure Singaporean”.

Besides not being able to attend his citizenship ceremony last year due to Covid-19 restrictions, Mr Nitin felt that he would need to participate in various national activities such as attending the National Day Parade and voting in the elections to build a sense of belonging towards Singapore over time.

“You cannot wake up the next day and become a Singaporean although on a document you are… It takes time to be a part of a country’s culture and heritage and society. That will only happen when you participate in electoral process and cultural process as a citizen,” he said. 

The new citizens interviewed said that the emotional attachment to their home countries will remain, given that most of their growing-up years were spent there and they continue to have family there as well.

Assoc Prof Laavanya said that research tracking long-term trends in other countries show that over time, immigrants do integrate and become “local” in their societies. At the same time, what it means to be local also evolves over time, she noted. 

ISSUE OF SPACE 

While the situation has improved after substantial investments by the Government to improve the country's infrastructure, concerns among Singaporeans over congestion and overcrowding came to the fore not too long ago. 

During the parliamentary debate on the Population White Paper in 2013, Mr Tan Chuan-Jin, who was then the Acting Manpower Minister, said that Singaporeans were facing crowded trains, MRT stations and a lack of beds in hospitals. This was why the Government was tabling the White Paper, so that infrastructure could keep pace with the growth in population, he said.

In 2015, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said that it was a regret in his tenure as the country's leader that the Government did not build up its infrastructure quickly enough in anticipation of a population growth driven mainly by an influx of foreign workers. But lessons have been learnt, Mr Lee had said. 

While the Government has since taken concrete steps to ease the load on public infrastructure, such as increasing the frequency of trains, the perception that foreigners are to be blamed for packed trains and buses lingers in some segments of society.

In fact, tensions between Singaporeans and foreigners tend to play out in crowded and congested areas, said Dr Leong, the NIC member who is also the head of policy development, evaluation and data analytics at consultancy Kantar Public. 

These include the public transport system, where people have to jostle for a place on the train or a bus.

However, by design, public transport systems are always under stress in any global city due to their dense nature, said Dr Leong.

The perception that foreigners are to be blamed for packed trains and buses lingers in some segments of society.

Singaporeans interviewed said that while crowded trains and food courts in the Central Business District bother them, they do not blame foreigners for the squeeze, even if they may do so out of frustration at first.

Ms Lydia Ng, a 40-year-old owner of a digital consultancy, said that she has blamed foreigners out of frustration when boarding overcrowded trains.

This is despite knowing that crowded trains are not the fault of foreigners but an issue related to urban planning.

“Your mind tells you one thing… but you still get annoyed because there is no breathing room, and you find something else (foreigners) to blame,” said Ms Ng.

NO PLAYGROUND FOR THE RICH

Job competition aside, there is also a perception among some Singaporeans that their country has become a playground for rich foreigners. 

Figures from real estate firm Knight Frank showed that although Singapore suffered a pandemic-induced recession in 2020, the number of ultra-high-net-worth individuals who have a net worth of at least US$30 million, grew by 8.6 per cent to 4,206 last year in Singapore — up from 3,874 the year before.

Experts said that stereotypes of foreigners being well-heeled are reinforced by the presence of Western or European expatriates who are over-represented in highly skilled and well-paid professions. They also tend to be featured in high society magazines or in the media.

Dr Tan Ern Ser from NUS said that there may be a perception of the threat posed by foreigners to locals’ jobs, mixed with envy and a sense that some foreigners do not deserve the high life which they can afford in Singapore.

Such a mixture could create the politics of envy among Singaporeans, he added.

Mr Gouthaman, the Singaporean working in fintech, said that it is natural for Singaporeans to feel jealous when they see foreigners in better or more desirable jobs. Nevertheless, he acknowledged that their presence is necessary to attract foreign investment and generate jobs for Singaporeans.

Through his personal interactions, he found that while some foreigner colleagues hold high-paying jobs, live in luxury properties and lead lives that are different from the average Singaporean, they have continued to make an effort to understand the cultures of others.

Addressing worries that foreigners could drive up property prices here, property analyst Christine Sun of real estate agency OrangeTee and Tie, said that the average Singaporean need not be concerned as the numbers of foreign buyers are not large. 

Both the volume of transactions and the proportion of property purchases by foreigners had dropped from 2009 to 2021, she said.

For instance, the number of non-landed private homes, excluding executive condominiums, bought by non-permanent residents or foreigners dipped from 2,989 units in 2009 to 1,106 units in 2021.

In 2019, just before the pandemic, the number of transactions was also low at 1,000 units due to property cooling measures introduced in the preceding 10 years.

Debunking the misperception that all foreigners in Singapore are living in riches, Mr Goutham, the Indian national, noted that Singapore is expensive to live in and many foreigners like himself “spend a bomb” to live here.

Mr Goutham, who lives in a rented Housing and Development Board (HDB) flat with his family, said: “It takes a lot of a lot of effort to take up a job and survive here. If only one parent is working and you have two kids, it’s not easy to survive and make ends meet in Singapore."

As a non-permanent resident, he has to fork out S$825 a month for his son’s primary school fees, as well as S$2,150 a month for HDB rental. These expenses alone take up 40 per cent of his monthly salary and exclude other expenses such as public transport, he added. 

BRIDGING THE GAP

With such flashpoints and different perspectives between Singaporeans and foreigners, shall the twain ever meet? 

The NYC poll showed that compared to non-citizens (56 per cent), fewer Singaporean youth (31 per cent) feel that there are enough opportunities to interact meaningfully with foreigners, especially outside the workplace.

More than half of both citizens and non-citizens believe that interactions with each other — such as through community bonding and individual efforts to improve treatment towards others — would best help Singaporeans integrate with foreigners.

To promote integration, building shared experiences between Singaporeans and foreigners is needed, Dr Leong said.

These have to go beyond programmes such as organised events at community clubs and instead focus on mundane day-to-day experiences that bring all residents together. These experiences can include spending time at coffee shops and having the children of foreigners and Singaporeans sitting for the Primary School Leaving Examination, said Dr Leong. 

Singaporeans can also acknowledge that foreigners play an important part in not just the country's economy but also in adding to its social and cultural diversity, said Assoc Prof Laavanya.

Indeed, with the pandemic raising public awareness of the living conditions of lower-skilled migrant workers, some young Singaporeans have stepped forward to reach out to this group of foreigners.

One of them is Ms Nabillah Jalal, a 30-year-old piano teacher who has been distributing food and other items to workers since last year.

Ms Nabillah, who has been actively involved in advocacy work for underprivileged youth, decided to help migrant workers after media articles highlighted their poor living conditions and the restrictions which prevented them from leaving their dormitories at the height of the pandemic.

Ms Nabillah Jalal (centre), a 30-year-old piano teacher, said that she began fundraising and distributing items and groceries to migrant workers last year after the Covid-19 pandemic made her more aware about their living conditions in dormitories.

Over two weekends this April and May, Ms Nabillah, along with 100 volunteers, will distribute more than 2,000 grocery bags to 28 dormitories.

She added that Singaporeans must make the first move to reach out to migrant workers.

Ms Jewel Yi, a 31-year-old occupational therapist, is also the co-lead of the Covid-19 Migrant Support Coalition (CMSC), a ground-up initiative established in August 2020 to champion migrant worker issues.

The CMSC has organised several projects that promote interactions between locals and migrant workers, including WeAllEat, where meals from hawker stalls are delivered to migrant worker dormitories around Singapore.

Ms Yi said that Covid-19 has brought about more awareness of what migrant workers face, and she has seen Singaporeans of different generations stepping up and reaching out to the workers, such as through providing food to dormitories.

For migrant workers, the pandemic has shown them that it is possible to build friendships with Singaporeans. This, in turn, empowers them to speak up about the issues they face and reach out to the community for help, she added.

A GOOD TIME TO RESET RELATIONS?

Since the start of the pandemic, the number of EP holders had fallen nearly 14 per cent — from 193,700 in December 2019 to 166,900 in June 2021, due to job opportunities drying up and pandemic-related restrictions. 

A significant decrease was also registered among mid- and lower-skilled foreign workers, as border controls made exit and entry difficult.

Amid the exodus of foreigners and the Government’s visible efforts to grow the “Singaporean core” of workers, there is arguably a new window of opportunity to reset relations between both groups henceforth.

However, some experts pointed out that efforts to integrate foreigners should always be an ongoing effort and there is no perfect time to do so. 

Just as we have seen newcomers who actively contribute to Singapore, we also hope more locals can help to create an understanding and inclusive community for newcomers.
Dr Leong Chan-Hoong, a member of the National Integration Council

On integrating new foreigners settling in the country post-pandemic, Dr Leong said that Singapore continues to welcome those who choose to make the country their home. 

He added that the NIC hopes to develop more opportunities to help foreigners and Singaporeans connect as Covid-19 regulations are eased further. At the same time, the council has also observed many newcomers actively contributing to society, such as through volunteering and participating in community events.  

“Just as we have seen newcomers who actively contribute to Singapore, we also hope more locals can help to create an understanding and inclusive community for newcomers to learn and integrate into Singapore’s culture and norms,” said Dr Leong. 

Have an idea to bridge the Singaporean-foreigner divide? Through the Young ChangeMakers grant, you can meet, connect and collaborate with like-minded youth by organising community projects or championing ground-up initiatives. Develop your ideas with mentorship from youth leaders and seed funding to grow and implement solutions that help the community. Visit here for more details. 

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