Monday, October 31, 2011

Observations on the Foreigner Dominated Office at Work

I took on a temp position in a financial services company several weeks ago as a preliminary step towards a permanent career change; I formerly worked as a research engineer in the public sector.

[As to why I decided to change careers, well, that's a little personal, and perhaps I'll blog about it some other day when I am more settled in a permanent job.]

My current workplace is strikingly different from my previous workplace. For one thing, my previous employer, for reasons peculiar to the nature of the work, generally hired only Singapore citizens and a handful of permanent residents (don't ask why). In contrast, in the department of my current employer where I work, the office is filled with foreigners on work visas. I estimate Singaporeans comprise something between 20 and 30 percent of the employees. The rest include Malaysians, Indonesians, Hong Kongers, Indians and Westerners from various countries (the UK, Australia, etc.).

It is one thing to be intellectually aware of how Singaporeans compete with the many foreigners that have arrived in our country in recent years, it is quite another to be thrust into the thick of it after being formerly ensconced in the public sector.

I'm not bitter or resentful about it, even with my current employment challenges. One might as well complain about why it rains or why it's so damnably hot here all the time. I'm not the optimistic or "think positive" sort, but I much prefer practical thoughts on how to move past (or around) obstacles in order to get what I want, rather than caviling about how unfair life is.

As a former researcher who used to professionally observe and interview people at work (I trained formally as an engineer, but I worked frequently with psychologists and the occasional sociologist), I took the opportunity of working in the modern Singapore office to observe the dynamics of foreigners working here,  and to think about the impact it has on Singaporeans.

A lot of people have complained commented on foreign competition for jobs, but beyond the obvious, I haven't really read anything substantive with the details articulated well. And even though I do have foreigner friends in Singapore, working in an office full of foreigners allows certain insights to come through that would not have otherwise occurred to me within the more personal confines of friendship.

This post is a collection of my own observations and reflections after several weeks of working in a foreigner dominated office.


First, the caveat: the sample size I have is small, and arguably biased. This caveat applies equally to all the subsections that come after this one.

Most of the foreigners in my workplace are, as mentioned previously, of the nationalities I listed above. They are generally youngish, ranging from the mid-20s to the early and mid-30s, which squares with the data I reconstructed in a previous post. The gender split in my office, however, is relatively even.

The single to married ratio runs at about 2:1. A few of the singles date. Those that are married have one, or no kids, and where they have kids, the kids are generally infants or toddlers, meaning the kids came relatively recently, when they were in their early thirties.

In general, most of my coworkers do not have extended family here. Immediate family is a bit more common, either in the form of spouses or sometimes siblings (with whom they frequently share a rental apartment with, especially the Malaysians and Indonesians).

Living Arrangements

Married folks tend to buy, singles tend to rent. It's as simple, and as expected, as that. Ergo, as most of my coworkers are single, rentals predominate. My office is along Shenton Way, so most of my coworkers live in relatively central locations.

Driving is uncommon.


The dominant language is, of course, English. However, Mandarin and Cantonese are frequently spoken in my office. This isn't at all surprising given the presence of Malaysians and Hong Kongers.

Working hours

Perhaps it is mostly a function of the private sector in general and the financial services industry in particular, but my coworkers work longer hours than I am used to. Where at my previous employer I used to knock off on the dot at 6 pm, people in my current office routinely leave at between 7:30 pm and 8:30 pm. FYI, the day starts at about 9 am.

And yes, I am fully aware that many people in Singapore work longer hours than these, and that these are not particularly onerous hours.

Is it because foreigners are likelier to be single with no families to return home to that they work longer hours? Or is it because the same ambitions and aspirations that drive people to find work in a foreign city also motivates them to put in more hours at the office? Does this up the bar for the Singaporean worker, with resulting effects on the later age of marriage and the number of kids raised?

These are interesting questions, but I am also all too aware of confirmation bias to unhesitatingly state these as conclusions. Let's just leave them as intriguing questions to think about.

Socializing After Work

Perhaps because of the longer hours as well as the single status of many of my coworkers, going for dinner together after work is a common occurrence. My coworkers also sometimes meet up on Saturdays for lunch (usually at some place with good food). It could also be due to the more constricted social circles faced by workers in a foreign city.

The vibe in my current office is similar to the vibe I felt as a university student, and the vibe I felt when I used to visit friends working on Wall Street in New York (although because I am a career changer, many of my colleagues are much younger than I am). It was more of a single's lifestyle (as a single myself, I'm certainly not complaining about or judging it). Nor am I so myopic to not know that many people eventually grow out of this kind of lifestyle.

While I did have many single (Singaporean) colleagues in my previous job that I occasionally had dinner with after work, meeting on weekends was almost nonexistent. And the shorter working hours at my previous job meant that most people knocked off from work and met their other friends for dinner. Relationships at work are somewhat chummier in my current office than before.

It's interesting to think about what the social implications are for a government-sanctioned policy of mass immigration of foreigners of working age, and the potential impact it has on the local population: the rate of interracial and inter-nationality marriage (one of my female Singaporean coworkers is a Malaysian in the same office), the delay in the rate of local family formation and lowering of birthrates, since the office culture encourages long hours, even on the viability of national service in the future.

With regard to NS, quite aside from the already low birthrates Singapore is experiencing, immigration has historically been driven by the young, and restless young men in particular. Will the children of expatriate men and local Singaporean women be lost to the SAF in the future should they choose to eschew citizenship? Was this one reason why nationality law was amended in 2004 to permit female citizens residing abroad to transmit their citizenship by descent? Are there other potential effects on dilution of national identity as a result of mass immigration?


I am just a temp, hence I fully intend to resume my job search in a couple of months (my position is a very short term one, more like an internship formalized into a temp position). So, it's hard to ignore the conversations in the office when candidates are being considered for fresh positions, or when resumes get sent in and scrutinized.

[I have to state here first that I am not being seriously considered for a permanent position in my current company mainly because of my lack of relevant industry experience, among other things, rather than my nationality.]

While I wouldn't go so far as to call it discrimination, the fact of the matter is that job searches, as in much of life, depend on referrals. The impression that I get is that it is common for someone to be hired in my company based on a personal referral from someone already working in the company. And since the department is staffed mainly with foreigners...well, you get the idea.

I have no idea how widespread this phenomenon is, but I would hardly be surprised if it was common across many companies and industrial sectors in Singapore.

It's not so much the fact that new hires get made on the basis of referrals as the fact that being a foreigner is no bar to getting hired in the first place that is so disturbing. Most industrialized and developed countries impose some barrier of entry to immigrants so that they have to meet a higher standard of credentialing, talent or performance than a citizen in order to obtain a job here.

The ease of foreigners in getting jobs here could be interpreted in a number of ways. One interpretation is that jobs are plentiful. Another is that foreigners have it easier than Singaporeans, with fewer obligations, such as NS, and fewer financial commitments, such as HDB mortgages. That allows them to be more competitive than local hires. Yet another interpretation is that foreigners are "hungrier", whatever that means, and are willing to work harder and to settle for less.

Here is one other interpretation: perhaps it is not how easy it is for immigrants to find jobs here that is salient, but what an indictment it is of how bereft of value Singapore citizenship really is.

Maybe the government is so confident that foreigners can't freeload off the system here (beyond the initial inducements made to attract them) that they feel free to throw the doors wide open to all comers without reservation. After all, if you can't earn your keep here each day every day, you certainly won't survive long here. Even citizens here do not enjoy much in the way of state-sponsored benefits (aka "free lunches").

Citizens, PRs or foreigners on work visas, we are all just fungible labor inputs into Singapore's economic machine, which is why I do not mince words when I say that Singapore citizenship is bereft of value.

Future Plans

It's interesting to speculate what plans foreigners have when they arrive and work in Singapore. Do they plan to stay on and make Singapore their permanent home, take up citizenship, perhaps start a family? Are we attracting the "right" people to come to Singapore, so to speak?

The short answer to this question is there is no answer. The general feeling that I get from many of my foreign-born colleagues is that they have no concrete plans. Nobody really knows what the future holds, and certainly nobody has made concrete plans that concern making their move to Singapore permanent.  To many of colleagues, being in their mid-20s to mid-30s, these are highly abstract concerns for another day, another age, literally.

Oh, some hold permanent resident status, and a few have even bought property here. But given the ease and cost-benefit trade-off of permanent residency here, taking up PR status is a no-brainer. It's all carrots and no sticks. And a continually rising property market here in the last decade makes buying property a relatively easy commitment for the married folks to make, whether they eventually decide to stay or go elsewhere. For those who got in early in the cycle, it even made good financial sense. PR status and property ownership are not reliable indicators to base an assessment of how likely a foreigner is going to make Singapore their home for good.

As I have indicated in two previous posts, there is reason to believe that outflow rates may pick up years in the future, particularly if economic growth stalls, and population volatility will likely rise markedly as well. I wonder if the smart guys in our civil service take these factors into account in their rosy population projections.


alibaba said...

I worked in investment banking with a prominent bank. As early as 2005, the trend was already forming - that of indian foreign talent in banking bringing in friends from home country after they moved into the SG office and I'm talking about the department heads bringing in people they know from India. These guys are smart, nice and they did their jobs well. It happened so gradually and quietly that one fine day it just hit me the department next door were staffed with Indian nationals.

Limpeh Foreign Talent said...

Hi there - may I shamelessly refer you to my blog which does revolve around the same theme on Foreign Talents in Singapore?

mythomanic said...

A possible thought experiment is to consider what the consequences are of Singapore once again becoming more like any other city with both high inflow and high outflow of people.

(I say 'once again' because Singapore in colonial times was, arguably, like any other city - with a high flow of people who did not expect to stay permanently.)

Most cities have some sort of hinterland from which most of their residents hail - New York City has the US, London has the UK and Europe, etc. And those born in New York or London have the freedom to move wherever they want within their home countries.

So perhaps the most sensible thing to do - in order not to disadvantage Singapore citizens - is to allow Singapore citizens greater freedom of movement, for example by allowing dual citizenship, or some sort of Asia-wide visa arrangement much as the EU has. That would make fuller use of Singaporeans' diverse range of abilities and talents, instead of trying to shoehorn people unproductively into specific focus industries. (What if you didn't want to work in the financial industry, but really wanted to be a farm vet instead?)

As for the impact such an arrangement would have on Singapore socially - who says current policies aren't already causing a significant impact?

Limpeh Foreign Talent said...

Dear mythomanic,

On the topic of dual nationality - it seems that whilst the ICA does state officially that the government of Singapore does not permit dual citizenship, it seems that in practice, there are many Singaporeans with more than 1 passport. It simply boils down to the fact that if you acquire another passport, say a French passport, the authorities in Paris are not going to bother to notify the ICA in Singapore and the ICA in Singapore wouldn't otherwise be aware of this (unless there was a tip-off of sorts); hence there are a lot of Singaporeans out there with 2 passports.