Monday, August 15, 2011

Singapore: the "soft landing" in Asia

Because my employer imports workers from all over the world, I sometimes bug them to find out if they're willing to write a guest post for this blog. I finally found a sucker contributor, Iftekharul "Ifty" Haque, one of my recent colleagues who's traveled the world and found himself in Amsterdam. He provides us with a first-hand account of Singapore. (Here's my photo collection for Singapore)



Singapore is Asia's "soft landing." It's in Asia, but it's very orderly. There are no cows in the street, public services are reliable, the bureaucracy is razor-thin, the economy is massively liberalized, corruption is virtually unheard of, and it's more English-friendly than many cosmopolitan European cities.

Singapore Skyline at Night
Copyright 2011 by chensiyuan,  CC 3.0 license

Coming into prominence as a British colony and entrepot, it is a historical rarity as a country thrust into independence against its will. In 1965, secession was forced upon it by greater Malaysia, and its relations with its neighbors remain prickly to this day.

Public services are top-notch, and match or beat any modern city's. By 2020, Singapore plans to have as many kilometers of metro rail as the London Underground, and expansion plans are aggressive. Chronically short of water, it has inherited some fresh water reservoirs from the British era that it has maintained, but it has also begun a project to make a fresh water reservoir out of what used to be a salt-water bay in what is called the Marina Barrage.
The average Singaporean worker is many times more productive (as calculated by per-capita GDP) than any of its neighbors in South-East Asia. An intensely hard-working, Confucianist ethic is pervasive in the island-state, with extremely low unemployment. It is a regional financial hub, as well as one of the world's leaders in offshore oil technology, and after New York and London, is one of the main centers for the trade of oil futures.

singapore has slick streets
Wet Singaporean Streets
Photo by Jason Anfinsen
Housing in Singapore is extremely expensive, ranked as one of the most expensive cities to live in the world. Despite this, food and beverage are extremely competitive, to the point where most average Singaporeans rarely cook meals at home, and take to eating out in the many food courts dotted in all residential and commercial neighborhoods in the city. In Singapore, you are never far away from a food court (locally called "hawker centers") anywhere in the city, and at any time of day. Prepare to forget cooking.

Singapore has a very liberal foreign labor policy. Foreigners with an appropriate skillset and a job offer promptly receive their paperwork in good order. Companies rarely discriminate on the basis of nationality, although the recent financial crisis in 2008 hit Singapore's economy hard (it clocked in significant GDP shrinkage post-crisis, though it has since begun to recover), and an increasingly politically aware and nativist reactionary voice has emerged in Singapore calling for locals to get priority over foreigners. This has resulted in some constriction in the local job market for some commoditized skillsets, but the island-state has begun a robust recovery post-crisis, and continues to import foreign labor to drive its economy.

Chinatown, Singapore
Chinatown Train Station, Singapore
Photo by Khalzuri
Immigration policy in Singapore is a hotly debated political issue, and is shrouded in government opacity. The government publishes aggregate numbers of how many new permanent residents and citizens have been included, but no further information is published, including criteria for acceptance or rejection from the immigration program, and the income and education level of said immigrants. Eligibility to apply is extremely low (6 months of employed residence to apply for permanent residence, and 3 years of permanent residence to apply for citizenship), but whether an applicant gets accepted or not is completely up to the government. Based on anecdotal evidence, there are applicants who barely qualify in their basic eligibility, and received their papers in good order, and those that have remained in the island-state for extended periods, sometimes 10 times more than the stipulated minimum stay, only to be rejected time and time again. Any attempt at deciphering the reasoning behind this is conjecture, so it is difficult to say what the government considers. Applications cost nothing, though, so an applicant can apply as many times as he or she likes, and gainful employment ensures a right to stay in the city-state.

Despite this, the ICA (Immigrations and Checkpoints Authority) has a special class in its "social visit" category, as a social visitor "seeking employment." Providing the government sufficient proof of one's qualifications, the government can grant a foreigner a visa that gives them a year to live in Singapore, to seek employment. So despite tightening its grip on permanent residency and citizenship, the policy of bringing in foreign skillsets through an employment pass program, remains firmly in place.
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