From Ethnic Tensions to a Citizen/Foreigner Divide in Singapore

Just over a year ago, a riot in the Little India neighbourhood of Singapore erupted after a bus carrying migrant workers from India and Bangladesh struck and killed a construction worker, another foreigner from India. Approximately 400 people – also South Asian foreign labourers – attacked the bus and the emergency vehicles that had been deployed to the site. Three hundred police officers eventually had to be called in to manage the unrest.

The riot was remarkable for two reasons: first, such incidents of public unrest are rare in Singapore; and second, the official and public sentiments expressed in the aftermath of the event revealed starkly diverging views on the role and status of foreign workers in Singapore's economic growth. The government, through its Committee of Inquiry into the causes of the incident, ruled out migrant worker dissatisfaction and ethnic tensions. Yet it still felt the need to urge the local population not to blame foreigners.

The public was vocal in expressing its frustrations with the state's heavy reliance on foreign workers, and more generally the role and status of foreigners in Singapore society. What was more revealing was that these discussions extended into a broader debate about Singaporean identity in a city-state that has very often emphasized local ethnic differences.

While Canada's multiculturalism and immigration policies differ considerably from those of Singapore, there are nonetheless interesting comparisons between the two systems in terms of the unintended social consequences of promoting foreign labour to boost economic vibrancy.

Background: The pros and cons of Singapore's ethnic diversity

The schism between local Singaporeans and foreign workers marks something of a shift in Singapore's ethnic relations. Historically, social tensions were seen as arising from relations between local ethnic groups, with the 1960s race riots between the Chinese and Malay populations being the most prominent example.

In an attempt to manage ethnic relations, the Singapore government implemented an official multiracialism policy which clearly defined Singapore's four official races – Chinese, Malay, Indian and 'Other' (read: Caucasian), or CMIO for short. It did so by reference to a combination of physical markers, languages and religious beliefs to which members of those categories are expected to adhere. For example, a person of Chinese descent is automatically perceived as someone who speaks Mandarin and adopts Chinese traditional spiritual beliefs, whereas someone of Malay descent is thought of as someone who speaks the Malay language, is a follower of Islam, and so on.[1] The state has aimed to show fairness to all four groups through policies that give equal rights to each. For example, each ethnic group gets the same number of religious holidays per year and equal use of official languages in public spaces.

This is not to say that the CMIO system has been without criticism. Some argue that it is overly rigid and does not reflect the complexity of daily life in Singapore. For example, it does not account for people of multiple ethnicities or ethnic origins other than the ones acknowledged in this system. Others point out that the CMIO system gives unfair advantages to the more numerous and economically privileged Chinese Singaporeans (Singapore maintains a ratio of approximately 76% Chinese, 14% Malay, 8% Indian and 2% Other). For instance, publicly subsidized housing is apportioned based on the island's racial ratio, in effect making it easier for a Chinese household to buy and sell a flat than it is for other ethnic groups.[2] Despite these frustrations, however, Singapore generally has managed to avoid a repeat of the ethnic tensions that flared up in the 1960s.

In other respects, ethnic diversity has been viewed not as a source of vulnerability, but as one of the city-state's most significant economic assets. Singapore is one of the only states created post-WWII to have officially moved from developing to developed country status. Especially since the 1990s, Singapore has worked to position itself favourably within an increasingly globalized knowledge economy by using the presence of Chinese, Indian and Malay populations, as well as the widespread use of English, to market itself as an ideal gateway linking Western countries with some of Asia's fastest-growing economies: Mainland China, India and Bahasa-speaking countries of Southeast Asia, such as Indonesia and Malaysia.[3]

A specific component of the state's economic growth strategy has been to meet skill and qualifications needs by attracting both skilled and unskilled foreign workers from these same countries, and from the Western world. As a result, highly skilled workers with valued and desirable competencies, such as bankers, engineers, lawyers and bio-medical researchers, have tended to come from Mainland China and India (and sometimes Western countries). Lower-skilled workers, such domestic workers (mostly women) tend to come from Southeast Asian countries, primarily Indonesia and the Philippines. Other lower-skilled workers, such as construction workers, have come predominantly from India and Bangladesh.[4]

Increasingly, Singaporean citizens are taking issue with the state's economic rationale for bringing in so many foreign workers. In February 2013, the government released its Population White Paper, which stated that of Singapore's 5.3 million residents, currently 40% are foreigners and foreign-born. Moreover, the government foresees this number increasing to nearly 50% of the population by 2030.Increasingly, Singaporean citizens are taking issue with the state's economic rationale for bringing in so many foreign workersAccording to the White Paper, this increase is needed to support Singapore's aging population, to have the workforce needed to deliver the same level and quality of public services to citizens, and to maintain Singapore's economic growth.

Many in the public, however, did not buy the state's argument. After the White Paper's release, approximately 5,000 Singaporeans organized in protest. Unlike inter-ethnic tensions decades earlier, this was an instance in which locals of all ethnicities consolidated themselves as 'Singaporeans' in voicing their frustrations with a state policy that they viewed as favouring foreigners over citizens.

'Singaporeans first'

The 'Singaporeans first' argument that has started to emerge is grounded in the feeling that Singaporean citizens, not foreigners, should be given priority in reaping the benefits of the city-state's economic success. [5] For instance, in 2003, Singapore set up its Global Schoolhouse platform, which aimed to attract world-class universities and students. The move was a way for Singapore to profit from the business of international education by marketing the quality of its education while also promoting itself as a safe and secure environment for new education institutions and the brightest international students.[6] Originally, admission to local universities was based only on merit, regardless of the applicant's nationality. The result was that many admissions slots went to international students, many of whom were perceived as receiving more financial assistance for their education than did locals.

Whereas state authorities saw long-term benefits to the economy in recruiting the next generation of global talent to study in Singapore, members of the public emphasized that Singaporean students should be first in line to benefit from the city-state's world-class education so that they can better themselves, their family situations and the country as a whole. In response, the government reformed the system to allow some national quotas for admission.[7]

Another recent example of a local Singaporean-foreigner divide is the 2011 Cook Curry Movement. The incident arose when a Chinese foreign household filed a complaint about the smell emanating from a neighbouring apartment where an Indian Singaporean family was cooking curry, a national food staple.[8] The government, using the local mainstream media, attempted to publicize the 'success' of a mediation centre's decision, which was to get the Indian Singaporean household to agree not to cook curry when the complaining neighbours were at home.

But locals interpreted this as the government siding with the foreign household. They quickly organized through social media the Cook and Share a Pot of Curry Movement, urging all Singaporeans to cook curry on a single day (August 21, 2011). Since then, National Cook Curry Day has become a yearly event that coincides with Singapore's National Day on August 9 to remind Singaporeans that it is necessary to limit the extent to which foreigners' concerns are accommodated, especially when such accommodations are seen as opposing national symbols.

Various government officials have interpreted local Singaporeans' reactions to migrant labour issues in a negative light, viewing them as xenophobic and anti-foreigner. However, public sentiments could also be interpreted as a reaction to the rapid internationalization of daily life in Singapore, and as a re-examination of what it means to be Singaporean in terms of rights, privileges and status as procured by the government to its citizens. It should be noted that these discussions have not excluded foreign workers and foreign students. In fact, some of these discussions focus on foreigners' lack of social integration and the failure of Singaporeans to fully recognize the contributions many of these workers make to Singapore's economy and society.

Comparisons with Canada

Singapore and Canada obviously differ starkly in terms of size, geography, political regime, social contract, and how they manage immigration and ethnic diversity. Nonetheless, there are some interesting comparisons – and policy implications – in terms of how the two states deal with the unintended consequences of policies that aim to support economic growth through foreign worker programs.

In some respects, the Singapore case warns us not to dismiss or disregard public discontent. In Singapore, citizens' perceptions that their government is unresponsive to their concerns is a major source of fuel for the 'Singaporeans first' argument. Moreover, while the government has tried to show that it is addressing these complaints – for example, by imposing quotas for local students to be admitted to local universities – many see such compromises as piecemeal and knee-jerk reactions, rather than a sign that the government is willing to alter its economic strategy in a substantive way.In Singapore, citizens' perceptions that their government is unresponsive to their concerns is a major source of fuel for the 'Singaporeans first' argument

In contrast, the Canadian government seems to have paid at least some attention to recent public debates and opinion polls over the role of foreign workers. For example, in June 2014 Canada cancelled its Immigrant Investor Program, which was created in 1986 to facilitate foreign investment in Canada by exchanging Canadian residency for a specific financial commitment from interested foreign nationals. The decision to cancel the program was made after it came under criticism by some for, in effect, 'selling' Canadian citizenship with no promise from investors to contribute economically to Canadian society beyond their initial investment. Early this year, the Immigrant Investor Venture Capital Pilot Program is scheduled to replace the Immigrant Investor program, which will have heavier financial requirements than its predecessor.

As in the Singapore case, Canada's immigration choices have had and will have unintended consequences on the local social and ethnic dynamics. The 'Singaporeans first' argument echoes certain perceptions in Canada – fair or not – that foreign workers and foreign students are being privileged over locals by business owners or post-secondary institutions. Even with improvements, such as the changes noted above to investor-focused immigration programs, the main consequences for everyday community life are not likely to change. Specifically, the new Venture Capital Pilot Program will probably continue to contribute to a sustained influx of economically privileged newcomers, primarily from Mainland China to Vancouver, which in the past has unintentionally reinforced racial and ethnic stereotypes and created new challenges for local social harmony. This includes, for example, perceptions by some Vancouverites that wealthy immigrants of Chinese origin are inflating real estate prices, that good schools are being overcrowded by their children, and even that they are responsible for bad driving practices.

Because of this common challenge, Canadians should pay attention to how the public debates in Singapore evolve, specifically to see if there are any measures proposed by citizens or state agencies to minimize unintended social effects. Singapore, because of its small size, can benefit from a closely-knit consultation process. For Canada, this is much more difficult, as Ottawa has to juggle the country's many economic concerns and regional political realities. Nonetheless, learning from the Singapore case might be useful if the debates give rise to actionable ideas on how to minimize unintended social effects of economically-driven foreign worker programs.

Jean Michel Montsion is Assistant Professor of International Studies, Glendon College, York University and a faculty member at Glendon’s School of Public and International Affairs.


[1] Beng Huat Chua. 2009. Being Chinese Under Official Multiculturalism in Singapore. Asian Ethnicity 10(3): 239-242.

[2] Diane Mauzy and Stephen Milne. 2002. Singapore Politics Under the People’s Action Party. London: Routledge: 107-108; Jean Michel Montsion. 2012. A Critique of Everyday International Relations: The Case of Cultural Pluralism in Singapore and Vancouver. Environment and Planning D: Society and Space 30(5): 937-938; Sharon Siddique. 1990. The Phenomenology of Ethnicity: A Singapore Case-Study. SOJOURN 5(1): 35-62.

[3] Anthony Reid. 2009. Escaping the Burdens of Chineseness. Asian Ethnicity 10(3): 285; Tony Stockwell. 2005. Forging Malaysia and Singapore: Colonialism, Decolonization and Nation-Building. In Nation-Building: Five Southeast Asian Histories, edited by Wang Gungwu, 213. Singapore: Institute of Southeast Asian Studies Publications.

[4] Brenda Yeoh and Shirlena Yuang. 2010. Sexualized Politics of Proximities Among Female Transnational Migrants in Singapore. Population, Space and Place 16(1): 39-40.

[5] Catherine Gomes. 2014. Xenophobia Online: Unmasking Singaporean Attitudes Towards ‘Foreign Talent’ Migrants. Asian Ethnicity 15(1): 26-27.

[6] Jean Michel Montsion. 2009. Relocating Politics at the Gateway : Everyday Life in Singapore’s Global Schoolhouse. Pacific Affairs 82(4) : 647.

[7] Peidong Yang. 2014. ‘Authenticity’ and ‘Foreign Talent’ in Singapore : The Relative and Negative Logic of National Identity. SOJOURN 29(2): 430.

[8] Gomes. Op. Cit.: 31-32.

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