IN CASE YOU MISSED IT

Don't hate me because I'm a foreigner

Right now is a funny time to be a foreigner in Singapore.

From the crowds clogging up the MRT to the sky-high price of housing, it seems that everywhere I look, people like me are considered part of the problem.

Things weren't always this way. At least, that's not how it felt when I arrived from London 21/2 years ago. Back then, the anti-foreigner sentiment was little more than a twinkle in a blogger's eye.

Right from the word go, I was struck by how friendly people seemed and how they went out of their way to chat to me in coffee shops - asking where I was from and making sure I tried all the local dishes.

Don't get me wrong. I'm not saying Singaporeans have suddenly become cold or xenophobic. And I understand the feeling many have of being overwhelmed by the sheer numbers of outsiders. Yet it still stings to see some of the online comments about "FT scum" - a less-than- flattering term for foreign talent.

This is a nation grappling with an intense debate about how many newcomers to allow in and what role they should play in society.

But as a member of this muchmaligned group, I hope people do not rush to embrace a narrative that sidelines all the positives that foreigners have brought. After all, the country does not take in outsiders out of the goodness of its heart. There are no asylum seekers here. Instead, most foreigners come to work hard, contribute to the economy and, yes, make a decent living for themselves.

If Singaporeans decide they would rather have slightly less economic growth in return for fewer people crowding onto this small island, that is fair enough. But it's worth remembering that even foreigners who do not sink roots are hardly bandits who simply take without leaving anything behind.

Whether it is the construction workers toiling to build the city's homes or the multinational bosses who bring jobs, people from overseas continue to make an important contribution. And while I understand the need to preserve a Singaporean identity, I hope we do not end up becoming a convenient scapegoat for the country's woes. Of course, the foreigners here are far from a homogenous group. My experience will differ vastly from that of a maid or a wealthy Chinese national. So far, I've not noticed any change in attitudes towards me on a day-to-day level. Maybe people avoid the topic of immigration out of politeness, so as not to make me feel uncomfortable.

Yet I'm aware of the perception that expatriates receive special treatment in the workplace.

Last year, allegations of bias against locals made up half of the employment- related complaints. Perhaps reducing the number of people allowed in could help, at least temporarily.

In the long run, however, the best way to root out a culture in which bosses do not hire based on merit might be to bring in anti-discrimination laws that allow disgruntled workers to take action. That way, both they and their employers would know exactly where they stand.

As I watch the population debate unfold, I can't help comparing the situation with that in London. There, resentment crops up occasionally against low-wage migrants and the super-rich foreigners who push property prices beyond the reach of ordinary families.

Both groups have been accused of taking advantage of state handouts or tax perks. But unlike in Singapore, local people who tire of high prices or seeing their neighbourhood filled with unfamiliar faces can always move out of the city. Here, space constrictions mean that's not possible - perhaps one of the factors behind last month's major demonstration against the Government's population white paper.

My wife and I came to Singapore because it was a great opportunity to live and work in a global city at the heart of booming Asia.

We've done our best to integrate and been welcomed in return, with friends inviting us to visit their homes and celebrate with them at weddings, parties and religious festivals.

It may now transpire that the Republic doesn't need to keep recruiting as many migrants and expatriates, particularly those chasing the executive jobs that Singaporeans desire most.

That's up to the public and politicians to decide. But as a foreigner, I just hope the debate doesn't become too acrimonious.

It would be a shame if a knee-jerk reaction against outsiders spoiled that openness which makes Singapore such a unique and fascinating place to live.

jacooper@sph.com.sg

This story was first published in The Straits Times on March 17, 2013

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