Forum: Welcoming foreigners requires an understanding on both sides

I read with interest the article, "Foreign manpower: Making the global talent approach work for Singapore" (Sept 21). I agree with Associate Professor Terence Ho's central tenets of covering the Singaporean bottom line and observations such as how not all Employment Pass holders are better qualified than locals for the job.

On the point of making foreigners feel welcome, however, I feel this is something that has to happen from the ground up, with an understanding on both sides - the "welcomer" and the "welcomee" - on the nature of the welcome.

I am not talking about being a friendly porter who opens the taxi doors and carries a foreigner's bags for a day. I am talking about building longstanding relationships that are woven into the Singaporean social fabric.

In my experience, most foreigners come to Singapore with at least some measure of curiosity about the new place. Some get to know more about Singapore and its inhabitants, others are more concerned with the practical aspects of getting around the city. Not all will choose to settle down here.

So in tandem, I ask that government policy be fair in assessing the necessary contributions of, and appropriate privileges for, foreigners during their time in Singapore.

At the corporate level, government policy can make companies feel very welcome through levers such as tax relief. But the need to build local capability and promote Singaporeans to positions of senior leadership should also be spelt out and, perhaps, regulated.

Critically, manage the fundamentals of job creation. Someone who has just lost a job is not going to be in the mood to play the animated host.

Xenophobic tendencies and social fault lines can be cultivated in a Petri dish of economic instability.

What is key is the creation of jobs that allow Singaporeans to thrive, realise their unique potential and enjoy the fruits of Singapore's economic success.

Finally, at the heart of every foreign-local debate is a question of identity and space. Any nation with a changing demographic grapples with this.

Perhaps we have an advantage as a young nation with less historical baggage. Perhaps we are at a disadvantage because groups of people from larger nations with longer histories can easily threaten to displace what budding "Singaporean identity" we have, or exert pressure on our existing way of life in this crowded, cosmopolitan city.

Is there enough space on this island for the multitude of cultures we want to inhabit? Of course there is.

If folk who come to our shores choose to throw their lot in with us, not because of momentary gain or convenience, but because they love and want to build and contribute to the nascent culture we have here, appreciate the people and values on this island and believe in the country's long-term vision, Singapore and Singaporeans should embrace them with open arms. It is a big ask, but the only one that stands the test of time.

Mutual benefits change as time passes. Sustainable friendships are rooted in an alignment of principles, goals and values. We may all come from different cultures, but if our values and dreams are the same, we'll find a way to communicate.

So don't sell just the tangible benefits of governance, law and order. Sell the Singaporean ethic of hard work, pragmatism, equality and progress - soft power can go a long way, both ways.

Samantha Wong

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