The Big Read: “We” and “You” – can the two meet? Examining the gap between Singaporeans and foreigners

Singaporeans surveyed said that while crowded trains and food courts in the central business district bother them, they don’t blame foreigners for the bottleneck, even if they do it initially out of frustration.

Ms Lydia Ng, a 40-year-old owner of a digital consulting firm, said she blamed foreigners out of frustration when they boarded crowded trains.

And that’s despite knowing that crowded trains aren’t the fault of foreigners, but a problem of urban planning.

“Your mind tells you one thing… but you still fret because there is no room to breathe and you find something else (foreigners) to blame,” Ms Ng said.

NO PLAYGROUND FOR THE RICH

Job competition aside, there is also a perception among some Singaporeans that their country has become a playground for wealthy foreigners.

Figures from property firm Knight Frank showed that although Singapore suffered a pandemic-related recession in 2020, the number of ultra-high net worth people with net worth of at least $30 million rose 8.6 percent to 4,206 most recently is year in Singapore – up from 3,874 last year.

Experts said stereotypes that foreigners are well-heeled are reinforced by the presence of Western or European expatriates, who are over-represented in highly skilled and well-paid jobs. They are also featured in high society magazines or in the media.

dr NUS’s Tan Ern Ser said there may be a perception of the threat posed by foreigners to locals’ jobs, mixed with envy and a feeling that some foreigners do not deserve the high life they can afford in Singapore.

Such a mix could arouse envy among Singaporeans, he added.

Mr Gouthaman, the Singaporean working in fintech, said it’s natural for Singaporeans to be jealous when they see foreigners in better or more desirable jobs. Still, he acknowledged that their presence is necessary to attract foreign investment and create jobs for Singaporeans.

Through his personal interactions, he found that while some foreign colleagues hold high-paying jobs, live in luxury properties, and live different lives than the average Singaporean, they have continued to strive to understand the cultures of others.

Real estate analyst Christine Sun of real estate agency OrangeTee and Tie addressed fears that foreigners could drive up house prices here, saying that the average Singaporean need not worry as the number of foreign buyers is not large.

Both the transaction volume and the share of property purchases by foreigners fell from 2009 to 2021, she said.

For example, the number of unoccupied private homes, excluding executive condos, purchased by non-permanent residents or foreigners fell from 2,989 units in 2009 to 1,106 units in 2021.

In 2019, just before the pandemic, the number of transactions was also low at 1,000 units due to property cooling measures implemented over the previous 10 years.

Mr Goutham, the Indian national, debunked the misperception that all foreigners in Singapore live in riches, noting that living in Singapore is expensive and many foreigners like him “spend a bomb” to live here.

Mr Goutham, who lives with his family in a Housing and Development Board (HDB) rented flat, said: “It takes a lot of effort to take a job and survive here. If you only have one parent working and you have two children, it’s not easy to survive and make ends meet in Singapore.”

As a non-permanent resident, he has to spend S$825 a month on his son’s primary school fees and S$2,150 a month on HDB rent. Those expenses alone make up 40 percent of his monthly salary, excluding other expenses like public transport, he added.

CLOSING THE GAP

With such flashpoints and differing perspectives between Singaporeans and foreigners, should the two ever meet?

The NYC survey showed that fewer young Singaporeans (31 percent) feel there are enough opportunities to meaningfully interact with foreigners, especially outside of the workplace, compared to non-citizens (56 percent).

More than half of citizens and non-citizens believe that interactions with each other – such as through community bonds and individual efforts to improve the treatment of others – would best help Singaporeans integrate with foreigners.

Building shared experiences between Singaporeans and foreigners is needed to promote integration, said Dr. Leong.

These need to go beyond programs like organized community club events and instead focus on mundane, everyday experiences that bring all residents together. Those experiences may include spending time in cafes and letting the children of foreigners and Singaporeans take the elementary school exam, said Dr. Leong.

Singaporeans can also recognize that foreigners not only play an important role in the country’s economy, but also contribute to its social and cultural diversity, said Assoc Prof Laavanya.

As the pandemic has raised public awareness of the living conditions of low-skilled migrant workers, some young Singaporeans have stepped up to reach out to this group of expatriates.

One of them is Ms. Nabillah Jalal, a 30-year-old piano teacher who has been distributing food and other items to workers since last year.

Ms Nabillah, who has been active in advocacy for underprivileged youth, decided to help migrant workers after media articles highlighted their poor living conditions and the restrictions preventing them from leaving their residential homes at the height of the pandemic.

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