Monday, April 20, 2009

Is Singapore still for Singaporeans?

Was back in London a couple of days ago and was hit by jetlag almost immediately. I would love to attribute that to the 7hr time difference but the agony could very well be largely avoided if not for the fact that I was basically devouring every movie possible on the inflight entertainment.

Unsurprisingly, I was kind of looking forward to the long flights. Not so much the destinations but the flights. An approximately 14hrs flight each way will translate to around 10 movies with time fun toilet breaks in between. That's how it was for me. Don't ask me what I watched 'cause I can't really remember but I do vaguely recall that Slumdog was better than I expected, Body of Lies was way beyond my expectations, the Korean show Lost and Found works well for a lighthearted romantic comedy and the Japanese K-20 was a total letdown.

The moment I discarded my luggage in my den, I was out on my way again. Hopped into a cab and made a beeline for Jalan Kayu for... you guessed it, roti prata and teh tarik. Despite the supposedly 49% increase in cab fare of late, the Singapore taxi is still way affordable than London's black cab.

When I finally stumbled back home after two egg prata (grilled egg dough doused in lard), 20 sticks of satay (grilled meat), 2 ketuput (rice puddings) and a teh tarik (sweetened foamed tea). In my enthusiam, I realized that I've consumed enough calories for the entire week. But hey, I couldn't wait for breakfast, which would be due in a couple of hours' time.

As expectedly, it was absolutely impossible to close my eyes when I finally stumbed onto my bed at around 2am. Nope. I gave up at around 4am, bidded my time for another hour before hailing another cab to the nearest hawker centre.

For the mere price of a fish n' chips meal in London, I ordered cai tau kuey (fried carrot cake), kuey chap (pigs' innards... mmm, my favorite), two more egg pratas and another teh tarik. Ah, life's good. In a matter of hours, my diet has been set back by a couple of months at least.

So far so good, or so I thought. After the initial gluttony, I took some time to travelled around a bit and realised that Singapore, the place that I was born, grew up, played and worked in, has changed quite a bit since my last visit.

Perhaps it was because of my short visit last time round that I didn't realise the change but it was really evident this time round. Before my visit, my folks back home have warned me about it but I didn't realised the extent of the issue.

After milling around for a couple of hours in the city, it is apparent that a large proportion of service staff has been replaced by foreigners, namely Fillipinos and Chinese. It's an irony really, considering that I am too a foreign worker in London. But it really hits hard when I see the widespread change taking place within a very short period of time, in a place that I thought I am familiar with.

Don't get me wrong. I have nothing against foreign workers but I can't help but wonder what's happening to the locals that they have replaced. Unlike the UK, there are no jobseekers' benefits to fall back on. If the sole difference employing a foreigner and a local is the difference in pay, the choice would be tilted in the foreigners' favor at the onset simply because most are surviving on the bare minimum.

Cheaper is by no means better and I suspect most of us with experiences with call centres would be first to agree.

While nursing my coffee during a humid afternoon, I asked an ethnic Chinese waiter at a cafe in the city one day for the directions to the nearest newspaper vendor. To my utter surprise, he looked at me puzzled, "Newspapers?" and scuttled off. Moments later, he was back with a local waiter who duely did the translation who provided me with the information.

I was at a Japanese restaurant at Central Mall another evening. After going through the menu, I asked the waiter (another ethnic Chinese) for sashimi and he came back with wasabi. After a while, it's apparent that only the head waiter is a Singaporean.

The next afternoon, I was at Funan Mall looking for a netbook. A HP model caught my eye and a staff (no prizes for guessing here... but you're right) insisted that the 'Local warranty' label covers London as well. My bad, by 'local' she probably meant 'Earth'. I left the mall empty handed.

However, I must give the staff that I have encountered some credit. They are indeed warmer and more enthusiastic than the local staff, that's provided you speak Mandarin. As I walked through Orchard road, I cannot but feel sorry for the non-Mandarin speaking Singaporeans who must have felt like foreigners in their own country.

Then again, we can't really blame anyone, can we? I have heard of an Australian (a professional), after working in Singapore for a mere 6 months, was offered Singapore permanent residency (PR). He didn't take up the offer as it would mean that he has to pay into the Central Provident Fund (CPF). Till this day, I still choose to believe that he must be kidding when he told me that as I would have to work for 5 whole years in the UK in order to apply for UK PR.

Is Singapore going the way of Dubai, where foreign workers, whom it welcomed with open arms, with absolutely no stakes in the country would leave in droves at the first sight of trouble? I shuddered at the mere thought of it.

Up next, things to do in Singapore - the offbeaten track.

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waitingkitty said...

Hi! Finally blogging again huh? I was back in Singapore over the Easter as well and had the same observations as you...too many mainland Chinese workers. I felt like a foreigner in my own country! I was so looking forward to speaking Hokkien and Singlish but apparently, they did not understand me. *sigh*

Dutchie said...

Hey, welcome back CK !

SQ has a marathon film screening ? I seldom pay attention to in-flight movies unless it's a new film. We usually take a nite flight from both countries, so a big part is spent sleeping ;-o

Do u feel kind of disoriented now that u r back on foreign soil ? The first thing that confronts us is the total quiet n tranquility in our neighbourhood. No need to rush or elbow our way like in SG.
The downside is missing the convenience in so many aspect of SG life. All at once, I got to do everything myself again, if u know what I mean ?

LadyBanana said...

Welcome back :)

Lucie said...

First of all - welcome back. Hope you had a nice holiday.

It's sad when a place you used to know changes, especially when your home changes. Having lived away from my country for 7 years, I see huge changes in the Czech Republic when I go back. It's very different to what it used to be and I am not happy about all the changes.

However, one should avoid making comments like "Singapore for Singaporeans". I find it all the more strange given that Singapore has always been quite ethnically diverse anyway! In Britain, when the BNP says "Britain for the British", it is considered racist / xenophobic. Even the "Buy American" campaign has sparked a lot of anger!

The positive aspect of globalization is having the freedom to live anywhere you want. I'm sure you enjoy that freedom. So why shouldn't others enjoy it too? We must all get used to having strangers on our backyard. But it's okay, they don't bite. We just need a bit more patience.

SheR. said...

CK.. 3 more days till we meet! Muahahahhaahahah
See what I told you since my last visit to SG? Every overseas SG is complaining about too many people on our island state and too many Chinese people around.

No offense.. how many bad encounters we had with those Chinese-only service staff at Kopitiam that made my blood boil!

I want my Singlish back...:(

C K said...

Yep, feeling a bit restless after awhile. You were back during Easter as well? That's the thing isn't it? It's possible for you to pop by Singapore over a weekend while a return flight from London would take up more than 24hrs, not at all practical.

Like you, I'm just kind of disappointed. I guess it's more apparent when one gets to step out of the island for awhile. Looking at how the immigration trend is going, the change is inevitable. We'll just have to deal with it.

Thanks!! I was almost driven to madness by the crowds back home, especially in the shopping malls. Then again, given a choice between hiding in the air-conditioned malls and the sweltering heat in the open, I'll choose the malls anytime.

Were you referring to hired help? Heheh, I prefer not to have someone meddling through my stuff, it's a pet peeve of mine. :)

Hey thanks! Glad to be back.

Hey Lucie, thanks for your comments!

Pardon my ignorance, I'm not sure about the ethnicity of Czech Republic but you are spot on about Singapore having a diverse ethnicity.

I guess each country/state have got its own issues. Just after independence in 1965, racial tensions were high in Singapore and there were many needless fatalities that results from not only racial riots but also fights between the different Chinese dialect groups.

As a result of which, there was massive initiatives that sought to create a common Singaporean identity. In fact, that was ingrained in our National Pledge -

"We, the citizens of Singapore
Pledge ourselves as one united people
Regardless of race, language or religion
To build a democratic society
Based on justice and equality
So as to achieve happiness, prosperity & progress for our nation."

Don't get me wrong, I have absolutely no qualms about having a diverse culture, that's the main thing foundation of the Singaporean society anyway.

In fact, a whole generation grew up with 'national' songs that include lyrics like "Singapore, our homeland, it's here that we belong..." or something along that line.

Also, all Singaporean males are drafted into the army (National Service) between 2 to 2.5 years. It's something common that we share.

However, it seems that all that is going to change in less than one generation. From being a culturally diverse society, we are moving towards a more ethnically homogenous society.

When your entire country is a mere rock (barely 700 sq km), the change is much more pronounced.

Furthermore, I would imagine that the service staff in a country to at least be able to speak the country's languge. To draw an analogy, it's like hiring someone who can only speak English to serve a predominantly French speaking population in Paris suburbs.

That said, I really appreciate your comments and do keep them coming.


C K said...

I was having a discussion with some fellow Singaporeans awhile back and we came to a conclusion - we have different grips depending on when exactly we left Singapore.

As I have mentioned in my earlier comment, the next generation would probably not have any issues with this as they are quite used to it.

I guess we just have get used to it, don't we?

Anyway, will you be staying over at Hampton Court during SG Day? I heard that prior to that, there is this Foodie Festival held in the same venue as well. You might want to check it out if you're in town earlier.

WKW said...

Yes you've made a great observation! Singapore is now flooded with Filipinos & people from China (no discrimination intended). And did you read the news which announced that 50% of the IR jobs had been taken by Filipinos! Are Singaporeans too picky for jobs? Or as you said is Singapore still for Singaporeans??

Martin in Bulgaria said...

Hi CK,

Get some well earned sleep and recharge your batteries. As they say here 'Leka' Take is easy!

SheR. said...

What defines a Singaporean? So if someone feels more Singaporean than I do, then he or she should be considered a Singaporean regardless of place of birth?

I guess at the end of the day, if the new immigrants love my country of birth and are loyal to it, I will embrace them like my brothers and sisters.

Sadly, many are taking my homeland as a stepping stone to getting a green card or a pathway to a "better" country. They left their filth (prostitution.. crimes)and corrupted the minds of our youth. Or make those who love this island leave it in order to survive.

I hope the latter is not true...

Deb said...

I havent had to take a long flight for years, till I went to Egypt a few months ago. Watched 2 movies going there, and maybe 4 on the return flight. Ha, trying to dance to mamma mia in my cramped seat was um... quite a feat. hehe!

I've had some Chinese nationals in food courts speaking chinese-accented English to me when *I* start with English. Some do make the effort. Mis-comm takes place everywhere... we had lunch in a posh restaurant in Tel Aviv, Israel, and when we asked for the bill (to pay) at the end of the meal, the waitress brought us the menus.

Cindi ~ Moomettesgram said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
LadyJava said...

I left a comment earlier but I was actually doing a makeover and didn't realise I was commenting under that client's so anyway.. here goes...
Hi.. not first time here but definitely first time commenting..

I'm a Singaporean myself.. married to a Malaysian and living in KL.. I can totally relate to your sentiment about foreign workers in Singapore.. a lot of my own local mates are unemployed and no.. they don't have jobseekers benefit :(

and talk about PR? I'm living and breathing here in Malaysia for over 9years now and only QUALIFY to APPLY for PR with no guarantees whatsoever.. last I called, a year after application.. their answer was call back in three years time!

Sabahkid said...

Yo wassuupp!?!? Long time no see, how have u been??

Just a pity that could not meet up in Spore.... all those talk-cock- sing-song sessions haha...

jus wondering if so many jobs are taken up by foreigners, then where r all the locals? there must be even more jobs created to share around?

for an economy which still rely on lower cost to compete with her rivals, what else do we expect?

Even here in Australia, lots of lower rug jobs are taken up by the migrants too.... esp in the big cities... so i guess it is a global thing...

winter is approaching soon, time to take out my electric blanket again. Current project finishing in july, could be taking a long long holidays (read: forced no paid leave) till next project starts end of the yr.... get ready ur guest room mate!!

yoongz said...

Completely agree about the service staff - we ate at NewYorkNewYork and the service staff did not know the menu and did not know what ketchup is when i asked for it! It is strange to see things you love & find comforting disappearing - we lament that each time we visit.

Someone asked what defines a Singaporean - i think it depends on which generation you are asking - we once did a voxbox (street interview) and the answers were wide-ranging and some were seriously scary!

For me, the way & speed at which we speak is the most outstanding thing about Singaporeans & any where you go, if you have lived in Singapore long enough, you can hear a Singaporean a mile away ;)

lina said...

Missed you! :)

I too will devour all the inflight entertainment available and deprive myself of sleep in the plane.

It is not only Singapore - Malaysia has the same scenario. I can't speak Malay to order my food because some might not understand me. :(

To give the foreign workers credit - they are hardworking but just don't ask them question because they'll inevitably need to refer to someone else.