The issue of social integration of foreign workers (FW) has been discussed tirelessly ad nauseam over the past few years. Singapore generally enjoys the economic contribution of this transient workforce who are a cheap but essential source of labour. Having a total foreign workforce of around 1,153,200 (excluding Foreign Domestic Workers), with those in the construction and manufacturing sectors taking up a significant portion of the figure, it is imperative that Singaporeans learn to live harmoniously with these guest workers in our midst.
It is natural for locals to expect newcomers to subscribe to their local norms and values and Singapore is no exception. On the other side of the equation, locals can also widen their horizons by understanding the ethnic and cultural diversity that foreigners and immigrants bring with them. Integration in Singapore is no longer the sole process of helping these FWs adjust to life here, but also the ways in which locals can welcome and appreciate these workers in our society.
With that being said, integration is ideal, but not easy. The current situation in Singapore is such that most FWs, especially those in the construction and manufacturing sectors, live in dormitories far-flung from neighbourhoods where locals thrive. Several migrant worker non-governmental organisations (NGOs) have posited that problems could arise if workers feel isolated, or if they have nowhere to go outside of their dormitories. Hence, a solution is needed as social problems and tension could rise if the situation is left status quo. One suggestion proposed could be for foreign worker housing in Singapore to be better incorporated into residential neighbourhoods. Situating FW housing and dorms into our neighbourhoods could promote greater social inclusion and cohesion.
However, physical integration is still a tricky problem. In 2008, Serangoon Gardens residents objected to a new foreign worker dormitory being built in their neighbourhood, citing security and social concerns for their community. Taking such past events into account, incorporating foreign worker housing closer to our communities would entail careful planning and implementation. Factors such as class and nationality differences, and estate capacity, must be considered when deciding on such plans for integration.
Furthermore, for physical integration to work, social integration is also important. More activities could be organised for Singaporeans and foreign workers to mingle and bond. In recent years, Singapore has seen a rise of such activities like the Majulah Belanja event, which is a cook-off that sees migrant workers and Singaporeans teaming up to whip up dishes of different cultures annually. Other similar activities hosted by educational institutions such as the United World College cultural exchange programmes and Ngee Ann Polytechnic’s cricket games with migrant workers also serve to promote the same cause. While such activities are a good start, it is important that we continue to promote and organize more of such similar events to foster closer social ties between Singaporeans and migrant workers.
Another thing that needs to change is our own social perception of foreign workers. FWs come into Singapore as low wage workers for crucial sectors like construction and manufacturing and we tend to view them as workers who just help satisfy our labour manpower criterion, accepting low wages and labour intensive jobs to keep business operation costs competitive. To solve this problem, Singaporeans needs to be more appreciative of the work and contributions foreign workers give to our nation. We need to realize that Singapore’s meteoric rise from a sleepy fishing village to the bustling economic hub it is today was built on the backs of our immigrant forefathers and these migrant workers are now the people who are supporting our economy by building key infrastructures all over Singapore. Hence, we should strive to be more appreciative and welcoming of these workers into our society, showing our gratitude for their hard work in sustaining our economy and progress of our nation.
Integration is always going to be a tough journey, both for foreigners adapting to new cultures, and vice versa. Perhaps the first step is to acknowledge how challenging integration can be and begin a societal-wide dialogue on how we can progress from where we are now. With some flexibility, the willingness to extend the hand of friendship and a lot of understanding, the journey of social inclusion can be made a lot smoother and fun.