By Acmad Toquero Macarimbang

To begin my observation as a foreigner working in Singapore, let me tell you the picture of Singapore in my mind. Singapore is a fine city. It is a modern city-state with style. It is over-saturated, literally with color-coded buildings, flowers and trees everywhere amidst the modern, stylish and smartly crafted infrastructures.  Everything is simply in order. The residential buildings are segregated, business district at the centre. The transportation system is just perfect, and it has convenient public transport system such as the  MRT and buses. Topping it all is a mixture of various cultures – of proud local Chinese, local Malays and local Indians, not to mention other races and nationalities existing in the world, standing and sitting side by side inside the MRT. This is Singapore, a dream place to live in. I feel as if I am in New York City with the cultural diversity and employment opportunities for foreigners. Perhaps, Alicia Keys should also include “/Singapore is a/ concrete jungle where dreams are made of,” to her lyric.

Lately, however, the issue of competing for job opportunities with foreign workers is creating displeasure and anxiety among local Singaporeans towards their Government policy on attracting more foreign workers. In my view, this could make Singaporeans feel less prioritized in terms of employment opportunities. From 2001 to 2011, a 5.4% growth rate is registered for the non-resident labor force, while only 2.6% for the resident labor force.1 Looking at the absolute figures, in 2010, out of the 3,135,900 total labor force, 1,088,600 or 34.7% are non-resident workers, excluding a number of Permanent Residents; although part of the resident population, they are still passport holders of their own country of origins. In 2011, the number of non-resident workers increased to 35.7% (1,157,000 non-resident workers/ 3,237,100 total labor force).2 The growth rate between 2010 and 2011 is only 1.6% for resident population while 6.3% for non-resident workers.3 Figures aside, even without considering the growth rates, one can tell the foreign workers population in Singapore has tremendously changed within the last decade by simply looking at the amazing diverse people of different races and nationalities inside the MRT.

There has been a study which observed that Singapore has national anxieties over employment competition, livelihood, and the sensitivity to lose the country’s limited natural and material resources, and space.4 These anxieties have formed sentiments but it is a good thing these have not grown into hatred and violence towards immigrants5, unlike in some European and North American cities. This is a national and sensitive issue that every Singaporean citizen has the right to interact with their own Government in appropriate venues to look after their sentiments. This anxiety is a manifestation of a social inequality as a result of globalization, technological change and domestic policies.6 Professor Tommy Koh highlighted that this would undermine solidarity and social cohesion, and would pose a threat to harmony and sense of nationhood by Singaporeans.7  I am afraid the anxiety would create a subjective and repressed emotion not only among the locals but also among the new citizens and foreign workers that would affect social relationships among these groups.

As a foreign worker, the kind of relationship I build with Singaporeans is mostly treasured. I highly appreciate the effort and the simple gestures that my Singaporean colleagues, new friends and the Malay family where I currently stay, has shown to me; even introducing me to nasi lemak is a lesser effort but it did establish a kind of relationship that makes me feel welcomed.

I have been observing a bunch of people talking with those of their own race and of their own nationality inside and outside MRT.  I am a victim of an inevitable circumstance that there are times I’d like to see and speak to someone who can speak my language – local Chinese to local Chinese, Malay to Malay, local Indian to local Indian, PRC Chinese to PRC Chinese, Filipino to Filipino, Caucasian to Caucasian and among many others. I see Singapore as a non-confrontational society where people tend to keep their angst and disbelief within their own ethnic communities. But, this is not unique to Singapore; this is also true in other mega cities and countries with immense population of immigrants.

It seems to me that there is a missing link; there is a social relationship that needs to be forged by each community. Everyone should show an effort to interact with each other’s communities, at a personal level. But I will leave the discussion about Singapore’s Foreign and Immigration Policy to experts. As an individual and as a non-Singaporean, I am looking into my capacity to help my relationship status with the locals who surround me in a manner that will maintain, and even bring more respect and understanding among us. People from various parts of the world – myself included – came and many settle down in Singapore because we were attracted to what Singapore could offer us.  And I feel that we should take care of this professional and economic opportunity afforded to us. For instance in my case,  I feel that by expressing gratitude for welcoming me, I should show my utmost care and respect to my job, to Singapore, to its own citizens and to those who came and chose Singapore as their new home.

I have listed Ten Commandments, not in particular order, to guide myself in becoming a good foreign worker in Singapore. (1) I shall appreciate the kind of work I do for this is an opportunity given to me to explore my professional and personal capacity in a foreign land; (2) I shall ask and answer questions politely in all means not just to locals but to everyone in the street, in the office, in the school, at home, and in hawker centers; (3) I shall not talk too loudly inside the MRT when speaking in my language over the phone or with people of my race; (4) I shall show respect to each different culture and tradition, and stay away from comments that in any way hurt the feelings of members of such community; (5) I shall respect Singaporean social norms; (6) I shall observe and study the local culture, their local food, and their gestures, so I will not be alienated nor feel strange about their unique ways of doing things; (7) I shall not wait for my colleagues and neighbors who are locals to greet and smile to me; (8) I shall not conclude that a certain race or nationality is unacceptably different, if I encountered an unlikely situation with one or few persons from a particular community; (9) I shall try to learn simple greetings in Chinese, Malays and in Tamil and others; (10) I shall join activities for national interest as a way of interaction with the local culture and as a way of integration and letting them know I do care.

Integration in all possible means is the most visible way of showing how I value myself as part of Singapore community. I can attain this with the help of self-help organizations from the grassroot level that do understand more the need for cooperation among communities in building healthy relationships.

Singapore – a fine city indeed! And I shall be deeply grateful for the opportunity to share this experience with the diversity of cultures and peoples I see unified in an MRT as we head to our destinations.


1 Ministry of Manpower Singapore, Labour Force Report: Report on Labour Manpower,” updated January 2012, (cited 23 May 2012), 2.

2 Ibid.


4 Terence Chong, “Stepping Stone Singapore: The Cultural Politics of Anti-Immigrant Anxieties,” a paper presented to the Conference on Integration by the Institute of Policy Studies, Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, National University of Singapore, (21 May, 2012), PowerPoint slide 2.

5 Terence Chong, PowerPoint slide 14.

6 Tommy Koh, What Singapore can learn from Europe,” The Straits Times, 19 May 2012, (cited 24 May 2012), para 5.

7Ibid., para 6.

Acmad Toquero Macarimbang is a Research Associate with the Centre for Research on Islamic and Malay Affairs (RIMA). The opinions expressed in this article are his own.

This commentary was also published in the VOICES Section of TODAY, 24th June 2012.

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