Singapore: Jobs are increasingly available but ironically many of the positions are in search for more foreigners to fill rather than Singaporeans.
SEVERAL months ago, I wrote about the growing concern of some Malaysian friends that the Singaporean backlash against foreign workers might bounce on them.
They were mainly permanent residents or aspiring PRs who feared being caught in the crossfire between irked Singaporeans and an unpopular policy that lets in so many foreigners.
They were not worried about being specially targeted since they were convinced that traditional ties would continue to make them more acceptable than most others.
Since the article's publication on Dec 5, more controversies have flared over the practice of Singaporean companies advertising for foreign professionals, bypassing Singaporeans.
The trend could not have come at a worse time for the government as it prepares the ground for possible elections. To placate the public, it has announced a slowdown in the foreign intake.
These firms, including a government-linked corporation, are facing an angry backlash from Singaporeans who are losing their jobs to "cheaper" foreigners.
The Internet, an increasingly influential channel of communication, has many calls for a boycott of their businesses.
The latest furore was sparked off by an unemployed Singaporean who alleged he was told off by a manager – a Malaysian PR – when he was interviewed for a job.
"We don't want to hire Singaporeans. We look after our own first," the manager was quoted as saying.
It happened in one of the 24 retail outlets of the bakery-and-restaurant chain Bread Talk, according to Shin Min newspaper. Slighted and angry, the Singaporean walked away.
The company has outlets in 15 countries, including Malaysia and a global staff of 2,000.
In response, Bread Talk said it was taking the matter seriously and would investigate. Denying that the company practised discrimination, the spokesman said it had hired more locals than foreigners.
With the economy improving, companies are recruiting more staff – frequently from abroad, either because there are not enough Singaporeans or that foreigners are more likely to accept lower wages.
Bread Talk is staffed by many foreigners, including graduates from China, to serve customers and could be vulnerable to any organised protest.
Other companies involved recently in large-scale hiring of foreign workers include:
** Furniture retail mart Courts, which put up a full-page advertisement in Johor to recruit Malaysians to work in various positions in Singapore.
The company told the new media that it had earlier advertised three times here but drew poor response from Singaporeans.
** A Singapore-based multinational firm dealing in agricultural chemicals that placed job ads seeking to recruit "Malaysians ONLY (Singaporeans need not apply)."
** Food supplies company Wang Foong, which put up a job ad that said "PRs and Malaysians are welcomed".
** A government-linked company, Keppel Offshore and Marine, that recruited Malaysians to work as managers and engineers, prompting a blogger to ask: "We produce over 1,000 engineers yearly, is there still a shortage?"
A few ads are blatantly discriminatory which would have gained them a class action suit in other advanced cities.
The mood is growing sour among young Singaporeans who are worried about what they consider unequal competition.
Last year, the government allowed service companies to employ more foreigners as long as they do not exceed the number of Singaporean workers.
However, its definition of "Singaporean" includes foreigners who are PRs, which sometimes put local-born workers in the minority.
Another critic's complaint is that some foreigner-executives who are put in charge of recruitment are hiring their "own kind".
Commenting on the Bread Talk incident, a Singaporean commented: "If the report is true, then our country has a serious problem: lack of loyalty and belonging."
He said Singaporeans could lose feelings for their country if it becomes "the property of anyone who is admitted on a PR or even a contract basis".
Singapore is an open economy, and with 57% of Singaporean companies having hired foreign workers, the dependency on alien manpower will continue.
All this has spawned a lively business among 1,100 employment agencies in the city which place jobs for foreigners. Needless to say, some are operated by foreigners.
One agency advertised its service online complete with imperfect English – Headlined "Foreigner Workers Company, based in Singapore," it said:
"We are agent with license specilise with Foreigner Workers (sic).
"We have Myanmar/Indian/Malaysian workers waiting to be employ in Singapore (full-time) – Engineers, Chefs, Welders, Electricians, just name it.
"We will provide you with excellent choice. For all companies, there is no fees require. We are looking forward to serve the companies our best and future needs ... Thank you."
Filipina Margarette Elaine Castillo replied: "I badly need a job. I am an engineer. I'm a flexible type of person. I also had experience in sales."
Another applicant, Aris de Rama said: "I am electronics engineer."
And Myanmar's Zaw Zaw Htun wrote in: "I want a suitable job. I have experience in manufacturing factory as production executive, and I'm a flexible type of person."
These are positions Singaporeans are keen to fill. A blogger commented: "We have plenty of Singapo-reans who are out of a job who are very keen to get the post of human resources manager, so why are we recruiting foreigners?"
A general answer from Singaporeans: Cheaper wages that Singaporeans, with families and housing loans to pay, cannot agree to.
This is, however, not always the case. Foreigners are leaner and hungrier, and many customers admit they give friendlier service (maybe not the language).
One clothes retailer wrote of his failure to employ young Singaporean salespersons; repeated advertisements produced only two replies.
"It's not even the pay. They left before the subject was raised," he said.
(This article was first published in The Star on Apr 10, 2010).