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The Singapore conundrum

April 1, 2012

The island-republic's much vaunted achievements were actually ‘manufactured’ elsewhere.

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By Elizabeth Peiris

It never fails to astound! The idea that foreigners could give Singapore and its economy a fillip and set it soaring was what everybody welcomed with open arms some 20 years.

There certainly is no doubt that the policy has indeed delivered some benefits from its implementation from meeting the drought in babies born, to meeting national economic objectives.

Perhaps one was when a Singaporean team scaled Mount Everest in 1998. That feat was feted all around the country.

Then a table tennis team became the toast of the town when it won a silver medal in the 2008 Beijing Olympics; the first time it has ever happened since 1960. Again there was all around merriment.

Gleefully and justifiably Singapore had every reason to proud of those seismic achievements because nobody in the nation’s history has ever quite put Singapore on the map, in the way those mentioned achievements pulled off.

But as the celebrations wore on a sobering truth, or rather home truth began sinking in. The much vaunted achievements were actually ‘manufactured’ elsewhere.

The Mount Everest conquest was led by a Malaysian and the table tennis team actually by a Chinese pair. Neither of the persons involved was attuned to Singapore-style ideologies and neither could have fully appreciated Singapore style docility and the peculiarities of the state.

All in the achievements were actually imported just like in the talent, the city-state imports with nary discrimination if the people stepping ashore are actually the talent the nation needs to fire up its economy.

All the same foreign talent (whatever that means) has indeed helped Singapore in ways and means some had least expected they could.

They have helped buoyed Singapore-owned shipbuilding companies, helped the city-state’s banks (the Straits Times on March 30 reported that the Indian-born CEO of DBS bank was receiving a 9% pay rise because of the way he had shepherded the financial institution) and importantly powered the economy.

Premier Lee Hsien Loong could not conceal his glee when he announced over a year ago that despite the global financial crisis the nation recorded a growth of 14% in GDP terms. As usual there was no breakdown of what the foreign element input to the growth was.

Yet as events over the last few years have shown; a large foreign community – now estimated at close to two million out of a population of 5.2 million – has hardly been the soothing balm or saviour of the Singapore authorities.

Many are rounded for criminal activities, some in custody for immigration offences for nothing more than the supposedly lax rules in the nation and when a Chinese national carjacked a taxi and killed a Malaysian cleaner working at Singapore’s Budget terminal, the murmurings of disquiet first heard a few years resurfaced again.

That feeling of distaste

But that was not long before another Chinese national on a government scholarship posted offensive racist remarks denigrating Indians in the country.

And some years ago China-born Zhang Yuanyuan, who had studied in Singapore for five years and landed a lucrative job here, caused outrage when she flashed her residency card while apparently proclaiming her loyalty to China. That sure was an act of ingratitude, at least according to the vast majority of Singaporeans.

The distaste and often resentment among local Singaporeans has rankled long enough.

Though foreigners have arguably lowered the cost of Singapore’s goods and services and helped retain the nation’s competitiveness, those benefits have hardly trickled down for the larger benefit of the nation’s populace in terms of the quality of life.

“The prices of goods are still expensive as ever and housing prices have not got any better”, lamented a lawyer who declined to be identified, adding that if the goal of the foreign component in Singapore’s economy was to lower the prices of goods and services, it is fast turning into an oxymoron when prices of goods and services have hardly remained the same.

To the contrary, prices have raced so high people have openly begun to wonder if the foreign element in the Singapore calculus actually confers any benefits or if people from vastly differing ideologies and societal set-ups without any understanding of the acrimonious history between Singapore and Malaysia as typified by the racist rant, are actually for the larger benefit of the nation.

If anything there is nothing to suggest foreigners have as yet assimilated into Singapore society, in the way most of its denizens have expected them to. Most are blamed for some of the social ills creasing the city-state.

It is always a hard act to follow, to say the least. One only need to look at the events that unfolded in France over the past few weeks in radical terrorist, Mohammad Merah, to know that national integration cannot and should not been seen just through the prism of meeting economic gains.

A larger purpose looms that now is proving to be a conundrum of sorts for Singapore.

Elizabeth Peiris is a Singapore-based freelance writer.


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