PERMANENT RESIDENTS, FOREIGNERS AND MAINLAND CHINESE IN SINGAPORE

PERMANENT RESIDENTS IN SINGAPORE

Permanent residents are people living in Singapore that have been granted the right to live there primarily because they possess some kind of professional skill. The acquisition of Singapore citizenship for a permanent resident has traditionally been a complex and often protracted ordeal that begins with an application to the Immigration Department for permanent resident status. After residing in Singapore for two to ten years, depending on skills and professional qualifications, those with permanent resident status could apply to the Registry of Citizens for citizenship. In 1987 citizenship was granted to 4,607 applicants and denied to 1,603 applicants.

A Singapore General Household Survey showed that new permanent residents rose by 8.7 percent to 30,000 per year between 2000 and 2005. During the same period, the number of citizen births rose by a mere 0.9 percent, or an average of 28,000 births per year. [Source: Kalinga Seneviratne, Asia Times, August 26, 2006 <+>]

Kalinga Seneviratne wrote in the Asia Times,“A growing number of Asian professionals, especially from mainland China, India, the Philippines, Malaysia and Hong Kong, have recently uprooted themselves from their home countries to take up employment in Singapore. Yet while many immigrants have taken up permanent-residency status, few go on to become Singaporean citizens. Kwan Chee Wei, a regional human-resource consultant for a multinational company, argues that many professionals go to Singapore hoping to advance their careers or for the upscale lifestyle, but are not interested in changing their citizenship. <+>

“That said, an increasing number of Indian and Chinese nationals have recently taken up Singaporean citizenship, creating a measure of resentment among the local ethnic Chinese and Indian populations, who see the new immigrants as competition for jobs. Lee has tried to defuse those tensions, contending that many Asian migrants have actually created jobs for other Singaporeans through their entrepreneurship. "If you get the right foreigner here, he creates thousands of jobs for Singaporeans, " he said. <+>

Foreigner Workers in Singapore, See Labor, Foreign Labor

Attitudes Towards Permanent Residents in Singapore

Lee Hsien Loong told the Washington Post: We are trying to manage our population. It is necessary. We are a small island — 700-odd square kilometers. There is a finite limit to how many people can be accommodated, and we have to control the inflow. If we don’t do anything, millions of Chinese would arrive at our shores....The population feels the physical pressure of the foreigners coming and working here, some [of whom] are prepared to work longer hours or accept less. I don’t think everybody fully appreciates the consequences of slower growth, which are very serious. You need growth to have the resources to build the infrastructure, housing, to uphold the standard of living. [Source: Washington Post, March 15, 2013]

Kalinga Seneviratne wrote in the Asia Times,“There has been many xenophobic complaints about government policy toward immigrants. One letter writer, Lim Boon Hee, said, "Be open to foreign talent, but do not forsake our own. One more clever foreign talent means one place less for our local-born sons in institutions of higher learning." Another writer, Jimmy Ho Kwok, suspects that employers will welcome foreign degree-holders from such countries as India and China so they can pay them less than the threshold salaries offered to local graduates and diploma-holders. <+> [Source: Kalinga Seneviratne, Asia Times, August 26, 2006 <+>]

“Unionist G Muthukumar points to information- technology professionals from India and sales assistants from the Philippines and Myanmar as examples of employers paying foreigners less than they would pay local hires. On the other hand, Manpower Minister Ng Eng Hen referred to how foreign technicians helped to set up Singapore's aircraft maintenance, repair and overhaul industry quickly - while it took Singapore six years just to set up the training courses to develop local technicians for the industry. <+>

“The debate has since turned focus to the politically volatile issue of the rising cost of living and its impact on raising a family. "Welcoming migrants to our shores is not the solution to our declining birth rates," argued Zeena Amir, a single sales executive in her late 20s. "What would be more beneficial to Singaporeans and also make more sense in the long term is to work on controlling the increasing cost of living." <+>

Good Conduct’ Law for Singapore Permanent Residents

In July 2012, Melissa Law wrote in Yahoo News, “A new “good conduct” condition for Permanent Residents (PRs) in Singapore was proposed as amendments to the Immigration Act. According to a Ministry of Home Affairs’ (MHA) statement, the good conduct condition for PRs allows the Immigration & Checkpoints Authority (ICA) to cancel the PR’s re-entry permit (PER) if he “contravenes any law” or is “involved in any activity which threatens a breach of peace or is prejudicial to public order”. If the PR travels out of Singapore or remains outside of Singapore without a valid REP, he will lose his PR status. This amendment also gives the ICA the ability to “impose, vary, or set additional conditions for the validity of the REP”. [Source: Melissa Law, Yahoo News, July 10, 2012 *=*]

The other amendments proposed include: 1) Criminalising marriages of convenience to obtain an immigration facility (e.g. entry visa, permanent residency, long-term pass etc); 2) Criminalising the manufacture, trafficking and possession of paraphernalia for immigration forgeries; and 3) Allowing the ICA to obtain passenger/crew information on inbound persons prior to their arrival. *=*

MHA introduced the amendment bill in Parliament in order to “strengthen Singapore’s border security” and “facilitate the legal entry of bona fide foreigners into our country while keeping out undesirable persons, goods and conveyances.” The Immigration Act regulates immigration facilities as well as the entry, stay, and exit of all foreigners. The last major amendment to the Act was in 2004. *=*

Permanent Residents Favored Over Native Singaporeans?

Seah Chiang Nee wrote in the The Star, “An electronics firm that advertised for a “preferably non-Singaporean” engineer has added fuel to a worsening controversy in this migrant city. It particularly stipulated that “permanent residents are welcome” to apply for this “mid-career job (salary negotiable)”. A copy of the advertisement found its way onto the web. This provoked strong reactions from Singaporeans who are already upset at the large number of foreigners allowed to work here. [Source: Seah Chiang Nee, The Star, September 26, 2009 ++]

“One asked if such discrimination is legal. “This sort of ad would have landed this company in heavy trouble in most developed states,” he added. Another writer said: “Now we know where we stand. The policy has downgraded Singaporeans to below foreigners.” Archilles said: “I feel left out by my own government, which is desperately trying to attract foreign talent (and) overlooking our own ‘local talent’. It’s sad, very sad!” ++

“A similar storm broke some years ago when another company told a fresh Singaporean graduate during a job interview that his chances were slim if he had to report for annual reservist duty. “We prefer a foreigner who has no such obligations,” the executive had added. Besides, they are much less costly to hire.” ++

Anger and Resentment Towards Foreign Workers in Singapore

Seah Chiang Nee wrote in The Star, “ The public is increasingly turning some of its anti-immigration resentment - rather unfairly - to foreign workers. This is predictable since it has affected local jobs and families. Singaporeans - once one of the world’s most obedient citizens – are both worried and angry despite recent government curbs and a cut-back on arrivals. [Source: Seah Chiang Nee, The Star, March 16, 2013]

Two recent instances show the extent of the emotions. In the first, a Tamil TV forum attended by Singaporean Indians as part of a national dialogue produced some heated comments seldom heard over any state-owned media. Commendably, the programme was allowed to be aired as a result of a more tolerant attitude towards the immigration controversy, probably as an emotional release. One by one, the speakers laid the blame of many things gone wrong on “foreign talents”, including taking jobs away from Singaporeans and causing the cost of living to rise. A well-dressed woman said: “Even Singaporeans are not taken care of. So who is going to take care of the foreigners”. Another said many of the new migrants “will run back to their respective countries if Singapore faces problems.” A gentleman commented, “As such I think it is good to set a limit for this economic growth.”

The second case was the recent opening of a Philippine fast-food branch here. It was marred by a boycott staged by Singaporeans who were incensed by the company hiring foreigners en masse in preference over Singaporeans. Organisers said they wanted to let businesses know that hiring foreigners ahead of locals are not welcomed here. On the opening day, however, there was a crowd of customers with many of them being Filipinos working here. Online both Singaporeans and Filipinos exchanged heated insults. This event brought out a side of Singaporeans seldom seen before. Traditionally they had always welcomed foreigners and mixed freely with them.

With a modern history of less than 50 years this migrant society is made up of off-springs of people who came from diverse lands to make it their home. Of late, however, the level of tolerance for foreigners has evidently declined. Tempers have grown shorter, at times provoked by some hot-headed foreigners. This mood may slow down the government’s efforts to make it a global city capable of attracting top talents from the world to work and settle here.

Locals versus Foreigners in Singapore

Seah Chiang Nee wrote in The Star, ““The local-versus- foreigner divide has become one of the three biggest social threats, admitted Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong. The other threats are an economic gap and race and religion. Few people expect any large-scale violence, but the authorities are taking no chances. The Public Order Bill has been changed to require any cause-related assembly to have a police permit, even if only one person is involved. So far, the resentment of Singaporeans is confined to petitions and online insults, and even these are rising. Early this year, thousands of residents of Serangoon Gardens protested against the building of a large dormitory in their serene private estate to house thousands of foreign workers.” [Source: Seah Chiang Nee, The Star, June 13, 2009 ><]

“Quarrels between mainland Chinese and Singaporeans frequently crop up over the former’s loud, boorish habits – and “job stealing”. In a web survey asking whether Singaporeans welcomed foreigners, which is a regular government exhortation, 73 percent of the respondents said: “No, we’re overcrowded enough.” The yes vote was 17 percent; the rest said they were foreigners. ><

“Ironically, such unhappiness comes at a time when the recession is sending home large numbers of foreigners, mostly the lowly-paid, in a reverse migration. Economists are predicting that as many as 200,000 migrant workers in Singapore will return home between this year and next. Many are from China, India and elsewhere in South-East Asia. This outflow is a world phenomenon, and is likely to continue. The Wall Street Journal reported that hundreds of thousands of workers from developing countries were leaving the West. ><

“Historically, this is a migrant society, and now cosmopolitan and multi-racial. Hence, the vast majority have no problems accepting the open door policy. What they resent is overdoing it, letting in such vast numbers. “Unlike the past migrants who came to settle here, the present lot are like leeches, who come just to make money and go home,” said one writer. Foreign exclaves have been set up in many areas where Indians, Thais, Filipinos and Burmese assemble in large numbers. “Here Singaporeans are often the minorities,” said a news agency reporter. One observer said: “I think the next generation of people born here will have a weaker sense of identity and attachment to this country due to the social upheaval posed by the ‘flood the island with foreigners’ policy.” ><

Resentment Towards Permanent Residents Increases During 2008-2009 Global Financial Crisis

During the global economic crisis in 2009, Seah Chiang Nee wrote in the The Star, “In recent years, the rate of entry has increased sharply as the economy flourished.Every year some 100,000 foreigners have been arriving, putting pressure on what was already one of the most competitive and over-crowded cities in Asia. The controversy couldn’t have come at a worse time when the country is emerging from a severe downturn and the people’s uppermost concern is getting – or retaining – their jobs. [Source: Seah Chiang Nee, The Star, September 26, 2009 ++]

“Singaporeans, being descendants of immigrants themselves, have never been antagonistic to the presence of foreigners here – until now. What they resent is not their coming, but the overwhelming numbers, which they feel are threatening their jobs and education opportunities. They are also angry with uneven policies that benefit foreigners more than locals, especially national service (compulsory two years) and the subsequent annual reservist call-ups, a burden not borne by foreigners. ++

“Permanent residents are exempted, but their children are not. Not having to meet reservist call-ups and cheaper wages are powerful attractions for employers to hire foreigners, particularly in a weak economy. Complaints have increasingly come from older or mid-career Singaporeans who have been replaced by lower-cost younger workers from China or India. ++

“The foreigners, hungrier and without family responsibility here, generally work longer hours for less pay – something that married Singaporeans with a home mortgage to pay cannot possibly match. A small industry has risen to recruit them in large numbers – as indicated by a recruitment agency, with this advertisement: “Do you find it difficult and expensive to hire local staff? Why not consider hiring foreign talents?” Claiming it was licensed by the Manpower Ministry, the agency said that it had recruited thousands of workers from China, India, Vietnam and Malaysia for Singapore firms in the past five years. ++

“Political leaders are now working hard to reassure embittered Singaporeans that their interests would always come first. Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong announced last week that his government would reduce the inflow of foreign workers to maintain the “tone” of society. He gave no numbers. At the same time, his Community, Youth and Sports Minister assured polytechnic students: “You have a birthright. Everything we do is for your long-term benefit. Foreigners are here to help make Singapore more viable and competitive.” ++

Rare Demonstration in Singapore Over Immigration Plans

In February 2013, the BBC reported: “Singaporeans have staged a rare demonstration, in protest at government plans to allow more immigration. Organisers said more than 4,000 people attended the rally, making it one of Singapore's largest ever protests. They are angry at a recent government policy paper that predicted the population would grow by 30 percent to 6.9 million by 2030, with immigrants making up nearly half that figure. Many locals blame immigration for rises in property prices and living costs. [Source: BBC, February 16, 2013]

The peaceful three-hour rally took place in heavy rain at a park venue known as Speakers' Corner, where protests are allowed without a police permit. Only a handful of uniformed officers were seen close by The crowds, protected from the downpours by a sea of umbrellas, came out to voice their displeasure at the ruling People's Action Party's (PAP) immigration policies, rally organisers said. "The large crowd here shows the PAP government that they are not afraid any more, they don't want to hide behind a moniker on Facebook to show their displeasure," chief organiser Gilbert Goh, a former opposition candidate for parliament, told AFP news agency. Many local people say the surge in foreigners in recent years has already put a strain on the small, wealthy island state's resources, and has pushed down salaries while raising property prices.

Chinese Immigrants in Singapore

Many Chinese immigrants have come to Singapore to seek their fortune. Some are students seeking skills. Some are workers seeking high wages. Some are illegal workers doing construction jobs. Other are mothers seeking a good education for their children. They come from all over China. Chinese immigrants with university degrees and skills are welcomed by the Singaporean government partly to offset brain drain resulting from skilled Singapore workers and professional working abroad. Chinese immigrants have the advantage of being to blend in with the largely Chinese population and speak the same language of many people. But at the same time they also complain they are looked down upon.

Jamie Ee Wen Wei wrote in The Straits Times, “Groups of them started coming here in the 1970s, but they worked mostly in construction sites and factories. The influx started last year, when rules were relaxed to allow more men and women from China to work in service jobs. Previously, service-sector companies were told that only up to 45 percent of their employees could be foreigners on work permits, of which China workers were limited to 5 percent. From this year, companies can hire up to 50 percent foreigners, with Chinese nationals making up 10 percent. [Source: Jamie Ee Wen Wei. The Straits Times, April 20, 2008 ||||]

Sim Chi Yin wrote in the New York Times, “Thousands of Chinese students live here, too, some with mothers who came along to support their children by illegally working as maids, or worse. In Geylang, Singapore’s red-light district, Chinese women can sometimes outnumber the stalwarts from Thailand and the Philippines. Many Chinese do successfully assimilate. According to official figures, 30 percent of all Singaporean marriages involve a citizen and a foreigner, up from 23 percent a decade ago. But the passage of time does not necessarily narrow the cultural gap. [Source: Sim Chi Yin, New York Times, July 27, 2012 ^*^]

“Yang Mu, a Beijing-born economist who moved here in 1992 and became a citizen three years later, acknowledges a host of superficial differences, saying he finds locals somewhat aloof, more likely to work late and less likely to spend the night commiserating over stiff drinks. Unlike Singaporeans, people from China, he said, would never split a dinner tab. “I’ve voted in four elections now, and it is great to live in a country where you can trust people and trust the government,” said Mr. Yang, 66, who formed a local charity that teaches English to Chinese migrants. “I still don’t feel Singaporean,” he added. “The truth is, when I retire, I’ll probably move back to China.” ^*^

Anger Towards Chinese Newcomers in Singapore

Sim Chi Yin wrote in the New York Times, “It was bad enough that Ma Chi was driving well above the speed limit on a downtown boulevard when he blew through a red light and struck a taxi, killing its two occupants and himself. It didn’t help, either, that he was at the wheel of a $1.4 million Ferrari that early morning in May, or that the woman in the passenger seat was not his wife. But what really set off a wave of outrage across this normally decorous island-state is the fact that Mr Ma, a 31-year-old financial investor, carried a Chinese passport, having arrived in Singapore four years earlier. The accident, captured by the dashboard camera of another taxi, has uncorked long-stewing fury against the surge of new arrivals from China,[Source: Sim Chi Yin, New York Times, July 27, 2012 ^*^]

“Tensions over immigration bedevil many nations, but what makes the clash here particularly striking is that most of Singapore’s population was already ethnic Chinese, many of them the progeny of earlier generations of Chinese immigrants. The paradox is not lost on Alvin Tan, the artistic director of a community theater company that takes on thorny social issues. “Mainlanders may look like us, but they aren’t like us,” said Mr Tan, who is of mixed Malay-Chinese descent and does not speak Mandarin. “Singaporeans look down on mainlanders as country bumpkins, and they look down on us because we can’t speak proper Chinese.” ^*^

“These days, mainland Chinese get blamed for driving up real-estate prices, stealing the best jobs and clogging the roads with flashy European sports cars. Coffee shop patrons gripe that they need Mandarin to order their beloved Kopi-C (coffee sweetened with evaporated milk). True or not, tales of Chinese women stealing away married men have become legion. “Singaporeans woke up one day to find the trains more crowded with people who speak Mandarin, and they aren’t handling it very well,” said Jolovan Wham, executive of an organization that helps foreign laborers, many of whom face exploitive work conditions. “The amount of xenophobia we’re seeing is just appalling.” ^*^

“In the days after the accident, social media here were awash in commentary that blamed mainlanders like Mr Ma for upending Singapore’s gracious, well-mannered ways. Bloggers called him “spoiled and corrupt,” wrongly identified him as the son of a powerful Beijing official and suggested the police prosecute him posthumously. Detractors created a mock Facebook page, since removed, that brimmed with ugly invective. “Good riddance and enjoy hell you piece of mainland trash,” read one of the tamer postings. ^*^

“Singapore’s government, which has long relied on strict media and sedition laws to maintain ethnic and religious harmony in a multicultural society, has become alarmed by the venom, much of it coming from middle-class Singaporeans. In a recent speech to a parliamentary committee, Deputy Prime Minister Teo Chee Hean defended the country’s immigration policies, saying foreign workers — both educated and unskilled — were indispensable to counterbalance a rapidly aging population and to maintain the momentum of Singapore’s roaring economy. “Quite naturally, we expect that our new immigrants should adapt to our values and norms, and we get upset if they have not yet done so,” he said, speaking in English, Singapore’s lingua franca. “However, I do agree that we should not let recent reactions towards new immigrants and foreigners undo the good job that we have done in building a strong and cohesive society out of people from many lands.” ^*^

“Although the furor has largely been confined to the anonymity of the Internet, Singaporeans staged a rare public protest against new immigrants last summer after a family from China complained about the curry-laden odors wafting from an ethnic Indian neighbor’s apartment. A campaign organized via Facebook drew tens of thousands of supporters who all vowed to cook a curry dinner on the same day. ^*^

“There was another wave of schadenfreude in March, after a Chinese student at the National University of Singapore was fined 3,000 Singapore dollars, or about $2390, for referring to Singaporeans as dogs in a posting on a Chinese microblog service. The student, who was also forced to perform three months of community service and to return a semester’s worth of financial aid, said he was upset by the glares from elderly Singaporeans he accidentally jostled on the sidewalk.

“The tenor of the debate has unnerved some Chinese immigrants, and angered others. Wang Quancheng, the chairman of the Hua Yuan Association, the largest organization representing mainlanders, said the government was not doing enough to help integrate new arrivals, but he also blamed Singaporeans for their intolerance and said many were simply jealous that so many Chinese immigrate here with money in their pockets. “Of course, the new arrivals are rich or else the government would have to feed them,” he said. “Some locals are very lazy and live off the government. When new immigrants come, they think it is competition, taking away their rice bowls.”

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Singapore Tourism Board, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.

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© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated June 2015

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