The Singaporean Expat revisited

This is a bit of a follow up to my SCC 7s post below….

What has amazed me most since my return to Singapore in July (after 6
years in the States) is the resentment towards Expats that has built
up in many of my peers.

Sure enough, there are a lot more expats in Singapore today than when
I left. Furthermore, the Singapore Expat today is a completely
different animal. The Expat of yesteryear was often an old White Guy
with his White Wife, two little White kids and a dog or two. He came
with tons of experience, worked for a big foreign company, doing
something amazing that most Singaporeans could not, and therefore was
less threatening (i.e. he wasn’t taking a job that we could fill). His Wife stayed at home, took care of the kids, and
occasionally had lunch with other Expat Wives at the American Club. The kids went to the American School, International School or United World College and like Expat kids everywhere, for the most part kept to themselves. Once in a while, they’d act like jackasses, ruining our walls with graffiti and our cars with tar, and have to face Singaporean law. Tough.

Over the past couple of years though, I’ve noticed how the Singaporean Expat has changed.

Today’s expats come from many different countries – US, anywhere in Europe, South America, China, India, Malaysia, Africa, etc.

Today’s expats range from 21 years old to 99 years old.

Crucially, today’s expats come to Singapore to fill ‘very ordinary jobs’,

(‘very ordinary jobs’ defined as a job that a local is qualified for and could probably fill: teaching;analyst to mid-level in any big firm – banking, consulting, media, law, etc.

As opposed to the highfaluting top corporate executive jobs that we used to need Expats for)

This is actually what irks young Singaporeans I’ve met the most. After all, we love Expats! We want Singapore to be a cosmopolitan paradise, with fascinating people of every shade mingling. The oneness of humanity, the need for races to mix and live harmoniously is part of our country’s founding ethos.

But when a Singaporean gets passed over for a job in favour of a similarly qualified Expat, irritation grows. What’s more the Expat is here on a cushy Expat package making twice as much as the local would have cost. Why?

But why would a company want to pay somebody more to do something a local could? IMHO, there are two things going on: (Real or perceived) Extra Skill Set & Colonial Overhang

Extra Skill Set: If the Expat in question had indeed worked in a big foreign market like London or New York etc. before arriving on Singaporean shores, it is really hard to begrudge them that specialized knowledge, be it their exposure to a much more mature market, the depth of their Rolodex, or simply their improved PR/ presentation skills, all of which matter tremendously.

Colonial Overhang: This permeates everybody, consciously or not, and in all honesty there is no easy answer to it.

An Investment Bank in Singapore might prefer to have a White Guy in their ranks (even lower down) because people the world over look up to the White Guy. Whether it’s his Singaporean colleagues who feel that the Bank is worth their salt because they’re able to attract a White Guy. Or the clients in China and India who are impressed when the Bank’s M&A team shows up with a young White Guy on board.

In Asia, there is a huge premium just for being White. Whether it’s applying for jobs, or picking up sarong clad, Anglo-accented partners at clubs.

What is the problem with all this?

You fear that Expats are increasingly swollen-headed. To misquote a Californian friend of mine, “They think they’re the shit.” They are here, getting paid a lot more to do ‘the same thing’, everywhere they go people are kowtowing to them, WOW! What a place to live.

(For a relatively contemporary insight into an Expat’s view of Singaporeans, check out Ewan McGregor’s clownish, dumb colleagues in the film, ‘Rogue Trader’, inspired by the story of Nick Leeson and the fall of Barings Bank. Sure, it’s Hollywood, take it with a pinch of salt. But hey, who’s propagating this White Man’s Burden nonsense?)

At the same time, many Singaporeans feel the opposite! They feel that many Expats who are here are the ones who couldn’t make it in their own countries. Didn’t have what it takes to compete with the best in London or New York. So, after reading 15th Century Portuguese Navigators, they set their sight on some faraway tropical paradise where Asian men will lick their boots and Asian women kiss their bodies, and lo and behold, here they are in Singapore.

So – Expats don’t think much of us and we don’t think much of them. Is this what’s happening? That’s a little simplistic but some shreds of truth.

Another big Singapore irritation:

While every other country in the world has some form of indigenous labour protectionism – whether they care to admit it or not – Singapore does not. In short, the local job market is being squeezed while foreign markets are just as difficult for the Singaporean to penetrate. We have no intrinsic advantages at home, but are seriously disadvantaged abroad.

In fact, these days, we’ll not only grant foreigners a working permit, we’ll make them citizens too. Look at the Brazilians in our national soccer team and the Chinese in our national table-tennis team. Singapore has become the skilled immigrant’s paradise. Singaporean citizenship is up for grabs to the ‘best and the brightest’. (Note: Don’t ever think of getting citizenship for that Filipino maid who’s been with your family for eons, or the Bangladeshi who’s built half your neighbourhood) Singaporean tax payer’s money is also funding foreign scholars, in the hope that they’ll become Singaporean and work hard for us.

Does the Government not care for us? No, that’s not it. They’re probably just trying to do what every other polyglot country does – attract the best immigrants. And, since Singaporeans are not having kids, our labour force has to be bolstered somehow (or does it?) Any kind of protectionism would be foolish.

Where does this leave the poor Singaporean? Not sure really. We have to work harder than the Expats to prove our worth at work and in the dating game. The way I see it, those are just facts of life our generation will have to come to terms with. If we don’t like it, we can leave.

Our dear ‘Gah-men’ will even give us a stylish new ‘quitter’ name…

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5 responses

  1. here’s the other side of the coin, tho I may not necessarily agree with it. Firstly, singapore’s population is currently 4.3 million, with 25% of these people non Singaporean citizens. 10 years ago, the govt masterplan was to sustain population of 4 million. However, the revised estimate a few years back was that to sustain economic growth, we need 5 million. now with 4.3 million and 25% foreigners, and singaporeans unable to reproduce past the normal replacement rate of 2.1, our citizen population is actually shrinking. hence the govt feels it has absolutely no choice but to get foreign talent. so how?

  2. what about the ang mohs here that are not expats? where do they fit in? they have to deal with the local negativity toward ‘expats’, yet they don’t get to enjoy the over-paid benefits that they stereotypically get to enjoy.

  3. Thanks for the thought-provoking post. My own take is that the huge skill that I bring to my job here in Singapore is the ability to “think outside the box” – and to mentor the very able and very smart but very tentative Singaporean engineers that I work with here to do the same.

  4. Wow. Thank you, blogger search engine.I’ve been checking out Singapore online for a few months now, and expect to stop in there for a bit next year on the way to play poker in Australia. Was wondering what makes the place so attractive to expats, and came up with your post first thing.Good insight and well written.Thanks

  5. good article.I’m a euro-American (i.e. american whitey) that holds a teaching position here in Singapore. Could a local do it? Of course they could. But most Singaporean teachers I’ve met speak “Singlish”, to some degree, in the classroom. This turns rich parents, that want their children to “speak good English”, off a bit.

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