June 10, 2011

Stemming the tide of workers in Singapore

Singapore (The Star/ANN) - A likely verdict of the immigration backlash by Singaporean voters is being felt by foreign workers half a world away -- foreign hopefuls ranging from middle-aged professionals to fresh-faced graduates, from technicians and waitresses to construction workers, seeking to land a well-paying job here.

After years of open immigration, tens of thousands are facing unpromising prospects these days.
When the then economically weak countries in the West were closing their doors, this city -- Asia's second richest -- virtually turned itself into a free port for job seekers.
It welcomed all types of workers in large numbers from East and West to its shores, pushing a three million population in 1990 to 5.08 million.

Quite a few were talented by any standards, but many were also people who had few capabilities to contribute but who merely took away local jobs.

Thousands ended up as prostitutes or cardboard collectors.

In the May 7 election, public anger boiled over, forcing the authorities to backtrack.
For years, citizens had been protesting that the foreign deluge was causing hardship to them and their families.

Civil action groups and social networks took protest action in sympathy with unemployed and underemployed Singaporeans -- many from the middle class -- who were replaced by foreigners.

The demonstrations will not go away. The impact is already being felt at the policy level.

The government has cut down by nearly half the number of foreign workers from an average of 130,000 a year each in 2007, 2008 and 2009 to 80,000 last year.

Further tightening is on the cards. There will be fewer foreign work permits and professional visit passes as well as permanent residents (PR).

The surge in foreign workers began in 2005 as the government sought to diversify the economy away from manufacturing into services such as tourism.

Two stresses are at play. On the one hand is Singapore's low fertility and ageing population and manpower shortage (or mismatch of work skills) that force employers to turn to foreign sources.
The other is insufficient protection for workers against abusive employers.

Nothing can stop an employer from sacking a Singaporean and hiring a foreigner just to save money.

Neither is there any law that prevents a boss from hiring a foreigner even if local skills are available.

The extent of the current tightening is unknown, although leaders are insisting that foreigners are still needed.

The future, however, may well be dictated by the hard realities on the ground.
"If they turn the flood back on again, the People's Action Party will lose the next election in 2016. Period," a political researcher said.

"(The government's) only hope is to gradually reduce the numbers and look after Singaporeans first."

Some believe that the poorly-handled policy may have forced Singapore to retract its expansion -- at least until it can meet housing, public transport and healthcare needs.

The government may have no choice but to cut back, even at the expense of weaker growth. The public emotions appear too strong to overcome.

In the last days of campaigning, it was evident that Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong was very worried about a possible thrashing -- including in his own candidacy in Ang Mo Kio.

Two days before polling, Lee apologised twice for mistakes his government had made in the past few years -- including overcrowded trains and housing shortage.

"It was a great relief to him that it did not happen," a reporter said.

But the 6.5% drop in votes probably made him resolve to go for drastic change to avoid trouble in 2016, including an immigration solution.

For hundreds of thousands of prospective foreign job-seekers -- many from countries like Malaysia, China, India and the Philippines -- the change is their worst fears come true.

Many had been watching the heated debate with rising apprehension, fearing a curbing of the flow.

Since then, there has been widespread talk that companies are finding it hard to bring in foreign workers.

The most worried lot are fresh graduates from several Asian countries facing a shrinking job market at home and seeking relief abroad.

This means that unless foreigners have special talents -- or their skills are unavailable in Singapore -- getting approval will become harder.

Not only that. Those workers who have arrived and found wanting may find it harder to get renewal.

It is not just the work applicants. Families and spouses, and PRs, too, are coming under increasing scrutiny.

Even foreign wives of Singaporeans who lack job qualifications are finding it hard.

All this by no means signifies a closed-door strategy. Singapore will likely continue to employ foreigners but it will be at a more acceptable pace.

The criteria of what is talent may be stricter to ensure locals are not discriminated against.

"The election result has become a hard reality for the government," the researcher said.

"The PAP has lost its stranglehold. It will no longer be able to decide all the options in future."

For Singapore, it could spell an end to its ambition to have a 6.5 million to seven million population for a long time to come.

When it was first mooted, making Singapore a metropolis comparable to the top global cities -- London (population 7.4 million), Paris (2.14 million), New York (8.3 million) and Hong Kong (seven million) -- Singaporeans reacted with pride.

They liked the idea, the image and the buzz. But after years of crowd-jostling and dense living, few people today like a population of that size.

In fact, quite a few prefer it smaller and more comfortable.

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