, Singapore

Don’t call it Xenophobia

By Aaron Wee

Singapore has experienced a surge of anti-foreigner resentment over the past decade leading some media outlets to claim a trend in rising xenophobia. However, citing xenophobia glosses over some very real social and economic anxieties and misses an opportunity to address the concerns of Singapore’s long-term residents.

Xenophobia is a word tossed around quite a bit in popular analysis. A casual glance at contemporary opinion would seem to indict Singaporeans for being unaccommodating and hostile towards foreigners.

Certain incendiary alternative media publications would seem to bolster that conception but it should also be noted that the incidence of hate crimes has hovered – decisively – at zero. It would seem that xenophobia is a term too readily tossed around to explain away anti-foreigner resentment.

It is so much easier, policy-wise, to claim that rising anti-foreigner resentment is just irrational and petulant residents lashing out. But one has to wonder: are resident anxieties rational?

Singapore’s foreign-born population has surged in the past 20 years. New immigrants are drawn by the city’s economic prospects and relatively lax immigration laws. In conjunction with other factors, this has led to an explosion of the non-resident population to at least 25% - and this is discounting
newly-minted permanent residents and citizens.

Immigration has been – and will likely always be – a net positive economic return for society. Immigrants of all skill levels inevitably contribute to the economy, increase government revenues, and create new jobs. In good times, these benefits are enjoyed, more or less, by all.

However, things have since turned sour. Since the global financial implosion of 2007, the Singaporean economy has remained – on the whole – remarkably resilient thanks in large part to Western financial institutions seeking safe(r) Asian harbors. While this has been a boon to a very specialized sector of the economy, prospects across the board have not been as rosy.

Inflation has remained stubbornly and persistently high since 2007, recently hitting 5.3% for June. At the same time, in real terms, Singaporean wages have shrunk. In 7 out of 11 surveyed industries, real wages actually slipped 1.5%.

Similarly, despite consistent high economic growth rates averaging 5% over the last decade, Singaporean labor productivity has only grown 1% per annum. For the first time in generations, the rising generation of Singaporeans might actually have less to look forward to than the previous one.

Couple this with the diminishing availability of public goods, the second largest income disparity gap in the developed world, rising property prices (and the suspicion of a foreign speculator-fuelled property bubble), and the pervasive popular myth of preferential “foreign talent” treatment in the workplace, and society will face rising national anxiety.

Economically uncertain times lead, naturally, to an anxious population but it does not automatically translate into anti-foreigner resentment. Anti-foreign resentment is, instead, a low-hanging fruit for resident anxiety.

Policymakers and business leaders have not been especially capable in dealing with the very real concerns that threaten the rank-and-file Singaporean worker. The line that has been fed to residents is that the economy is still resilient and that Singapore remains capable.

However, given the worsening conditions on the proverbial street, these gains – generally confined to financial sector elites – has not trickled down. Instead, the only tangible economic change felt by the vast majority of Singaporeans has been of the influx of foreign labor, rising inflation, and ballooning property prices. An anxious mind – fed with inflated tales of foreign bigotry – latches onto any explanation in a pinch, unleashing a wave of anti-foreigner resentment.

Singaporeans are not – one would hope – naturally xenophobic. However, given rising, rational anxieties and the paradox of high-growth/stagnant-wages that is the everyday reality for many Singaporeans, residents might feel that the simple (and untruthful) explanation of “job-stealing foreigners” might make a twisted sort of sense. Such anxiety cannot be dismissed as simple-minded xenophobia; instead, society needs to address these very real concerns and secure wage and productivity increases across the board.

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