Migrant workers from India construct a road leading to the Financial District, background, in Singapore. Pic: AP.

Massive intake of foreign workers rubs locals the wrong way, writes Asia Sentinel’s Michael D. Barr

It appears counter-intuitive to suggest that a cosmopolitan hub like Singapore might have a problem with xenophobia.

Yet xenophobia has emerged as a major political concern in the city-state. Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong has routinely addressed the issue of immigration and foreign workers in his National Day Rally Speeches since 2009 — and in 2012 he openly warned Singaporeans to refrain from overt expressions of hostility towards foreigners.

The trigger for this new xenophobic fear was former Deputy Prime Minister Wong Kan Seng’s 2005 decision to engage in massively expanding the intake of foreign workers to avoid an anticipated recession. This directly led to the current situation where nearly 40 percent of Singapore’s residents are foreigners — many of whom have no interest in developing ties to the country or the opportunity even if they were interested.

The government confessed that it had failed to take any steps at all to provide infrastructural or social support for this influx of foreign workers. Bear in mind that while the government’s target population was only 4 million for 2010, the population passed 5 million that year — so even if the target had been taken seriously for infrastructure planning, infrastructure would still have been under stress.

After 2005, xenophobia started to emerge gradually, with immigration becoming a major issue in the 2011 General Election campaign. Yet even with this background, no one was prepared for the hostility that was unleashed against foreigners when a group of Chinese bus drivers went on strike in November 2012, nor the unprecedented 4,000-strong protest in February 2013 against the government’s publication of a White Paper, calling for even higher levels of immigration. There was also public outrage over the riot by South Asian foreign workers in Little India in early 2014. Reports of concern about the hardships and insecurities endured by foreign workers have only slightly softened the pattern of escalating hostility.

Yet there is clearly a new xenophobic mood taking hold that is threatening to become a full-blown crisis of national identity: does Singapore see itself through the prism of an ugly self-righteous and self-defensive nationalism, or is its natural pride in national achievements to be expressed as a positive, cosmopolitan form of nationalism?

Such questions of national identity have historically been in the hands of the government, and Singaporeans are fortunate that its government is clearly dedicated to taking Singapore down the path of benign cosmopolitanism.

Unfortunately that is where the good news ends, because most of the policy options that would deal with this problem appear to be out of bounds to policy makers.

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