A more Singaporean Singapore

MARCH 28 — Something has changed in the bars that dot the trendy enclaves of Singapore. 

Of course Covid-19 has changed a lot of things and it’s great that our trendy areas are still lively and crowded — though everything still shuts at 10.30pm due to Covid control measures.   

But beyond social distancing and closing hours, something  has changed. The demographics of those at the bars. 

For years, the  patrons or a large proportion of the patrons at the high-end water watering holes in Holland Village, Robertson Quay and Keong Saik were distinctly Western Expat. 

If you went out to those places, that’s what you’d see. While the heavy segregation of the 90s and 2000s when expats dominated the high-end bars and cafes across the city ended a few years ago, many enclaves remained distinctly, well, white.   

But no longer. 

Local faces predominate virtually everywhere now.  What happened? 

Covid-19. A slowdown in growth due to the disruption caused by the pandemic led to job losses and the cancellation of many Employment Passes (EPs) — the visas typically held by well-paid expats. 

Office workers wearing face masks take their lunch break at the central business district amid the Covid-19 outbreak in Singapore June 2, 2020. — Reuters pic
Office workers wearing face masks take their lunch break at the central business district amid the Covid-19 outbreak in Singapore June 2, 2020. — Reuters pic

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As Covid-19 struck the economy, it was foreign talent that bore the brunt of the layoffs. Expat packages were scaled back while generous government initiatives to cushion businesses focussed on assisting Singaporeans and permanent residents.  

Government policies now also heavily prioritise and favour the hiring of local employees.  

Covid-19 also means that potential new expat hires can’t easily enter the country. The net result is that many expats have been laid off and are leaving and no new foreign talent is arriving. 

This basically means there has been a sudden drastic reduction in the expat population... so we have a much more Singaporean Singapore.  

This is really one of the most significant impact of the pandemic. It’s a fundamental shift.  

Singapore has always been reliant on foreign talent. A large proportion of senior roles at multinational firms that play a huge role in Singapore’s economy have traditionally been dominated by expatriates. Now many if not the majority of these roles are being filled by locals.  

While the government has moved over the last few years to reduce the issuing  of EPs, Singaporeans were still under-represented in senior management positions.   

Even in 2020 it was estimated that almost 60 per cent of senior management positions in Singapore’s crucial finance sector were held by foreigners.  

This is changing and now seems to have changed irrevocably. 

Local talent is set to dominate and control the commanding heights of our economy. Really, this is long overdue.  

The higher salaries promoted locals will receive will change lives and as more Singaporeans progress higher up the corporate ladder, they will develop new skills and be able to nurture another generation of local talent. 

The changes will be far reaching. But, of course, there has to be balance. 

Our openness to foreign talent has made Singapore what it is. In a time of crisis it makes sense for the government to favour local citizens — and there is a historical imbalance to address.  

However, ensuring the rise of local talent doesn’t mean we should  tolerate or encourage mediocrity. And for Singapore to realise its potential as one of the world truly great cities, it will always require an inflow of ideas and skills from overseas. 

It’s a balancing act; locals should have their pick of the top jobs but there has to be space for capable qualified people from all over the world.  

For now though, the pendulum has swung strongly in favour of Singaporeans.

* This is the personal opinion of the columnist.

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