What’s it like being an expat in Singapore?

Marina Bay Sands, Singapore

It’s getting dark as I stroll down Roberson Walk, the canal bubbles and shuffles passed me and it’s warm enough to roll around in shorts that end closer to my hips than my knees, a privilege that I’m abusing to such a degree that I may as well not be wearing them at all.

All in all I’m feeling decidedly ok as I stroll down the canal; work’s done for the week, the stresses of the office are behind me and I’m looking forward to a weekend filled with pool lounging, beers, a cheese eating contest I hold with myself every few days and the general attitude of all pervading nonchalance that I’ve been working hard to groom these recent months since I moved to Singapore late last year.

I know I’ve got a pretty good thing going here in Singapore, I get paid rather well and taxes are so low compared to Australia I actually feel guilty. I also don’t need to bother wearing winter clothes anymore (except in cinemas.. what the hell is going on there Singapore..?). There’s also the other rather long list of cool stuff about this tiny country that make it a fun place to call home.

Singapore’s often noted as being something of an ‘expat utopia’; not sure I’d go that far but you get the point right, it’s not a bad spot all in all. So let’s just take a moment to consider how good we have it as temporary guests in this affluent country. Career opportunities, high pay, resort style living conditions, year round warm weather, trains that arrive every 4 minutes, low taxes, convenient and cheap international travel, as the list goes on, life in SG sounds better and better. Of course it’s not all rainbows and unicorns, there are some compromises you have to make as I addressed in a previous post about living in Singapore, but let’s be honest, at the end of the day, us expats are very fortunate to call Singapore home.

But not everyone’s an expat; in fact, most local Singaporeans don’t enjoy the same lifestyle and benefits that are all too common inside the ‘Expat Bubble’. Sure a small numbers of local people do absolutely, but the reality is that most Singaporeans don’t live in luxury condo’s, enjoy super high paying jobs and spend their weekends jet-setting around Asia.

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Portrait of an old man in China Town (Photo-credit: Joan Felix)

There’s obviously a bit of contention over that fact that about 12% of the workforce in Singapore are counted as these ‘skilled foreign workers’, who are generally very well remunerated. That’s a pretty large number when you think about it, 12%’s is more than one in ten people (no shit Sherlock.. it’s just easier to comprehend when you say it like that).

So how to local Singaporeans feel about all these strangers in their country? It’s actually quite mixed from what I can tell after asking around. Many people recognize why there are so many foreigners in the country, and the benefits that Singapore has enjoyed as a byproduct of all these people so easily being integrated into their society. Yet others are less favorable to the reasons and maybe not unfairly, are upset about the situation.

One of the less talked about reasons that I think having large numbers of ‘temporary residents’ is a negative for the local people is the fact that if your stay is temporary to might be less inclined to treat the place with the same respect as if it were ‘yours’. At the end of the day we’re all just less inclined to polish the bonnet, wipe down the interior and clean those old desiccated apple cores out from inside the ash tray if its not your very own, personal, pride and joy.

Another reason that expats can be less then popular in the eyes of a born a bred Singaporean, comes down to money. Expats generally earn pretty big bucks, so there’s always the question of whether us expats are taking too many of these high paying jobs away from the local guys. Also given the government quotas businesses need to fill, in regards to local and foreign talent ratios, there’s a legitimate local concern that they may only be hired as a ‘token local guy’.

Another thing to consider from a local perspective is something I like to call: ‘Expat Dickhead Syndrome’ which is a semi-contagious affliction that seems to have infected roughly 60% of the expats in Singapore. It’s symptoms include, a highly activated state of arrogance, a general air of superiority, flexing uncontrollably in any highly polished surface, collecting unnecessary quantities of designer goods, exclaiming loudly such things as ‘Like errr mehh geerrd, he was only earning like 150K a year, what a pleb!’. It is somewhat contagious but luckily can be easily cured with a swift kick to the genitals administered twice daily after meals. No but seriously a lot of expats seem to score a ‘high’ on the douche’o’meter, it’s a real thing, look it up.

So they take some of the best jobs, get paid piles of cash, eat all the cheese, drink all the wine and even don’t have to pay $100 to get into the casino (makes you really wonder why more local guys don’t just get the luxury casino experience online instead). I guess it’s not really that strange that many of the local guys I’ve spoken with about it are not exactly thrilled to be at the centre of ‘Expatopia’.

So given all this is there any perceivable tension that you can pick up on day to day? Are we on a verge or an anti-expat riot? Will the blood run through the streets beneath the righteous flag of a Singaporean revolution!?? I seriously doubt it, Singaporeans are probably the best behaved people ever to have walked the earth and tend to avoid confrontation like the plague (although they’re nothing like the Japanese, who are a people so polite that if you were to just randomly punch one in the chops as you walked passed, they’d apologize to you). It is becoming more of a political issue though and a point of contention with many younger ‘voting’ Singaporeans.

So what does this all mean for us expats? What do Singaporeans really think of us? From what I hear from most of the local guys I’ve asked, we’re kind of seen as both a blessing and a curse. They understand that to attract top talent companies may need to search overseas, especially given the size of the country. High numbers of expats seem to be considered by many people a necessary evil. We’re the pimple on the end of your nose that get’s you out of that awkward blind date your mum set up. We’re the STD you picked up at Zouk the other night along with that Swedish girl…! On the other hand a good proportion of the Singaporeans I spoke about expats just don’t seem to really care that much (or they were being nice, given that I’m quite clearly.. an expat myself).

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That’s Zouk you ask? – This is Zouk..

What Singaporeans’ actually think about me is something that I believe is important given we’re all sharing this shiny little island. A local point of view is something that I think we do have a responsibility to be aware of as guests, especially given that we’re only ‘renting’ our space here for a while and ultimately we’re all in town by the good grace of the powers that be, while the majority of us will probably be gone in a few years.

I understand that there can be tensions between locals and expats, I also understand that Singapore may not be home, wherever that is (yet.. anyway). But I think the most annoying thing to watch for me, are expats just scoring really high on the douche’o’meter at the expense of local guys. Maybe it’s just snippets of conversations in restaurants, or something as simple as not being polite when they speak to a waiter, but I do see many expats behaving in ways that I feel could be really offensive and frustrating to a Singaporeans.

There’s no excuse to treat local people any different from how you’d treat a person from your home country. As an expat you might be in the highest paying salary bracket or drive an unnecessarily expensive car or have a mortgage weighing down your wrist but that’s not an excuse to strut the streets thumbing your nose at those with less than you or treating people like second-class citizens. So next time an ‘Auntie’ prods you in the ribs with a bony finger and demands that you remove your size 13 foot from the bottom of her shopping bag, show her the respect she deserves, thank her for her hospitality and offer to carry her groceries of something!

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