The two faces of Singapore

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The existence of this tiny, little, 5.5-million-people-strong nation is primarily due to the inflow of two main things this country critically needs: capital inflow and foreign talents.

Speaking of capital influx, it takes this city-state no more than five decades of absolute one-party control to restore law and order, from a previously poverty-laden, conflict-plagued shantytown into one of the world’s richest metropolises equivalent to its doppelgangers, either Hong Kong, Shanghai, Tokyo, New York City, or London. With social stability perfectly well-maintained, the flow of capital is well sustained. It is now one of the planet’s most promising banking hubs, and also tax havens, tantamount to that of Switzerland or Cayman Islands.

Simultaneously, as Singaporean population’s fertility rate is critically below its replacement rate (1.2 instead of 2.0), the government also finds itself increasingly necessary to attract foreigners to come, work, and also live in this tiny country whose GDP size is equivalent to that of its counterpart, Malaysia. Approximately 1 million foreign workers make up one-third of Singapore’s workforce currently, and overall, nearly 2.5 million people living in Singapore are not born in this island. The government has even announced plans to import ‘another’ 1.5 million migrants until 2030 to stabilize the population structure, which is expected, altogether with the number of migrants, to reach 7 million by that year.

Nevertheless, there are unexpected costs with such phenomena.

With global nouveau riches, and also an influx of foreign workers from Third World countries, flocking in to Singapore, problems arise. Relationship between them and the locals becomes intense, social gap widens, and most commonly, political repression prevails. Many, among the latter, who do menial jobs, complain of low pay and unequal treatment, but opinions are frequently suppressed in the highly strict government.

And with the Little India riots recently taking place two days prior (and conducted, ironically, by foreign migrant workers), this is becoming an increasingly alarming concern among all the populace in the country.

Two articles below highlight the two faces of Singapore: one dominated by the globe’s millionaires, and the other by commoners struggling for a better life in a brand-new megalopolis.

 

This is the article, about the former, from Wall Street Journal. Here is the excerpt:

 

Welcome to the world’s newest Monaco, a haven for the ultra-rich in what until recently was mocked as one of the most straight-laced, boring cities in the world. When most people think of Singapore, if they do at all, they think of an order-obsessed Asian version of Wall Street or London’s Canary Wharf, only with implausibly clean, sterile streets and no crime. The southeast Asian city-state of five million people is perhaps best known for banning the sale of chewing gum or caning vandals, including American Michael Fay in 1994 for spray-painting cars. Drug traffickers face the death penalty, and even Ault complains the authorities won’t let him import his prized gun collection, which now sits in his other homes in Palm Beach and Manhattan.

But over the past decade, Singapore has undergone a dramatic makeover, as the rich and famous from Asia and beyond debark on its shores in search of a glamorous new home—and one of the safest places to park their wealth. Facebook co-founder Eduardo Saverin gave up his American citizenship in favor of permanent residence there, choosing to live on and invest from the island while squiring around town in a Bentley. Australian mining tycoon Nathan Tinkler, that country’s second wealthiest man under 40, whose fortune is pegged at $825 million by Forbes, also chose to move to Singapore last year. They join Bhupendra Kumar Modi, one of India’s biggest telecom tycoons who gained Singapore citizenship in 2011, as well as New Zealand billionaire Richard Chandler, who relocated in 2008, and famed U.S. investor Jim Rogers, who set up shop there in 2007. Gina Rinehart, one of the world’s richest women, slapped down $46.3 million for a pair of Singapore condominium units last year.

 

And this is the latter, from The Daily Beast, primarily concerned about foreign-hired construction workers. Here is the excerpt:

 

Construction workers don’t get issued regular work visas; they are considered “transient workers,” welcome in Singapore only for the labor they are doing. The rules stipulated in their work permits bar them from marrying Singaporean citizens (unless approved by the government) and from changing jobs. With permission to be in Singapore conditional upon their employer, workers are discouraged from rocking the boat. Complain too much and you could find your work permit cancelled and your right to remain in Singapore withdrawn. An unlucky worker might even find himself forcibly repatriated.

This gives employers an enormous amount of power over their migrant workers. Activists say they’ve come across contracts with all sorts of unreasonable and downright illegal clauses. A 2008 contract from a subcontractor stipulated that workers would not be entitled to payment for overtime or work done on public holidays. Workers who complained to any government ministry could also be made to pay between $80—$240, which could account for about three to ten days’ worth of wages, for the employers’ trouble in addressing these complaints. And these are for the ‘lucky’ ones, who actually have contracts.

 

A quiet second home

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Think this is somewhere in a Southeast Asian country? Completely false. This picture is set in French Guiana.

The only French-speaking region in Latin America with a population of no more than 250,000 people, French Guiana is a hodgepodge of various ethnic groups, ranging from Indians, French, Africans, native Indians, Han Chinese, Arabs, Brazilians, mestizos, and most recently, and most under-reportedly, ethnic Hmong.

Once penniless back in their home country, the Hmong, thanks to their decades of perseverance, have achieved considerable success in the brand-new region they adopted. With a tropical setting tantamount to that of Laos, they found themselves easier to adapt to life here, compared to their counterparts who encountered more difficulties in adjusting to life in United States, Australia, or any other developed countries. Representing only 1% of total population, or approximately 2,500 people, Hmong in French Guiana reportedly control 70% of the region’s agricultural industry, giving them disproportionate amount of wealth.

Most of them are concentrated in a small town named Cacao, one that gives any visitor a bizarre atmosphere as though they were transported back to Laos.

Read the full article on The New York Times.

Excerpt:

The first Hmong arrived from France in 1977 and were greeted with protests from the Creoles, an ethnic group descended from African slaves, who chafed at what was viewed as preferential treatment for a new ethnic group in an impoverished area. French authorities initially gave each Hmong a few dozen francs a day on which to survive.

The settlers pooled those payments to buy fertilizer and tractors. Slowly, after years of labor, the Hmong became self-sufficient. They now grow large quantities of previously scarce vegetables, like lettuce, and tropical varieties of fruit like cupuaçu, which is oblong, has a white pulp and is found in the Amazon basin.