Saturday, September 6, 2008

Work Here But Live Else Where

The issue of foreign workers housing is in the news lately and the heated exchanges are still going on.

What is the fuss all about?

At the last count, we have about 300,00 such workers in Singapore. Most of them are from the Philippines, Sri Lanka, Indonesia, Bangladesh and Thailand. There has been a sharp rise of the number of foreign workers in the last decade, thanks to the liberalized regulations towards hiring of foreign workers. Even though the Government has used levy and the 'dependency ceiling' to limit the proportion of foreign workers in the total workforce of any one employer, the presence of foreign workers can be felt at almost every part of Singapore. Right now, foreigners constituted about one-third of Singapore's total labor force and we have the highest proportion of foreign workers in Asia.

We brought them in because we need them. In this tiny Island state with only 4.6 million people, there are just not sufficient workers to work in the booming construction and manufacturing sectors. We either slow down economy growth or bring in some help. The latter is an obvious choice.

However, while they help us spin our economy northward, there also social issues. I had a walk down the roads in Little India and the feeling was a very strange one. I had to keep reminding myself "I am in Singapore... I am still in Singapore." The atmosphere was... how should I put it? Foreign?

I can understand why the residents at the Serangoon Gardens are upset and anxious about the Government's proposed plan to house about 1000 foreign workers in a nearby unused school. They petitioned and appealed for a reversal of decision. Interestingly, most of those who are concerned agree that most workers do not have any ill intention. However, they are not comfortable to have them in the neighborhood.

Is this an issue of trust, racism or elitism?

Our forefathers were immigrants from China and India. Many of us are children or grandchildren of pioneering immigrant workers who have helped to build the early Singapore. I wonder if our forefathers felt ostracized when they first came here...

Let's face it. We don't have much land. The fight for space to house the alien, the dead, the sick and the garbage will continue. Everyone needs such spaces but they do not want them to be near their home.

I can only empathize.

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