The racial, foreigner discomfort


By Andrew Loh

Discrimination pervasive in Singapore rental market’, the headline said.

“While multiracial Singapore has established an enviable reputation worldwide for its social harmony in recent decades… racial discrimination remains an unabashed fact of life in the city-state’s residential rental market.”

No, those words are not from the recent BBC report which got everyone talking online.

The report, instead, is from the Wall Street Journal (WSJ) – 3 years ago.

Wall Street Journal, 2011
Wall Street Journal, 2011

WSJ reported that “a significant number of property advertisements on rental websites such as Singapore-based Property Guru or Craigslist specify that no Indians, ‘PRCs’ (from the People’s Republic of China) or Malays be allowed to rent various properties.”

“Some ads also specify that Japanese, Caucasian or Chinese tenants are preferred,” WSJ said. The report found an estimated 200 listings which stated that mainland Chinese applicants would not be considered.

3 years later, the BBC found the same.

In a report titled “No Indians No PRCs’: Singapore’s rental discrimination problem”, on 1 May 2014, the BBC said that “there were more than 160 housing adverts on the website PropertyGuru that clearly stated that the landlord did not wish to rent to Indians and/or mainland Chinese.”


The reasons given for this apparent discrimination based on race are varied.

Some landlords believe that tenants from India or mainland China “are not people who are house proud”, says the WSJ, citing what an estate agent told the paper.

“Many don’t clean weekly, and they do heavy cooking, so dust and oil collect over the months,” the agent reportedly said. “They may use a lot of spices that release smells people don’t like.”

But is it racism or racist to not want to rent out one’s house or room to any particular race for practical reasons of cleanliness or potential costs, for example? Perhaps race is incidental in such matters rather than the reason?

Reactions to the BBC article on the Facebook page of The Online Citizen (TOC) are unsympathetic towards the would-be tenants.

Sumiko Huang, for example, related her aunt’s experience in renting out her apartment to an Indian family “for a couple of years”.

“[My aunt] was appalled when they returned the flat to her in terrible conditions. The fridge had stains and smelt [sic] terrible and her furniture was in a ratty condition. She had to take over one week just to clean out her apartment and buy new furniture. I guess one bad experience is enough for her not to rent her place to Indians again.”

Others feel that landlords should have the right to decide whom they would rent their properties to.

“Landlords own the place and are paying the mortgage,” Yvonne Ng says. “What’s so wrong about choosing their clients and charging what they think is fair? It’s a free market and don’t businesses have rights to choose their clients too?”

Others feel that it is more about economic considerations than racism when one decides not to rent to a particular race, or to foreigners.

“They don’t respect people’s property,” Rahim Malek says. “They damage things and some are outright dirty. Once they leave you have to remodel the whole house just to get another rental. Not worth the money.”

Be that as it may, and the debate will go on, it is worth noting that the issue of racism itself has surfaced in recent years in Singapore in more pronounced ways.

And these do not just relate to foreigners, but also within the racial groups in Singapore itself. Then-Young PAP member, Jason Neo, for example, made racially disparaging remarks about Singapore Malays in an online posting in 2011.

But the main tension lies in the relationship between Singaporeans and foreigners.

Discrimination both ways

A study by the Institute of Policy Studies (IPS) and (OPSg) in September 2013 found a “growing discomfort between citizens and immigrants.”

The study, which surveyed 5,000 respondents, said that the highest level of tension came from Singaporeans’ discomfort with having new immigrants making up the majority of people in the country.

Discrimination, to be sure, is not only from Singaporeans against foreigners.

Some foreign managers, for example, are known to prefer their countrymen when it comes to filling job vacancies.

hire foreign2

It is believed this was so widespread that the Manpower Ministry had to step in and to introduce the “Fair Consideration Framework” (FCF) for employment where companies must give priority to Singaporean workers in granting interviews.

It must, however, be noted that the FCF does not compel an employer to employ Singaporeans.

Key political risks, labelling

In February of 2011, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong highlighted “racial tension” as one of the “key political risks to watch” in Singapore, and he said this should be addressed as “a policy priority.” (Reuters)

PM Lee’s comments were followed 2 years later by similar remarks by his deputy, Teo Chee Hean.

“We need to be mindful of tensions and other possible fault lines in our society,” he said at the National Security Seminar in September 2013.

3 months after that, the Little India riot broke out, involving mostly Indian foreign workers. It was Singapore’s first riot in more than 40 years. The incident, while not racial in nature, nonetheless had some racial undertones, when some of the workers complained of how they were treated in Singapore.

In April, protest against a group of Filipinos’ plans to hold a celebration in the heart of Singapore’s shopping district, Orchard Road, drew criticisms from the Prime Minister. Protesters who threatened the organisers were called “a disgrace to Singapore” by PM Lee, and the Manpower Minister accused the protesters of “bigotry” and that they “peddle hate”, a reference to xenophobia and/or racism.

The ministers’ remarks drove a sharp divide between Singaporeans and foreigners, with some Singaporeans accusing the ministers of favouring foreigners over citizens.

A Singaporean problem?

In 2010, after an 8-day visit to Singapore, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on racism and xenophobia, Githu Muigai, issued a report which “raised various issues of concern relating to some blind spots in the policies and measures pursued by the Government in its quest for racial harmony.”

“These include restrictions on public debate and discourse on the issue of ethnicity, and the importance of ethnic identity in daily life,” Mr Muigai said.

Swiftly, Singapore’s Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) responded, and dismissed Mr Muigai’s call for greater openness in the public discussion of what the MHA termed “sensitive issues”.

The MHA called this “an abstract principle.”

The MHA said it is not against the discussion of these “sensitive issues” but that a “balance must be struck between free expression and preservation of racial and religious harmony.”

Integration – but sheer number makes it hard

And to promote racial and ethnic harmony, the government has been urging Singaporeans to welcome foreigners of all races, and for locals to integrate with the new arrivals. It has also introduced a S$10 million Community Integration Fund for this purpose.

But it is doubtful that such initiatives, while necessary perhaps, will be able to achieve the goal of an integrated society while the influx continues, albeit at a slower rate – or so the government claims.

“In the current state of ambivalence towards immigration in Singapore, my sense is that race and country of origin have taken on a stronger accent with regards to how landlords may view Indian/PRC tenants,” Eugene Tan, Associate Professor of Law at Singapore Management University, told the BBC.

The issue, however, goes beyond the relationship between landlord and potential tenants.

As older Singaporeans know, such simmering tension can lead to deadly consequences.

The question therefore is:

Besides constantly urging Singaporeans to “welcome” and “integrate” with non-locals, and introducing the CIF, what else has the government done?

The problem, some say and quite clearly, lies in the sheer number of foreigners here.

Each foreign ethnic group here is of a substantial size, and their members can congregate among their own, without any need to interact with locals.

All this means that the integration which the government hopes will somehow happen is nothing more than a pipe dream.

It is thus time for us to revisit the government’s White Paper on Population again. The Paper projects a population size of 6.9 million by 2030, which is a further 1.5 million from the current 5.4 million.

How does the government plan to achieve an inclusive and integrated society among all the races and nationalities?

It has taken Singapore the better part of 50 years to reach a stage where the different local ethnic groups are able to live peacefully with one another.

Now, however, with the influx of such large groups of foreigners, the issue has become more complex and complicated.

So, really, as Mr Muigai advised, we need to start talking openly and honestly about these things, and where Singapore should go from here, and not hide behind political rhetoric which serves no purpose except to bury the matter under the carpet.

Seen in the larger context, discrimination is but only a symptom of a deeper malaise – the fracture in our social fabric, caused by an ill-conceived economic policy based on the brute strength of numbers.