Singapore — a poster child for globalism — is taking a nativist turn

By Katerina Ang,

Bryan Van Der Beek Bloomberg News

Spectators gather to photograph Apple’s Marina Bay Sands store on Sept. 10, its opening day in Singapore.

SINGAPORE — When Internet users circulated the LinkedIn profiles of ethnic Indian employees at Singapore-based financial institutions and accused them of stealing jobs, Rindo Ramankutty quickly set his account to private mode.

The 36-year-old Indian national has lived in this majority-Chinese city-state since 2011 and feels at home. But over the past decade, the tech worker has witnessed increasing vitriol online against his compatriots. He sometimes goes out of his way to play up his love of local cuisine to “establish I’m not an expat that everyone assumes is unable to integrate,” he said.

Although officials have condemned the abuse, a thread of nativism has entered mainstream discourse as Singapore, which has ambitions of supplanting politically troubled Hong Kong as Asia’s financial hub, takes a hard look at how open it wants to keep its borders. Unlike in Europe and the United States, where immigration debates generally revolve around undocumented or low-wage labor, middle-income professionals are the source of anxiety here.

A lawmaker with the ruling People’s Action Party recently spoke of visiting a business park with a high concentration of expatriates and feeling “like a foreigner in my own country.” This month, the government began raising minimum salaries that professionals must earn to qualify for a visa. It is urging companies to lay off non-Singaporeans first; the trade minister has said the country of 5.7 million welcomes skilled talent but is “making a move toward quality, rather than quantity.”

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Wealthy Singapore has a white-collar workforce of about 1.7 million — about 400,000 of whom hold foreign visas. It is unclear whether the policy changes are a reaction to pandemic-induced economic trouble or reflect a deeper inward shift.

Singapore’s success has been built on its reputation as a country where doing business is easy and immigration laws are relatively liberal. Some companies warned that forcing them to pay higher salaries will increase costs, but for now, many are waiting to see how the situation evolves post-pandemic.

“Demand for work permits has come down to a trickle,” said Gagan Sabharwal, a senior director at Nasscom, an Indian tech industry trade group.

“Globally, all countries are putting the local population first,” said Faiz Modak, a senior manager at Robert Walters, a recruitment firm, adding that Singapore’s tightening of visa eligibility would have a minimal effect on many financial-sector jobs.

A perceived concentration of Indian nationals in well-paying tech and banking jobs has been especially controversial. Although some European expats have also expressed concerns about rising nativism, attention has been focused on a 2005 agreement between Singapore and India that includes language about movement of professional workers. Singapore’s government and recruiters say the accord does not give Indian nationals special privileges.

Data on the national origin of expats isn’t publicly available, but Singapore’s financial regulator said that 57 percent of senior managers in the industry are foreigners and that the numbers reflect a sector that draws from talent globally and creates good jobs locally.

The perceived number of Indians in finance “is particularly sensitive to Singaporeans who want to work in those jobs,” said Sudhir Thomas Vadaketh, a sociopolitical commentator who has been critical of what he calls Singapore’s “growth at all costs” policies. He added that many countries would face a larger backlash if their middle-class populations had similarly high concentrations of expatriates.

Wallace Woon


Office workers walk through the financial district in Singapore on Sept 3.

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Unlike the United States, Singapore doesn’t have a visa quota for employees it considers highly skilled.

Racism is undoubtedly a factor behind some of the nativism. About 49 percent of ethnic Indians in 2019 said they faced discrimination in the housing rental market, according to a YouGov poll. The proportion of Singaporeans who said they were comfortable with the idea of having India-born naturalized citizens as a majority in the country dropped from 51 percent to 44 percent between 2013 and 2018, according to a study by the National University of Singapore.

Nonetheless, race-based violence is almost nonexistent, and outright xenophobic politicians have been repeatedly rejected at the polls. Instead, much of the discontent stems from professionals who have benefited from globalization and acknowledge the need for foreigners to fill certain jobs.

Several Singaporean bankers, who spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of retribution from their employers, described working in departments in which Indian nationals, not all of whom they thought were qualified, formed a plurality. The government says that since 2016, it has scrutinized more than 1,200 employers suspected of misusing visas.

DBS, a regional bank in which Singapore owns a large stake, was criticized by an opposition lawmaker in Parliament for not having a “homegrown” leader. (Its chief executive is a naturalized citizen of Indian origin.)

“We are committed to growing our own timber, and to ensure that we have a strong pipeline of local talent,” said a bank spokesperson, adding that its entire Singapore leadership team was local.

The coronavirus pandemic has dealt a further blow to Indian expatriates. Abhishek Gautam, a 30-year-old mechanical engineer, was in Delhi in March when borders were closed. He said that his applications to reenter Singapore, where he has lived for five years, have been denied more than 25 times and that he has been on unpaid leave since. His visa requires him to be physically present by October, and he isn’t sure whether he’ll get an extension.

“Work is great, the quality of life is good, and I’m really keen to come back,” he said.

Roslan Rahman

AFP/Getty Images

Travelers walk through a terminal in Singapore’s Changi Airport on Sept. 11.

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Many Indians in similar situations have petitioned their country’s leaders on Twitter to intervene. Some comments have been met with derogatory replies from other users telling them to stay home and avoid bringing the novel coronavirus to Singapore. Most of Singapore’s recent imported cases of the virus originated in India, and many of its more than 57,000 infections were among South Asian migrant laborers who lived in dormitories.

“Entry approvals for incoming travelers . . . are limited to reduce further risk of importation of covid-19 cases and to protect public health,” said a spokesperson for Singapore’s labor ministry.

Some resentment also persists from a sense that some Indian nationals treat the country as a steppingstone. “Singapore is a motel of the global highway, a transit hub,” said Xavier Augustin, a consultant based in Hyderabad who helps Indian professionals immigrate. The typical Indian professional “goes to Singapore for a while, gets experience and moves on,” he said.

Although globe-trotting professionals are a fixture of global metropolises, Singapore’s government faces the challenge of also managing a sovereign state that makes demands such as military conscription for male citizens.

“It is productive for cities to have transitional communities of highly educated, global elites,” Vadaketh said. “But as a sovereign state, we also have to build a Singapore core. Other cities don’t have to deal with such issues in such a stark fashion.”

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