With Singapore’s economy in decline and job security threatened by COVID-19, it seems locals have found an easy target to blame for their growing anxieties – the Comprehensive Economic Cooperation Agreement (CECA), which Singapore had signed with India back in 2005 to facilitate trade between the two countries.
On social media platforms, netizens claim CECA has allowed Indian nationals to steal jobs from Singaporeans, at a time when citizens’ livelihoods should be prioritised, and puts them on the fast track to attain citizenship. Such allegations, made worse by the pandemic, are rife, and are shared not only by ordinary Singaporeans, but also opposition politicians. This is despite repeated clarification and assurance by the government that those claims are false. Social media users also criticise private sector companies – particularly in the banking, engineering, and IT sectors – for engaging in discriminatory hiring practices that favour Indians over Singaporeans. This has given birth to fake news that stoke anti-foreigner sentiments, intentionally or otherwise.
This is not the first time xenophobia has been observed in Singapore, and Indian nationals are not the only target. At the start of the COVID-19 outbreak, more than 100,000 people signed a petition that urged the government to stop the “Wuhan virus from entering Singapore,” while Chinese workers and businesses were shunned. Later, attention shifted to Caucasian expatriates who were caught flouting social distancing measures.
It comes as little surprise then, that out of 161 people polled by Black Dot Research across all demographics, 54% felt Singaporeans exhibit xenophobic tendencies, while slightly more than a third disagreed.
COVID-19 and xenophobia
It was initially heartening to note that more than half (56%) did not report a change in their perception towards foreigners due to the pandemic. However, while some said the virus affects all regardless of nationality, race, or religion, others admitted to holding a prejudice against foreigners even before the COVID-19 outbreak.
Around a third of respondents (32%) noted a change in their perception towards foreigners post-COVID-19 – some for the better, others for the worse. Those in the former said the pandemic had opened their eyes to the squalid living conditions of migrant workers in Singapore, which had contributed to a surge of COVID-19 infections in dormitories. They also sympathised with (and even admired) the thousands of Malaysians who had to shuttle across the border daily to work, but were left stranded in Singapore when the Malaysian government announced a movement control order at a short notice. Border closures also meant having to leave their families, while facing job uncertainties in a foreign land.
However, for some, their perception of foreigners took a turn for the worse following the pandemic. For instance, they were unhappy when news surfaced of expatriates flouting safe distancing measures at the height of the COVID-19 outbreak. A number also reported an increase in what they feel is self-entitled behaviour on the part of foreigners on social media and online forums. Some accused certain nationalities for bringing the virus into Singapore. Meanwhile, others claimed the virus had exposed preferential treatment for foreigners in employment and government policies, as well as how over-reliant the Singapore economy is on them.
“Singaporean First” policy necessary
Anti-foreigner sentiments did not begin with the spread of the coronavirus, though. In 2014, a plan to celebrate the Philippine Independence Day caused an uproar in Singapore, with social media users expressing concerns that such an event would constitute an act of invasion. The ruling People’s Action Party also suffered its biggest loss in the 2011 polls due to public discontent over the government’s liberal immigration policies.
There have been, over the years, calls by the public and opposition parties for the government to implement a “Singaporean First” policy. BDR’s survey recorded an overwhelming support for such a move, at 76% of the total number of respondents. Nearly half (48%) had reported feeling that foreigners enjoy preferential treatment in Singapore, particularly in education, (26%) followed by government policies (16%).
Claims of foreign students, particularly from China and India, having an edge over local students have been circulating on social media in recent weeks. Black Dot Research has found these allegations to be misleading or false, including accusations that Singaporeans have to sell their homes in order to fund their children’s tertiary education while foreign students receive an all-expense paid trip to Singapore to study, and that more than half of university placements are set aside for non-locals.
For those who believe preferential treatment is accorded to foreigners, only 6% said this is applicable to employment.
Despite the above findings, many reported positive (38%), or at least neutral (38%), experiences with foreigners. Respondents are least welcoming of citizens from South Asia (25%) followed by North Asia (China, South Korea, etc., 27%), while many are more comfortable with Southeast Asians (33%). If they felt threatened, most were concerned about job competition (73%), followed by culture (42%), lifestyle (41%), housing (36%), and education (34%). Interestingly, a handful of respondents said they were worried about the introduction of foreign ideologies, especially a liberal progressive one, into Singapore, and their influence. Others (5%) noted they did not feel threatened at all.
Foreigners still needed
Also, although many had agreed a “Singaporean First” policy was necessary, 65% of respondents believe the country still needs foreigners. This is for various reasons – first, for the diversity and exchange of knowledge and skills, culture, and education (28%). Some, however, noted there needs to be a carefully calibrated and vetted policy towards the import of foreigners, particularly skilled workers. They also suggested that positions held by foreign talents must be vacated after a few years to make way for Singaporeans – this would clearly demonstrate a transfer of know-how.
Meanwhile, 27% say the presence of foreigners is crucial to fill up vacancies in sectors and industries that locals do not want to work in, such as in construction and domestic work, while 17% say this is to support Singapore’s workforce, due to a shortage of manpower and an ageing population. Slightly more than a tenth (13%) noted that foreigners are needed to contribute to the country’s economy and overall progress, while another 8% believe their presence boosts competitiveness in that they push Singaporeans to perform better, as well as to attract foreign direct investment. Another 7% say accepting foreigners into the country contributes to Singapore’s status as a multiracial, multicultural society, and global trade hub.
One interesting observation made by several respondents was that the existing narrative espoused by the government – that Singapore needs foreigners, particularly skilled ones – perpetuates a belief that Singaporeans are not up for the job, and if that is so, they questioned why talent is not/cannot be harvested locally. As for semi-skilled jobs, these respondents noted that Singapore will continue to rely on foreigners, due to existing stereotypes and low wages. It would be prudent to note here that 40% said they view skilled and semi-skilled foreign workers differently, while slightly more (48%) said no.
Lastly, we asked if there was a difference in how respondents viewed foreigners, permanent residents, and new citizens. This was in relation to recent criticisms levelled against homegrown bank DBS by a Non-Constituency Member of Parliament, that its highest authority was not homegrown. The CEO position has been held by Piyush Gupta since 2009, an Indian born who later became a Singaporean. Slightly more than half (55%) said no, while 39% said yes. Nearly three quarters of respondents (74%) felt the ability to assimilate into Singapore culture was the most important factor that contributes to their acceptance of foreigners, PRs, and new citizens. This is followed by their contribution to the host country (70%), and length of stay (47%).
As anxiety grows over survival, especially in the time of a pandemic and a global economic downturn, it comes as little surprise that xenophobia – defined as the fear and hatred of strangers and foreigners – is rearing its ugly head. While this survey has uncovered some positivity in the perception Singaporeans have of foreigners, there is unhappiness recorded, with majority feeling they have been relegated to the back seat. Without a viable vaccine, there is no end in sight for the COVID-19 pandemic, so it remains to be seen how Singapore, as a global trading hub, will tackle the growing challenge of xenophobia in the country.