Featured News Opinion OPINION | Why fear of foreigners remains hot-button issue despite repeated Govt...

OPINION | Why fear of foreigners remains hot-button issue despite repeated Govt reassurances, and other stories in review

"Without going too much into who is right or wrong or even necessarily attributing blame, what can we do to bridge this divide?" — Ghui, OPINION

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Unfortunately, the fear of foreigners stealing local jobs remains a very visceral fear for Singaporeans. Despite the attempts at reassurances by the People’s Action Party (PAP) led Government, this idea that Singaporeans are somehow playing second fiddle to foreigners continues to be a political hot potato.

Why?

There are obviously two distinct camps in this debate – the group that wholeheartedly believes that Singaporeans are being short-changed consistently and the Government who have seemingly dismissed these fears carte blanche by either saying that these fears are unfounded or banging on about the merits of foreigners.

Without going too much into who is right or wrong or even necessarily attributing blame, what can we do to bridge this divide?

A Straits Times commissioned survey of 1,000 Singaporeans and permanent residents revealed that only 40 per cent agreed that Singapore has struck the right balance in bringing in foreign workers and protecting local jobs. Some 44 per cent of Singaporeans and permanent residents did not think so.

What this indicates is that no matter what the Government says and whether the policy is right or wrong is not really the point. The fear is genuine and as such, the Government may certainly benefit from investing some time in truly trying to understand why Singaporeans have this fear.

By understanding the root concerns behind these fears, the Government can then seek to address these underlying concerns more effectively. In this way, the Government can put in place effective policies for the benefit of our country, while also putting to bed this thorny issue of the perception that Singaporeans are somehow second class to foreigners in their own country.

I believe that one of the biggest reasons for this at times seemingly irrational fear of foreigners getting a better deal stems from the fear of there being not enough slices in the pie – in other words, the fear of lack.

From a sweep through social media and letters to the editor of this publication, there have been growing concerns about rising prices. People are already feeling the sting and in this climate, it is easy to pin the blame on foreigners. This is human nature. So how can the Government tackle this perception of lack?

After all, if people thought there was plenty to go around, there would be a lot less finger-pointing. An easy win would have been to postpone the proposed Goods & Services Tax (GST) hikes as suggested by the Workers’ Party (WP), a suggestion that the Government has steadfastly refused to take.

The skyrocketing property prices are also something that people are concerned about.

DJ Jade Rasif recently wrote in an IG Story that she had gone house hunting recently, and commented on the “astronomical prices” of property in Singapore.

“By the time my kids are 18 how are they going to afford a home?” she wrote in a story on Tuesday (Nov 1).

Many Singaporeans responded to her story, agreeing with her and even praising her for highlighting this issue to her legion of followers.

Affordable housing is one of the hallmarks of a stable life, and many do look to the Government to provide this. So, with escalating house prices plus rising food prices, the average Singaporean is feeling the pinch even more and therefore in no mood to be generous.

It is par for the course that foreigners buying up property and hiking up prices get the blame. While this might partly be true, it certainly is not the sole cause of high prices. Yet, it becomes the scapegoat of all ills.

In its handling of the foreigner bugbear, the Government may have missed a trick. Instead of just telling Singaporeans that this isn’t true, why not display an attempt to address the underlying concern?

Prices of Housing and Development Board (HDB) resale flats have climbed for the tenth consecutive quarter, to 2.4 per cent in the third quarter of 2022. This clearly indicates that demand far outstrips demand. It could also indicate that there might be a measure of property speculation, thereby pushing up the prices.

PAP member of parliament (MP), Vikram Nair has suggested looking at reducing or waiving the Minimum Occupation Period (MOP) for resale flats. He is of the opinion that this would bring more flats into the market, thereby increasing the supply and alleviating the demand.

I am not entirely convinced by his reasoning. Firstly, those putting their flats for sale will need other flats. They still need homes, don’t they? Secondly, the MOP was put in place to ensure that people were not buying HDB flats for investment purposes (to buy and resell at a profit) but were genuinely buying them to live in. Removing or shortening the MOP could very well have the opposite effect. Instead of reducing prices, it could well push them up!

With all due respect, Mr Nair’s proposal may indicate that he does not really understand the Singaporean mentality. Amid a potential cost of living crisis, does our Government understand the gravity of the situation or the depths of the common man’s fear?

Another point of contention in Singapore is the cost of medical care. With the sharp increases in food and property prices, high costs for medical care are yet another worry.

WP’s MP for Sengkang, Jamus Lim has explained the three pillars that have made Singapore’s healthcare successful—Medisave, Medishield, and Medifund, but added that these “only finance a bit more than 8 percent of national health expenses, with most costs still paid for out-of-pocket.”

He also noted the rapid change in the healthcare cost landscape, with the medical inflation rate possibly growing between 7 and 10 per cent. In a bid to alleviate such costs, Assoc Prof Lim suggested a raft of amendments which include greater transparency on price benchmarks. In particular, he noted that the banning of price guidelines has caused medical costs to become unmoored. Assoc Prof Lim also identified the issue of insurers refusing to carry over pre-existing conditions as part of the problem.

The stability of the costs of healthcare, food, and housing are the basic needs of any society. If these are not guaranteed, people do have a tendency to turn against foreigners.

Could this have contributed significantly to Singaporeans fearing that they are being supplanted by foreigners, despite the Government’s abject reassurances? If the Government could implement effective policies to stabilise prices, the hot-button issue of foreigners may also simmer down.

For this to happen, the Government may also require a mindset change. At this moment, the Singaporean economy is heavily dependent on foreign labour.

After MOH Holdings (MOHH) said earlier this month that it is seeking to hire doctors from overseas, WP MP Gerald Giam said that it may be more advantageous to facilitate the return of Singaporean doctors who graduated overseas.

MOHH said that it had been looking for doctors to help ease the workload of local physicians, and is looking to hire 180 junior doctors from India in the next three years.

Recruitment was ongoing in “countries with qualified doctors” such as the UK and Australia, in addition to India.

Wouldn’t it make much more sense to incentivise Singaporeans to come home? After all, they would be most likely to stay for the rest of their lives once home as opposed to foreigners who might return home after a stint – isn’t this a better investment long term?

At the end of the day, it matters not whether it is indeed true that Singaporeans are being sidelined by foreigners. What matters is that the Government has to accept that the fear is real, and the extent to which it can address the underlying reasons for such fear is the key to putting this issue to bed once and for all.

 

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