21 October 2018
Property prices have soared in Singapore amid an influx of immigrants from China. Photo: Bloomberg
Property prices have soared in Singapore amid an influx of immigrants from China. Photo: Bloomberg

Singapore confronts a flood of Chinese, like HK

It is early Sunday morning in the Botanic Gardens, one of Singapore’s famous attractions. A woman in her 50s is taking her morning walk. “I am from Jilin. My daughter came here 10 years ago for studies and has settled here with a good job. I joined her and look after my grandson.”

We ask a gardener for directions. “I do not understand, please speak Mandarin (聽不懂, 請說普通話).”

They are two of the hundreds of thousands of mainlanders who have come to Singapore over the last 10 years. Like Hong Kong, the city is learning how to deal with a flood of new people.

They come from all levels of society – the rich who obtain permanent residency (PR) through buying expensive property; computer engineers and IT specialists who study here and find work in local and multinational companies; bus drivers, gardeners and workers in the booming service sector; and construction workers on fixed-term contracts.

And then there are tourists who buy Louis Vuitton bags and go to the two giant casinos in the Lion City.

The government welcomes their money, talent and labor.

But, as in Hong Kong, the public is ambiguous. It likes the services and convenience the mainland Chinese provide but resent how they have pushed up property prices, overcrowd the public transport and compete for well-paid, white-collar jobs.

“I do not call them Chinese but Chinamen,” said William Leong, a taxi driver. “They cannot speak English and I cannot follow their directions. They are different to us Singaporeans. They are loud and ill-mannered. In the subway, they sit on top of the seats and talk so loud that you can hear them a kilometer away.

“Do you know that, of the population of 5.5 million, only 60 percent are citizens? We are afraid of all these foreigners.”

The government target is to increase the population to 6.9 million. Since the city has one of the lowest birth rates in the world, this increase will come primarily from immigration. Wealthy and well-qualified mainlanders are among the most desirable migrants, especially if the government wants to keep a majority Chinese population.

The most famous mainland immigrant is actress Gong Li, who received her citizenship in November 2008. Others include kung fu star Jet Li and, according to the HK media, Li Xiaoyong, the younger son of former Chinese premier Li Peng. Li Xiaoyong, incidentally, is said to have moved to Singapore to escape possible fallout from a financial scandal back home.

The biggest impact of the immigrants from China has been felt in the property market.

According to consultancy Maybank Kim Eng, mainlanders have been the largest group of foreign property purchasers in Singapore since 2011. In the first three quarters of 2014, they accounted for 28.2 percent of all foreign purchases and eight percent of all property transactions. They are one of the main reasons why property prices have risen over 80 percent over the last 10 years.

Non-citizens can only buy property in the private market. Public housing units are reserved for Singapore citizens who meet certain criteria; but, after five years of ownership, the owner is allowed to sell his or her unit to another person – a citizen or PR — who meets government-set criteria. Prices in this secondary market have also risen substantially.

Worst-hit are those who earn too much to qualify for a public housing unit – a maximum of gross monthly household income of S$10,000 a month or S$15,000 for an extended family – and must find a home in the commercial market.

But the conflicts with mainlanders are less sharp than in Hong Kong. There is no parallel trading, because the distance is too great and the business unprofitable.

“We welcome the mainlanders as tourists as we welcome other guests,” said Mary Lee, a member of the service staff at a major city hotel. “They buy many items, including luxury goods, cosmetics and other items whose quality they can depend on.

“But, at the breakfast buffet, some fill their plates and eat only half. This causes resentment among other guests who have to wait for the food. But we cannot say anything about this to them (the mainlanders). It would be impolite,” she said.

In addition, the media and public debate are tightly controlled by the government. It favors this sharp increase in the population and praises the benefits of immigration. So a passionate debate in the press and on the airwaves about China and its role, as seen in Hong Kong, is absent in Singapore.

Singapore is not an SAR, but instead an independent state with its own government and military, and is located thousands of kilometers from China.

One of the most popular sites for mainland visitors is the Marina Bay Sands, a spectacular hotel/casino resort that opened in 2010. At US$5.5 billion, including the cost of land, it is the world’s second most expensive building. It was developed by Las Vegas Sands, which owns the Sands casinos in Macau.

The design consists of three tower blocks, designed like three playing cards, with a boat on the 57th floor with restaurants and swimming pool. It has panoramic views over the city on one side and the harbor on the other.

Singaporeans entering the casino must pay a fee of S$100, while foreigners must show their passports to enter for free.

The casino has not been immune from the anti-corruption crackdown in the mainland.

Visitors from China were down 30 percent to 871,000 in the first half of 2014, according to the Singapore Tourism Board. Las Vegas Sands reported a 34 percent fall in VIP business at Marina Bay Sands to US$9.1 billion in the quarter that ended September last year.

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Hong Kong-based writer, teacher and speaker

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