Xenophobia in Singapore – Myth or Reality?

By Walter Jayandran

Xenophobia is generally defined as an intense or irrational dislike or fear of people from other countries. What was initially described as a psychological disposition of people towards foreigners has in recent times been ascribed to intergroup relations in the context of mass migration.

Economic factors could also play an important role in determining attitudes to foreigners. At times of economic boom migrants are needed to fill in shortages of low skilled labor, deficiencies in qualified staff or for a quick transfer of technologies through the import of professionals. Migrants are at best tolerated during times of plenty, but when resources become scarce they could be considered the cause of problems.

In Singapore, comments in on-line forums recently have been labelled xenophobic and netizens have been advised to exercise caution in commenting about migrants.

International Migration and Problems of Managing Diversity

A UN/ ILO Publication in 2001 mentioned then that some 150 million people live temporarily or permanently outside their countries of origin (2.5% of the world’s population). Majority of these, 80-97 million, are migrant workers and members of their families.. Another 12 million are refugees outside their country of origin.

Globalisation has accentuated the unevenness of development between countries and thereby generated significant movement of labour across borders. Some of this may be the classic “brain-drain” of relatively skilled workers migrating to developed economies. But a significant proportion takes the form of low-skilled or even unskilled workers moving, sometimes illegally, to neighbouring countries with economies growing rapidly. Such foreign workers are recruited to do low-skilled or semi-skilled jobs at a low pay, but who are happy to repatriate such wages to their home countries where they would not have earned the equivalent salaries. This artificial depression of wages in the host countries has ramifications for the local employees, who have no such recourse to increase their purchasing power.

The Impact of Immigration in Singapore

One apparent reason for frustration among the in-group of a society is the impact of an influx of migrants . A look at the demographic changes over the last few decades may give us better insight into the issue.

Key Demographic Indicators, 1970 – 2013 (Singstat)

Total Population1,2,3 (‘000)2074.52413.93047.14027.95076.75312.45399.2
Resident Population2,3 (‘000)2013.62282.12735.93273.43771.73818.23844.8
Singapore Citizens (‘000)1874.82194.32623.72985.93230.73285.13313.5
Permanent Residents (‘000)138.887.8112.1287.5541533.1531.2
Population Density4 (Per sq km)3538390748145900714674297540

Today, almost 40% of Singapore’s population are foreigners (resident and non-resident), most of whom are working here. The sharp rise in PRs and non-residents between 2000 and 2013 has somewhat upset the gradual growth of foreigner population in the previous three decades. This exponential growth in the non-Singaporean population has led to unhappiness among many Singaporeans, who have complained about over-crowded subway trains, buses, shopping malls, hospitals, streets and housing estates. The recent spate of train breakdowns have also been attributed to the lack of proper maintenance due to the increased passenger traffic.

Adding to the negative feelings , a government planning policy paper published last year projected a population increase of a further 30 percent by 2030, to 6.9 million, at which time immigrants would account for nearly half of the island’s population. A closer look at the workforce demographics will help us understand the issue better.

Workforce Composition

There were 3.44 million persons in Singapore’s labour force in June 2013, according to the Ministry of Manpower’s Labour Force Report. The resident workforce, which comprises both Singaporeans and Permament Residents or PRs (foreign born) totalled 2.138 million, while the non-resident workforce, comprising foreign workers (non-permanent) totalled 1.305 milion. There is no breakdown of resident workforce and we may need to assume that of the half million PRs here, at least 50% must be employed or earning an income. Based on this conservative estimate, the total foreign workforce (that is, non Singaporeans) would be more than 1.5 million.

Total Workforce 2013

3.,443 million

Extrapolated Total Foreign Workforce

1.56 million

Non –Resident

1.305 million


1.305 million


2.139 million


0.26 million (based on 531.2 PR population )

Singapore seems heavily dependent on foreigners . They are found mostly in the Manufacturing, Services and Construction sectors of the economy. The growth in immigration seems to correlate perfectly with growth in GDP. Singapore’s GDP doubled in the last decade. However the negative aspect of such influx begin to surface. Feelings may be manifested by anecdotal evidences found in the social media sites by affected individuals and could influence the thoughts and feelings of others. We read of angry backlash, in the social media to disparage foreign workers, from highly paid “foreign talent” to “heavily exploited laborers” from China and the Indian sub-continent. Some have directed their anger at the policy makers for “having created the problem in the first place”.

The government has put forward many reasons for the immigration policy, mainly economic, but also to maintain first world standards in health, tourism, transport, education and housing.

Serious Implications

What worries many people are the effects of the exponential increase in foreigners in a small, densely populated island. The government has acknowledged infrastructure shortcomings because of this phenomenon. Frequent train breakdowns, overcrowded buses and trains, overcrowding in public spaces,shortage of hospital beds are some examples of the stress on infrastructure directly brought about by the rapid increase in immigration over the last eight years. Prime Minister Lee has admitted the government did not have 20/20 foresight, and is now taking steps to mitigate the problem, such as in regulating flow of foreign workers, speeding up public housing for Singaporeans, focusing on improving efficiency in transportation, and stepping up improvements to healthcare management and education.

Between 2000 and 2013, population of Singaporeans grew by slightly more than half a million, while population of foreigners doubled from 1 million to 2 million within the same period. The social and cultural impact of such sharp increase in a diverse foreigner population can be daunting at the very least to a society that has been generally accomodating government policies over the years. Strong opposition to this seems to come from the post-independence generation of Singaporeans, and understandably the reactions in social media have been largely negative. It is interesting to note that the Opposition has made significant gains in the last General Election in 2011, and the two subsequent By-Elections in 2012.

But the more sinister, yet not very apparent consequences must beg government’s attention just as much. These are in the area of cultural, political and social behaviour both among and between the in-group and the out-groups.

Impact of Increased population Density

Singapore is not as densely populated as some other global cities. However there are concerns if the planned population of 6.9 million comes true. “Beyond physical limits, a small country of fixed area also has psychological limits”, says social work academic Kalyani Mehta, a former nominated member of parliament. Prof Mehta contends that phenomena like elderly abuse, family violence, road rage, or even cases of people breaking out in quarrels when jostling for space in lines or on packed buses have arisen from intensified competition that comes with overheated population growth. She has also observed suicide and depression rates rising in tandem with population figures.

Unprecedented Phenomena

No one was prepared for the turn of events by some foreign workers in the last two years. In November 2012, a group of 171 SMRT bus drivers from China staged a protest over disparity of wages between them and the Malaysian bus drivers as well as “poor living conditions”. Singapore’s last legal strike occurred in 1986 . The quiet labour relations situation took an unprecedented jolt. Then last December, hundreds of South Asian workers rioted in “Little India” , Singapore’s famed Indian enclave after being enraged by a fatal road accident, leaving 18 people injured and police vehicles burnt in the country’s worst outbreak of violence in more than 40 years. Will we see a trend of foreign workers becoming increasingly willing to resort to extreme measures to make their voices heard, and in the process dismantle the social order that has made Singapore progress?

There was public outrage over both the China bus drivers’ illegal strike, and the riot by South Asian foreign workers with many expressing strong, if not unreasonable assumptions of foreign workers in the social media . The latest incident of outrage against the planned Filipino celebration of the country’s Independence Day at an iconic location in Singapore by some 5,000 Filipinos is yet another reminder of the potential impact of social behaviour of groups that seem not in congruence. Since the Facebook group, “Say ‘No’ to an overpopulated Singapore” (SNOS) announced its objection to the Philippine Independence Day event which is scheduled to be held on 8th June at Ngee Ann City, Civic Plaza, debate about the event has been fast and furious.

Are Singaporeans Xenophobic?

Geert Hofstede*, a renowned Dutch academic, had carried out research on national cultures along six different dimensions: Power distance , Individualism, Masculinity vs Femininity, Uncertainty avoidance, Pragmatism, and Indulgence. Each of these he measured for a large number of countries, and then made cross-country comparisons. In the age of globalisation, these have been used extensively to understand the differences between workforces in different environments. Hofstede’s research results for Singapore clearly indicate that we have no issue with dealing with uncertainties like the impact of global recession, and even immigration for that matter. So while the mass media may have created undue alarm about perceived xenophobia, the general population psyche is one of acceptance of the future , trusting structure and stable leadership to manage uncertainty. The social media may lend unwittingly to extreme rants of a few, but it is certainly no indicator of the majority’s views.

Integration – the answer

We need to be realistic in accepting the changed demographics. The new citizens and PRs are here and will make Singapore their home in the near future. New Singaporeans need to try harder to assimilate. “Pick up Singapore customs, lifestyles, norms, social rules,” PM Lee urged the new citizens. “Be conscious that this is something which you need to do. And watch out also for the little cultural differences which I’m sure there will still be. Know about them, and try to bridge them.”

Integration requires us as Singaporeans to play our part to foster acceptance and develop friendships .Friendships entail interacting interdependently with another—sharing, taking turns, self-disclosing, and the like—and such actions reveal that many of the threats initially expected to exist may not be there after all. With friendship also comes many similarities. Having a close friend that’s a member of another group then provides a model that the group may not actually be as threatening as initially believed. As members of groups come to interact with one another more, the likelihood that they’ll form friendships increases, and this will accelerate the reduction of prejudices.

At the end of the day, Singaporeans know their history well, and with the strong national culture, we can be confident that common sense will prevail that peace and prosperity can be achieved in an orderly and structured environment.


* Editor’s note – We note that the study by Geert Hofstede, specifically the segment on Singapore is slightly dated. It is also important to note that Hofstede’s analysis on Singapore used the Chinese-Malay-Indian-Other racial composition as a basis of the study – the changes to this composition in recent years means that the study might not be a definitive way of describing Singapore culture. Nevertheless, Hofstede’s concept of “uncertainty avoidance” does provide a useful measure, where Singapore’s less risk adverse culture is is worthy of mention.