SINGAPORE, Sept 5 — A Taiwanese expat thought she had left behind a xenophobic environment in Tokyo, where she had worked for close to two years, when she moved to multiracial Singapore five years ago.
But for the past two months, the 36-year-old, who wanted to be known only as Ms Tang, is feeling rather unwelcome in a city-state which has been known for its embrace of global talent, but is now reeling from a Covid-19-induced recession.
She tries not to get caught up with the chatter on social media, where various platforms are increasingly filled with anti-foreigner vitriol, such as “foreigners are stealing our jobs”, and epithets such as “foreign trash” being bandied around.
But remarks by politicians contesting the July General Election had her wondering if her job as a sales executive at a tech unicorn was secure.
She cited Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan, who had said in a live televised debate that the “only reason we have foreigners here is to give that little extra wind in our sails when the opportunities are there”, and now that Singapore is in a storm, it needs to “shed ballast”.
Ms Tang’s worst fears were confirmed later that month when she lost her job. She said she is almost resigned to the fact that she may not find new employment in Singapore, after 10 of 17 firms that granted her a job interview told her that they could not sponsor her visa application although they were keen to hire her.
Five of them told her frankly that she can only be hired if she is Singaporean or permanent resident (PR).
A dejected Ms Tang said: “The economy would return to normal again. If Singapore puts itself in this kind of position, who is going to work here again? It will be pretty much like Japan.”
Japan, she noted, had earned a bad reputation in expat circles as being dismissive of foreigners’ contributions to its economy. The country is still struggling to change its foreigner-unfriendly image and now finds itself having to dangle more attractive packages to woo expats to prop up its rapidly ageing workforce.
With the Republic grappling with its worst downturn since independence as Covid-19 continues to wreak economic and health havoc around the world, anti-foreign sentiments have once again come to the fore.
As unemployment and retrenchments among Singaporeans rise, foreign PMETs (professionals, managers, executives and technicians) such as Ms Tang are seen as competing with locals in an ever-shrinking job pool.
The hot-button issue took centre stage during the first three days of debate following Parliament’s reopening, with some Members of Parliament calling for limits on the issuance of Employment Passes (EPs) for higher-end foreign professionals by introducing levies or quotas to put Singaporeans first when hiring.
However, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong reminded the House of the need to draw talent from around the world, even as he acknowledged Singaporeans’ concerns about foreign competition over jobs.
“The companies which have headquarters run by all one nationality — the Japanese used to be like that — they did not thrive. The American companies which had headquarters with people from all continents, they did well, and they could adapt, they had the feel of different markets, they could fit into different cultures,” he said.
The reminder by Mr Lee and other government leaders — including Transport Minister Ong Ye Kung, who is a board member of the Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS) — in recent months of the need for Singapore to remain open to foreign talent comes on the heels of disquiet over the perception that many of the top managerial posts at Singapore-based corporations are occupied by foreigners.
Such a perception has been magnified on social media, and in one case, some Indian nationals hired by state investment firm Temasek Holdings and two banks became victims of doxxing.
This prompted Temasek’s chief executive officer Ho Ching, who is PM Lee’s wife, and the company to issue strongly-worded statements to condemn the acts as “racist”, “false” and “divisive”.
When a letter to The Straits Times’ forum page by a retired senior banker suggested that the workforce composition in banks be examined, MAS managing director Ravi Menon said in an Aug 19 response that the authority would intensify engagement with financial institutions’ senior management on their workforce profiles and plans to grow the “Singaporean core”.
Amid the national spotlight on the issue, expatriates in Singapore have been privately sharing among themselves their burgeoning discomfort at being treated as “outsiders”.
TODAY spoke to almost 20 of them during these trying times for the expat community, as companies are encouraged to hire locals in order to benefit from the Government’s wage subsidies for Singaporeans and PRs, among other measures.
Most of those interviewed requested anonymity, citing concerns over ongoing applications for work passes or job positions as well as online vitriol against them or their families.
The expats said they are worried about their growing job insecurity and prospects as companies may be forced to look inward amid the push for local hires.
They added that while their interactions with locals in public spaces or at their workplaces remain pleasant, the spike in anti-foreigner sentiments online and hearsay of the predicaments of other expats who got the axe have added to their anxiety in recent months.
‘First question was whether I’m Singaporean or PR’
One Indian EP holder has been on an exasperating job hunt since April, when he was retrenched from a logistics firm.
The 30-year-old with a Master’s degree sent out between 100 and 120 job applications but was unable to land a job.
“I did receive a couple of calls, but the first question they asked was if I am a Singaporean or PR. I am not even considered for an interview. It stops there,” said the man who declined to be named.
While it is “100-per-cent understandable” that companies would give preference to locals for jobs during these tough times, he added that it would be fairer if the issue of whether the applicant is a local or not is the last point of consideration.
“If it really comes to the point where we have two people with equal talent, I have no hard feelings if the job goes to the Singaporean,” he said.
He expects a rough ride in his job search for at least the next three to four months, given that similar protectionist tendencies have been growing all over the world.
Last month, United States President Donald Trump signed an executive order that will increase the scrutiny of federal contractors’ use of H-1B visas to bring in temporary foreign labour for high-skilled jobs, rather than relying on American workers.
The Indian expat can only wish that Singapore, which he regards as an ideal platform in Asia for “big things...to happen”, makes a conscious effort to take a more balanced approach over the foreign-vs-local job issue.
When the unemployed man — who is now on a dependent pass as his wife is an EP holder — was asked what his breaking point would be, he said: “When an employer says directly in my face: ‘Sorry, I won’t employ Indians’.”
Singapore has not reached that stage despite the recent episodes targeting Indian employees, he said. Employers still value IT talents from the South Asian country, given that more people in India are studying the subject. “It is not our mistake (to flood the IT sector),” he added.
While their skills may still be valued, some companies here — with an eye on the bottom line amid challenging business conditions — are more likely to hire Singaporeans and PRs now to benefit from the Government’s various schemes to promote local hiring.
Wages of Singaporeans and PRs may be subsidised under the Jobs Support Scheme till March next year.
There is also the S$1 billion (RM3.04 billion) Jobs Growth Incentive, where firms that raise their headcount of local workers over the next six months may receive a subsidy for up to 25 per cent of their salaries for up to a year, subject to a cap, among other benefits.
With such financial considerations — along with practical and reputational ones — in mind, Ms Angela Kuek, director of recruitment firm The Meyer Consulting Group, said that almost all her clients have taken the stand to hire Singaporeans or PRs only.
EP applications take weeks to process and firms may be required to explain why they are giving a foreigner the job.
Ms Low Peck Kem, who is the Government Chief Human Resource Officer at the Public Service Division, acknowledged that the focus on a “Singaporean core” workforce does put some stress on the job market for expats.
“Given a choice of an expensive expat living in Singapore on expat terms versus a lower cost Singaporean, it is a no brainer for companies to give priority to the lower cost option, particularly if there are incentives provided by the government to incentivise companies to hire, train and place local workforce instead of foreign talent,” said Ms Low, who is also president of the Singapore Human Resources Institute.
Ms Low, however, stressed the need to still consider foreigners with skill sets that cannot be found in Singapreans, weighing factors such as whether there is a luxury of time to train and groom Singaporeans to the required skill level.
Ms Amanda Jones, senior vice-president of sales and account management at expat relocation firm Sirva, citing results from a survey of its global clients, said she does not expect to see expat executives coming to Singapore at pre-Covid-19 numbers until the middle of next year.
Even international students with a contractual obligation to serve a three-year bond working in Singapore upon graduation are not spared.
A National University of Singapore (NUS) graduate said she had submitted about 75 applications for a job in the Stem (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) industry, and received just one offer — only to have the company rescind it three weeks later.
The 22-year-old was told that the firm had “suddenly” rolled out a blanket rule prohibiting new EP applicants.
Ms Marie Tay, managing director of headhunting firm The Resolute Hunter, said many of the expats who are out of job are exploring more positions that may not have been their preference.
She has also observed that they are more willing to accept salary cuts or reduced benefits — areas that were once considered non-negotiable.
Despite being willing to make concessions, she said the harsh reality is that many still could not find replacement roles and had to return to their home countries.
Living in limbo
For Amelia, a 37-year-old who did not want to give her real name or nationality, anxiety over her family’s future here has taken a mental toll on them.
The stay-at-home mother of two told TODAY that she and her 47-year-old husband, a European, had multiple emotional meltdowns, complete with episodes of shouting and crying, due to the long wait for his new EP application to be approved.
Her husband is willing to take a 20-per-cent pay cut to join a new company, but the Ministry of Manpower (MOM) is taking unusually long — one and a half months so far — to process his new EP application, she said.
But time is of the essence as her son could not start his Primary One class at an international school, which began earlier this week, because her husband must first obtain an in-principle work pass approval from MOM.
She added that even though her husband was an EP holder up till his retrenchment in May, MOM required him to get a third-party agency to verify his diploma degree, which lengthened the processing time.
Referring to the ministry, an emotional Amelia told TODAY: “Why don’t they just tell me that they would like to deny the application? Why are you making us hang on?”
She added: “At this point, I feel that nobody really gives a s*** about your situation. They don’t care about your whole family. They don’t care that your kids are going to suffer On the whole, I feel the society has turned suddenly against foreigners, waiting to kick you out.”
Mr Andrew Zee, team lead for financial services at recruitment firm Selby Jennings, observed that MOM is rejecting many EP applications on their first attempts, although the permits are usually approved on appeal.
Mr Zee, who is currently waiting on MOM to process the EP applications of 10 to 15 expats, said he had not seen such a high rate of rejections in more than four years, adding that EP applications were usually a rather straightforward process.
For Amelia, apart from the uncertainty, the negative vibes that she has been getting from locals in recent months has added to her frustrations.
Amelia, who has been in Singapore for three years, began to sense the growing xenophobic sentiments here during the April to June circuit breaker, when she and her friends spent more time reading the news and participating in online communities that included locals.
She felt that some online comments on some incidents — such as the one at Robertson Quay where seven foreigners were caught flouting social-distancing rules — had gone overboard and made her feel that expats could be bashed on any matter.
“Before Covid-19, people were nice. Now, I feel that deep down, nobody welcomes us here,” said Amelia, adding that she has become extra wary over how others may perceive her actions, lest she ends up being featured on some viral social media posts.
She also shared a bugbear: The misconceived impression that all expats lead “lavish lives” and feel they are above others.
“They don’t realise that we studied our whole lives to be here. We work hard. We don’t steal the money here. We contribute to society and the economy,” Amelia said.
“We take both the bus and Grab (private hire cars), shop at wet markets but also buy imported goods because we are far away from home and feel homesick.”
Like some Singaporeans, expats also feel the pain of pay cuts amid the pandemic, but may not immediately get the help they are seeking due to the perception that they are rich.
Ms Martha Liv, 36, a Venezuelan mother of one, said her husband, an Italian assistant director of a travel tech company and earning under S$8,000 a month, had to take a 20-per-cent pay cut earlier this year.
This has put a strain on her finances even though she already shops at wet markets and avoids calling for deliveries. Luckily, after some convincing, Ms Liv was able to get her landlord to reduce her three-bedroom apartment’s S$2,700 monthly rent by 10 per cent.
For a 43-year-old American working in the healthcare sector, going to a neighbourhood wet market had once attracted remarks like, “What are you doing here? I thought all you ang moh (Caucasian) go to FairPrice and Cold Storage.”
The man, who wanted to be known only by the initials CR, shared that an old woman once yelled this at him, then projected her voice to everyone waiting in line: “I don’t know what this guy is doing here. Takes up space!”
Still, it is one of the rare unpleasant incidents that he had encountered in the five years which he has lived in Singapore. He enjoys life here, describing his workplace, an international company, as one where he feels “the most comfortable” owing to its diverse workforce.
Nevertheless, CR feels his job could very well be on the chopping block next, and should that happen, he said: “I don’t fault the Government. I certainly understand the reasoning because Americans are doing the same.”
For this reason, he has long had a contingency plan — the next country to head to and logistical considerations, among others — mapped out in case he has to leave Singapore.
Due to the current circumstances, CR said Plan B is now higher on his list of priorities.
Many expats could have the same thoughts as CR, with global moving and relocation services providers telling TODAY that they had seen an uptick in both business and inquiries from people wanting to move back to their home countries.
Ms Danielle Lin, head of marketing and data at Moovaz, said nearly 35 per cent more individuals had used its services to move out of Singapore comparing the first two quarters of the year, while the firm noticed that more people are planning their next moves without expressing any concrete plans.
‘Exclusion’ approach not the solution
If the expats were indeed to leave Singapore in large numbers in the near future, would the country be better off, as some quarters have suggested?
Don’t bank on it — since an exodus could lead to other types of unemployment and undermines Singapore’s reputation as an international hub, which has fuelled its growth all these years, said experts.
Indeed, the effect on jobs has already been felt at a centrally located international school which had seen enrolment fall by 30 to 40 per cent, with some families not even informing the school that their kids were dropping out because they were leaving Singapore.
As a result, the school had to abruptly dismiss 16 of its 80 to 90 staff, and a vast majority of those being laid off were locals, according to a teacher who spoke on condition of anonymity.
Ms Tang, the Taiwanese who lost her job, noted that she lives in a Robertson Quay apartment where dozens of units are rented out to foreigners.
“If all the foreigners leave, who is going to pay the rent for condos? Their Singaporean owners will be struggling to pay their condo mortgages,” said the former sales executive who pays more than S$4,000 in rent a month.
Sandeep, an Indian IT manager who has worked in Singapore for almost a decade, pointed out that an expat also spends a substantial part of his income here.
Apart from rent and school fees, they pay taxes, he said. “The Government loses if there is no foreign talent. It will add burden to its budget,” he added.
Reiterating why foreign talents are an indispensable part of Singapore’s workforce, former Nominated MP and economist Walter Theseira said cities succeed because they concentrate talent and capital.
“There is hardly any successful city which can drive growth purely through the internal generation of talent and manpower. They all rely on migration,” added the associate professor at the Singapore University of Social Sciences.
While other leading cities can rely on migration that is completely internal, from their own hinterlands, Singapore’s can only come from external migration, he said.
Assoc Prof Theseira added: “The argument is often made that to solve our talent needs, all we need to do is to develop world class training programs, and train up Singaporeans to take jobs in the high skill growth areas.”
But such an argument is problematic, he pointed out.
“First, training is always slower than hiring workers who already have the right skills and experience set, putting any industry here that relies heavily on training locals (would put it) behind the curve compared to global competitors,” he said.
Also, the more specialised and difficult the training is, the greater the risk of creating skill mismatches, “where some of your highly trained workers cannot get suitable jobs, especially if you aim to fill a high proportion of the vacancies with Singaporeans”.
“Finally, many high skill jobs require not just some training but also talent and capabilities, which are not evenly distributed in the population. Even if Singapore punches well above our weight in being able to generate talent, we are doing so from a population base that’s tiny compared to the world,” he said.
Mr Christopher Quek, a venture capitalist who invests in Singapore-based technology start-ups, said that while there may be a need to raise the salary bar of EPs, the recent tightening exercises of work pass requirements in May and August do little to deal with the core of the issue — the mistrust between expats and Singaporeans.
He proposed that EP holders no longer be solely judged on their skills in their future, but also on their ability to contribute to Singaporeans and help them. Through this process of more interactions, EP holders will also feel more rooted and may one day become citizens and give back more, he said.
Mr Quek stressed that it is important to attract talents in the information and communications technology (ICT) field, as Singapore produced only about 48,500 graduates this year — not a sufficient stock of trained technical talents to embark on forefront technological developments.
“If we persist in excessive raising of costs to hire these foreign talents, ICT companies will look to basing their tech innovation operations elsewhere, and Singapore loses as a whole in terms of jobs and possible innovation,” he said.
He pointed out that Vietnam, for example, is becoming an ICT capital of tech talent for the US. Seventy per cent of Vietnam’s 97 million population are aged below 35 and it has a much larger graduate talent pool than Singapore.
As Manpower Minister Josephine Teo told Parliament on Tuesday: “We must therefore not miss the woods for the trees, by focusing narrowly on keeping foreigners out and missing the larger picture of growing the pie and giving Singaporeans the chance of the best slice.”
Dr Deep Kisor Datta-Ray, 41, an academic who has lived in Singapore on and off for the last 30 years, cautions Singaporeans that anti-foreigner remarks usually herald the start of divisive politics that will do the nation no favours.
He added: “When you start basing your politics on exclusion, you keep on making yourself smaller, whereas the Singaporean approach is not exclusion but inclusive, and Singapore may be, today, the only country in the world that is not trying to diminish itself.”
Nevertheless, some experts believe that this is a temporary phase and Singapore will remain an attractive place for expats when the economy regains its footing.
Dr Kelvin Seah, a senior economics lecturer at NUS, noted that in the near term, companies are “likely to have less incentives to hire expats because they are afraid that this might put them under public scrutiny”.
“But in the longer term, once the economy recovers, my view is that Singapore will remain an attractive place for expats, because relative to other countries, it is still easy for expats to find work here and personal income tax rates are one of the lowest in the world,” he said. — TODAY