a migration of poor standards

I’m getting a little bit tired of Indians saying how much they like my country, Singapore.

The gushing never stops. Towering buildings; glitzy shopping malls; roads without potholes; clean, drinking water; spotless streets; safe neighbourhoods; efficient administration; incorruptible government; gateway to the world; ….they could go on forever.

(Every now and then, one of them questions the lack of genuine democracy here, while yearning for the chaos of Indian coffeeshop chatter and multiparty elections. But only for a moment.)

So, Indians love Singapore. Accountants, bankers, engineers, IT guys—no matter. They all love Singapore so much.

But what’s wrong with that? Well, I was particularly irked by a comment from a very senior Indian banker (so much so that I decided to write all this).

He said, “I don’t understand why you Singaporeans keep complaining about your Ministers’ salaries. After all, they deserve it—they do such a fantastic job! Look how well your country is run! You have no idea what corrupt government is. You have no experience of a fat, inefficient, bureaucratic administration, like we do in India. If you knew what that was like, you’d have no problems paying these guys their multi-million dollar salaries. What’s an extra million or two, after all?”

Indians love Singapore so much because they keep comparing our country to theirs. Many of them feel that we Singaporeans are ungrateful and spoilt—we’ve had it so good for so long, we know not what real hardship is.

There may be some truth to that, but I’m actually fed up with this general line of reasoning, because

1) Why are we comparing ourselves to India?

There are several different groups of people who enjoy comparing Singapore to countries clearly worse off than us. Our politicians; our neutered media channels; well-off Singaporeans who have succeeded here; and foreigners (like the Indians).

Perhaps sometimes there is reason to compare and reflect on our successes, but there’s a bit too much of that going on. In order to progress, we should be engaging in upward comparison, not downward comparison.

In other words, we should not be asking
“How did Singapore succeed economically where so many other poor countries have failed?”

But instead, we should be asking
“How come there are other countries that are more developed politically, socially and economically than Singapore? What did they do right? How do we get there?”

2) Do expatriates really know what’s going on?

My Indian banker friend may not think an extra million or two is much. But not everybody is in his shoes. There are plenty of Singaporeans who are finding it tough to keep up. The bottom 30% of households has actually seen their real income drop over the past 7 years, even as Singapore continues to grow millionaires at a faster rate than anywhere else in the world. Income inequality is rising fast.

In this climate, raising the salaries of Ministers to stratospheric levels does, for many, appear like ‘legitimised corruption’ (a term bandied around on an online discussion group, Singapore Review).

I think a premium must be paid, because that is one way to lure the best. However, the current salaries seem a bit much (average salary of government minister–US$1.25m)

Sometimes it is good to get an external perspective on things. Other times, it is misleading. When a jet-setting Indian banker makes big proclamations about Singapore, its politics and its economy, after having lived only in a bubble of expense-account French wine and company-paid luxury apartments, it smacks of bias.
(For sure, I too don’t fully understand the challenges that many of my less well-off countrymen face.)

The irony? The well-heeled, sharp-tongued banker, having lived here for 6 months, will probably get much more air time from our government and its press than the fourth-generation Singaporean single mother in a 1-room HDB flat, her everyday a struggle.

Of course, it’s not just Indians from India who say these things. People from all over the world come here and say similar things. They’re just comparing life here as they see it with life as it was from where they came…only natural.

But that shouldn’t stop us from understanding the realities of life in Singapore, and trying our best to match up (and beat) the world’s best.

Addendum to previous…

Have to thank my dear friend Kelly Chan for pointing out an omission in earlier discussion on the Singaporean Expat. I failed to mention a group of people who really don’t have it so good – the poorer Expats.
It was too simplistic of me to suggest that all Expats are caressed on a Singpaorean bed of roses. There are the Expats who either hold very low-paying jobs, or none at all. For them, Singaporean society can be harsh. Everybody expects them to be somebody they’re not…

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…