TL;DR – Can foreigners contribute to our nation-building? This is one woman’s story.
The arrival of immigrants to Singapore is not unique to our generation. Singapore has been a place of trade for centuries.
In the 14th century, Temasek (as Singapore was known then) was already a centre for a vast trading network for commodities such as hornbill casques and lakawood (a type of aromatic wood used as incense).
In the 18th century, tens of thousands of Chinese migrants arrived in search of better opportunities. One of them was the great-grandfather of Lee Kuan Yew. By 1833, “Chinese, Malays, Bugis, Javanese, Balinese, natives of Bengal and Madras, Parsees, Arabs, and Caffrees [Africans]” could all be found in Singapore.
Today, we categorise immigrant workers into three different categories.
The majority of foreign workers, almost a million, are Work Permit (WP) holders working in less skilled jobs.
Mid-level-skilled workers on S Passes, and highly qualified professionals on Employment Passes (EPs) number under 200,000 each.
Foreign talents, especially EP holders, have borne the brunt of blame that Singaporeans are unable to get jobs. “We need them, but we don’t quite want them” pretty much sums up what many Singaporeans feel towards foreign talents.
Unknown to many Singaporeans, there are also EP holders who have spent time contributing back to Singapore, not just in their jobs, but in their personal lives too.
But first, let’s meet Nicolette.
Nicolette Huang had been working in the Finance sector for 6 months in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, when she was headhunted to work here in Singapore. She entered the Singapore workforce on an Employment Pass (EP), working in the finance sector doing financial sales and business development for various multinational companies since then.
She spent 14 years in the finance sector before switching to an operations role in the media industry, where she has been working for over 2 years as an Assistant Operations Manager.
When she came over to Singapore, although Malaysia is considered a close neighbour, she learnt how to integrate with the culture of Singaporeans and other nationalities.
“The companies I worked for then didn’t have Diversity and Inclusion programs like today. I just had to learn to integrate and bond on my own. Being exposed to different cultures gave me a broader world view. It is fun to have people from various cultures around as I get to learn more about them.”
“I learnt how to play mahjong in Singapore and it is an activity that I enjoy doing with my friends. I also met a lot of different people through this game. Coming from Malaysia, the culture and food are quite similar to those of Singapore, so not much adaptation is needed here.”
Besides good-humouredly putting up with her Singaporean friends’ jokes about Malaysian mandarin pronunciations, she decided five years ago that it was time to look for a charity to volunteer her time and capabilities with.
Via a serendipitous introduction, she now helps underprivileged women regain confidence and find sustainable employment via Daughters Of Tomorrow (DOT).
“I spoke with a friend who was very active in the social enterprise space, and she told me that there was a new and young charity starting up that might need some help. So she put me in touch with Carrie (founder of DOT). I met Carrie, got aligned to her vision and started helping her since then.
At that time, DOT had yet to achieve its charity status, and there were only Carrie and another beneficiary in the team. During the initial stages, I helped with everything that the charity is doing now. With the expansion of the team over the years, and being in a full-time job now, I volunteer as and when they need my help. I am also on DOT’s Women Support Committee.”
When she started with DOT, Nicolette was surprised to learn:
“That there is poverty in Singapore, and they (the poor) do need our attention and help. Many of our DOT beneficiaries live on less than what the government-termed poverty line is.”
“Ultimately we are all the same. Their needs and wants are as real as ours, though they may be the ‘invisible population’ of Singapore. Every little act of kindness does make a difference to another individual’s life. Our beliefs and hopes we have in them creates the opportunities they experience in their lives.”
“Let’s be the voice of the unheard.”
How has Singapore changed over the years?
In her years working as an Employment Pass holder, and a volunteer with DOT, Nicolette observes that our employment laws have changed to be more pro-Singaporean.
“The cap on EP applications has affected the availability of job types. It is not as easy as before in applying for EP and jobs with the current regulations.”
She says our social policies are evolving too.
“Social policies in Singapore are changing, showing that the voices of our beneficiaries are being heard. This is very uplifting and heartening to see and knowing that change is possible.”
She encourages Singaporeans to not “be constrained to a box-type of thinking” and to think out of the box, as having an open and creative mind will help us be more employable.
One reason why I wanted to feature Nicolette is because while it seems to be a common narrative to vilify and blanket stereotype Employment Pass holders as “enemies who steal our jobs”, are we neglecting the fact that some of them really do contribute to our nation-building?
Yes, foreigners do compete with us for jobs, and it is human nature to resent competition when we feel at a disadvantage on home ground.
But on the other hand, we can grab this opportunity to learn from the best of them — their skills, experience, mindset and even their empathy to help those who are more vulnerable than us. And appreciate the warm-hearted ones like Nicolette who are going the extra mile to make Singapore a better place.
The choice is yours.
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