Monday, February 18, 2008

Singapore - You are a foreigner, shut up

In Singapore, whether on a work permit or with Permanent Residence status, you are never allowed to forget that you are a foreigner. You may live here for more than ten years, contribute to the CPF, pay taxes, and create employment for Singaporeans, but you are not eligible for any Government programs such as top-ups or tax rebates, and you pay higher fees for medical treatment.

More importantly, you have no right to speak. As has been made abundantly clear with refusals to permit speakers from overseas and the latest fiasco with the Complaints Choir, foreigners are expected to be invisible and quiet. There is an excellent review here of the situation, written by a Singaporean.

Which is all well and good from one point of view. If one is a guest, it is rude to criticize one's host.

Using the term "guest" stretches things more than a bit though. Moving to Singapore, raising a family, starting businesses, employing people, these are not the behaviours of a guest. There is clearly a commitment and permanence which makes the label "guest" inappropriate.

The Singapore government survives and prospers in no small part because of its disciplined and relentless organizational ability and focus on listening to the "HDB heartlanders". Given that set up, it is not hard to see how foreigners present a problem. They are too heterogeneous to be managed.

The reality is that there are now more than a million foreigners living in Singapore. And they are completely disenfranchised. To have almost a third of the population of a country relegated to invisible status is simply to breed trouble. There are no examples in history of disenfranchising major portions of a population leading to positive outcomes.

I doubt we will see British investment bankers rioting in the streets demanding their rights to be heard - they tend to riot only after extended sessions at Boat Quay. Instead, Singapore gets what it has created - a foreign population that feels no connection to their adopted country of residence, and a large group of people with no voice to air grievances or suggest improvements.

I contrast this with Hong Kong, where the expat population is proud of their adopted home, and serve as unofficial ambassadors for the Territory, creating and sustaining a positive image for Hong Kong throughout the world.

It is a shame that those in power today have made the policy calculation that they need to suppress foreign residents in Singapore in order to manage Singapore. There are other, more positive approaches which do not risk the Singapore identity, while providing those contributing to the growth of the country with an appropriate level of representation.