Foreign Talent or Menace? Debating foreign workers in Singapore

An interesting blog exchange has gone on in the Singaporean blog, Temasek Review, shedding some light into the plight of foreign workers in Singapore. It began with an article written by a Filipino who then offered some clarificatory remarks in light of some passionate comments he received. Then came a fiery rebuttal from a Singaporean.

I find this exchange incredibly thought-provoking as it presents another angle into why sending Filipinos to work abroad is not sustainable in the long-run. We lose our talent here, and eat into the jobs there.

Before you proceed though, I suggest you check your nationalism at the door.

It all began here: Jobs and the economy from a foreigner’s perspective

Let me get things straight right off the bat. I am one of those who Singapore calls “foreign talent”. I was born in the Philippines, but moved to Singapore four years ago. I work as a manager in a Singaporean company and I hope to have my application for permanent residency approved soon. I want to make Singapore my home.

I understand that there has been a lot of resentment towards people from my country as well as other countries. The sentiments have been expressed very vocally and at times even viscerally on the internet. It has even been turned into a political issue.

The reason is that disenfranchised Singaporeans who are struggling to cope with the rising cost of living have the perception that people like me are here to compete with them for jobs. Apparently, we are favoured by companies because we are willing to work harder for lower wages.

I would like to say that it is not true that all of us are willing to accept lower wages. It may be true, though, that people from countries such as the Philippines, China, India and Myanmar benefit from the exchange rate and the relatively lower cost of living in our home countries, especially when we remit money home.

However, we don’t live in the Philippines, China, India or Myanmar. We live in Singapore. We have to pay the same as Singaporeans for a plate of chicken rice or for a ride on the MRT.We have to pay the same utilities bills and telephone bills. We also have to rent our own accommodation, something that many Singaporeans do not have to worry about because they either live with their parents well into their 30s or even 40s, or live in HDB flats purchased directly from the government at a subsidised rate – something that is not available to us foreigners.

So, just as Singaporeans are feeling the crunch from the increasing cost of living, we “foreign talents” are feeling the same. When I first came to Singapore, it was possible to rent a condominium apartment in Bukit Panjang or Chua Chu Kang for just slightly over $2,000 per month. Now, we are having to pay $3,000 a month for the same. Either we have to cough up more, or we will be forced to downgrade our lifestyles.

So, it is not true that we are willing to work for “sweat shop” wages. After all, we are human beings, and we have aspirations and ambitions too. We are not going to be happy if we are stuck in a job that pays $3,000 a month for the rest of our lives. Like Singaporeans, we want to achieve financial freedom, material comfort, and career success.

The difference is that we may be willing to work much harder in order to achieve that aim. Coming from countries that aren’t as wealthy as Singapore, we know what it is like to live in poverty, and we are appreciative of the oppportunities that Singapore has given us. So, we might be willing to work 12-hour days, work on weekends, and take on as many assignments as we can. We do so because we want to impress our employers and prove our worth to the companies who have taken a risk in hiring us. But, don’t Singaporeans do this too? What is so wrong with wanting to be the best that we can be?

I hope that Singaporeans will not think that because we were born in so-called “third world” countries, we have no right to share the fruits of the first world. We didn’t choose to be born in our respective home countries. But we chose to come to Singapore. Most Singaporeans today are the grandchildren and great-grandchildren of immigrants from countries such as China and India. Their forefathers came to Singapore in search of a better life. Generations later, a new wave of immigrants is now doing the same. Even Americans and Europeans are now flocking to Singapore in search of opportunity. This is testament to Singapore’s success at creating abundant opportunities for all.

Many of my friends are Singaporeans. I find Singaporean culture unique and interesting. I love Singaporean food and I have even begun to use Singlish expressions in my speech. I hope that Singaporeans can see us for what we really are – we are just fellow human beings who want a better life for ourselves and our children. We are not here to steal anyone’s jobs, nor are we here to use Singapore as a stepping stone. In fact, by working hard, we are contributing to our companies, and therefore contributing to the Singapore economy as well.

Brian Carillo

Then the author offers a clarificatory note to all the comments in We make Singapore a better place to live

Hi everyone,

I was surprised to see that my article received so many comments. Some of you want to know why I am not going to apply for Singapore citizenship. Some of you also ask why I am bringing my entire family here, and why the Philippines has failed to provide people like me with job opportunities.

Well, I can only say that my intention has never been to compete with Singaporeans for jobs or “steal” their jobs. I respect Singapore and Singaporeans. I am grateful for the hospitality that your country has extended to me. By working hard and doing my best, I am contributing to the Singapore economy. However, at heart I remain a Filipino. Some of you have rightly said that nationality is not simply a pragmatic or economic decision but an emotional one. The fact is that the workforce is now becoming more and more global. In cities like New York, London and Hong Kong, there are workers and professionals from every nationality. Globalisation is the way forward and to try and fight against it or resist it would be foolish.

I have no comment on why the Philippine government has not provided adequate opportunities for talented Filipino professionals. But all I can say is that wages in the Philippines are definitely lower than in Singapore. For the same reason, many Singaporean professionals seek opportunities in Europe, the USA or Australia.

I also have no comment on your government and their policies, because I am a foreigner and do not wish to concern myself with local politics. All I can say is that the Singapore government has done a much better job over the past 50 years than the Philippine governments. For example we had Presidents such as Marcos and Estrada who were bad for the country. So, we foreigners are extremely impressed by the Singaporean government, and feel that Singapore has everything. One of the cleanest cities in Asia, one of the best public transportation systems in Asia, one of the best education systems in Asia, one of the safest cities in Asia. The list goes on.

I feel that Singaporeans should also take these things into consideration and not take them for granted. Your government may have made mistakes but everyone does. Overall, your leaders have served you well, more so than Filipino leaders overall (even though we had good leaders in President Corazon Aquino and President Fidel Ramos).

I also hope that Singaporeans can be more accommodating to foreigners and not just see us as people who come here to steal your jobs. We are contributing to the economy and we are also adding to your cultural diversity. In so doing, we make Singapore a better place to live.

I hope my comments can be taken on board and if there is to be debate, let it be a constructive one.


Finally, it all comes to a head in a comment by a Singaporean in We are not competing on equal grounds


Firstly, I DO NOT fault you when you say your heart is with Philippines even though you are Singapore PR (Editor: Actually, he said he was in the process of getting his PR application approved). As I myself am a Singaporean who works overseas and like you I too have PR elsewhere, yet my heart too solidly remain with Singapore and not the country I am residing in currently.

HOWEVER, do you know what is the fallacy of your argument when you said QUOTE: “For the same reason, many Singaporean professionals seek opportunities in Europe, the USA or Australia”

As Singaporeans, we go out elsewhere to work based on equal pay structure with the LOCALS in that country. So we are competing solely based on experience, merits and ability to go through interviews. We do not earn the right to work in so call Australia, Europe because we ARE CHEAPER LABOUR. We are measured on the SAME platform based on EQUAL OPPORTUNITIES. Employers do not employ us because we are cheaper or willing to work longer than local, but in Singapore, most of you foreign workers on employment pass tend to secure a JOB which can be fulfilled by any Singaporean purely because you guys are willing to get a lower pay than local, because by your OWN ADMISSION, your wages in Singapore is many folds HIGHER than your own country. Also, we do not bloody BRING our whole family and village to the country we are working in. Our families stay where they are.

I know this unequal discrimination very well because I used to have to work with a team of helpdesk agents, out of which 10 are from your country and only one from Singapore and one from Malaysia. I later found out “salary” discrepancy was one of the major determinant of jobs going to people like you, and not because you guys are technically better. In fact, I had to fire 3 Pinoys because they are too slow witted to understand instructions and never improve. Instead, the Malaysian staff was the best followed by the sg, I had to fight thru all the HR crap to secure more jobs for sg uni fresh grads to prevent people like you depriving another local from experience.

Also, you call yourself a manager? Well, in HK i had the luck of working with a so call “Filipino” manager who is supposedly to be sooo good in manila office, but guess what? She is good at presentation, all flattery (like in your essay) and all talk but when it comes to push and shove, she always disappear for actual work and comes up with a million excuses leaving us Singaporean and Hong Kongers to do the shit for her. While the HK MD “pushed” her out (fired) for being so useless, she found a way to work in Singapore because she got her new company branch in Philippine to employ her and use “relocation”excuse to work in Singapore. Its a joke because we didn’t want her in Hong Kong but Singapore sees her as “valuable” asset, at a lower pay than what she had in HK.

So please, do not try to convince us that you people are NOT stealing our job. You are whether it is by your own unknowing admission or with our govt support that allows you to come in and compete on UNFAIR grounds with our locals.

In Australia FYI, PR do not share the same rights as citizens. Even at immigration, we PR have to Q with fellow tourists. Jobs also go to citizens first. There is a very very clear distinction. In Singapore, u people are lumped as citizens category which is a big fat joke.

So until the day you are competing on equal grounds, please learn to suffer whatever “discrimination” from us because your very existence here in our land is a discrimination to our own sg citizens..

What do you think? The comments that followed the above post are also very revealing.

Honestly, I think both our governments have to do a better job of giving our respective peoples the life they need and deserve. If the Singaporean government has been too lax in letting foreigners in, the Philippine government has been too reliant on overseas remittances for far too long.

I’ve always been about developing our local industries and markets. Otherwise, we subject ourselves to a premature globalization that will inevitably lead to conflicts such as these which on the surface seem marred merely by racism and discrimination.

Nevertheless, I also understand we can’t wait. We do have a lot of brilliant talent in the Philippines but there simply isn’t anything for them here. How do we reconcile this though with the needs of the people in the places they go to?

If it were the reverse, I’m sure the Filipinos would be saying the same thing.


One thought on “Foreign Talent or Menace? Debating foreign workers in Singapore

  1. Interesting post!

    I think we really have to develop our economy so that people will venture less outside. OFWs have a social cost: the families left behind are weakened hereby weakening the basic strand of our society.

    I think we can compete with the best globally without the need to resort to get paid cheaper than the locals. I long for the day we are no longer identified as cheap labor.

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