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Pedestrians cross the street on Orchard Road in Singapore. Photo: AFP

From the Indian community to Chinese to Filipinos, Singapore feels the strain of immigration

  • The Lion City’s reputation as a melting pot is being tested by rising nationalism
  • In the past, race relations were the focus; today, there are divisions within ethnic groups
When a Singaporean man was caught on camera in October yelling vulgarities at a security guard outside his apartment building, telling the hapless worker he had paid S$1.5 million (US$1.1 million) for the place and should not have to fork out extra for guest parking, the video of the exchange soon went viral.

Singaporeans on social media quickly identified the man, assumed he was an Indian expatriate, and told him to “go home” and not bring his country’s caste system to the city state.

Internet users also soon latched on to the topic of the Comprehensive Economic Cooperation Agreement (CECA), a free-trade deal signed in 2005 between India and Singapore. They claimed the deal gave Indian nationals a free pass to work in the Lion City, as online vigilantes doxxed the man and called on his employer to axe him, claiming his qualifications had been falsified.

Days after the video went viral, hundreds of demonstrators turned up at a rally protesting against CECA and Singapore’s population growth. This public anger was reminiscent of that seen in 2013 when the government issued a projection that Singapore’s population could hit 6.9 million by 2030. The number currently stands at 5.7 million, roughly 1.7 million of whom are foreigners.

Ramesh Erramalli was filmed yelling vulgarities at a security guard. Photo: Handout

Over the past month, the authorities have attempted to quell the disquiet by making multiple clarifications about the case. The man, Ramesh Erramalli, was born in India but is a naturalised Singaporean with a Singaporean wife. His education certificates were real, CECA did not make it easy for Indians to gain entry to the country for work; nor would any free-trade agreement, the government said.

The display of xenophobia is not new to Singapore. “Foreigners” – from mainland Chinese to Filipinos – have been blamed for a range of problems, including overcrowding on public transport and unemployment.

But the discomfort with those of Indian ethnicity has been shaped by the influx of educated foreign professionals over the last two decades, working in sectors ranging from finance to technology.

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For Indian national Nandita Gupta, 36, who moved to Singapore in 2010 and works as a designer at an international school, it is a fallacy that the floodgates are open for foreigners. She said recruiters had told her it was hard to find jobs for overseas applicants. Gupta has applied for permanent residency but without success.


Since 2011, when immigration became an election issue, Singapore has tightened requirements for foreigners looking to relocate there. The number of Employment Passes – issued to foreign professionals, managers, executives and technicians – approved each year slowed to an average of 3,000 between 2014 and 2017, compared to a peak of 32,000 in 2011.

But the fact that Erramalli is a citizen has not appeased Singaporeans like Gilbert Goh, who organised the anti-CECA protest.

School pupils wear traditional costumes on Singapore’s Racial Harmony Day. Photo: Kevin Lim

“I think he’s a new citizen and I don’t think he blended in, he didn’t integrate well,” Goh said, echoing the views of most respondents in a survey by the Institute of Policy Studies research centre. Close to seven in 10 of 4,015 citizens and permanent residents polled thought immigrants were not doing enough to integrate into Singapore.

Trinity Joan, an administrator for a start-up, said the anger towards Erramalli was “not race-based” but rather about nationalism.

“We need to protect our own. If someone misbehaves and is not from our country, we need to have a sense of nationalism and say: ‘You disrespected a Singaporean, so you’re out’,” the 30-year-old said.


Singapore Indians were among those who raged against Erramalli in private gatherings and on social media, their feelings fuelled by the perception that these new migrants tend to look down on them.


As National University of Singapore historian John Solomon recounted in a 2016 book on the Indian diaspora, members of the Tamil community have expressed concern about the appearance of caste names in wedding and funeral announcements in Singapore’s only Tamil-language newspaper.

“Whether or not new immigration from India is indeed bringing about a gradual revival in caste identities in Singapore, the growth of this perception has manifested itself in popular xenophobic stereotypes about the new Indian migrant as an exporter of atavistic and backward social ideas,” he wrote.


Kumaran Pillai, publisher of current affairs website The Independent News, said recent Indian migrants tended to “have their own enclaves”. “They hang around and move in their own circles, they rarely mix and talk with locals,” Pillai said.

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Asked where this perception came from, he gave anecdotes. Pillai said Indian immigrants often cut queues “because [they are] richer or hold a better position”. It was common to see foreigners being rude to service staff, he added.


“They’re perceived as a bit uppity, those in management positions. It’s not caste, it’s class consciousness,” Pillai said.

And Erramalli telling the security guard “I’m not staying in HDB [public housing], you know” embodied that snobbery, Pillai said.

He also gave examples in which Singaporean-Indian women had supposedly been judged by immigrant colleagues over practices deemed unacceptable in India, such as wearing short skirts or enjoying a drink in a bar with male co-workers.

Entrepreneur Vikram Mengi, 50, who moved to Singapore two decades ago and became a citizen in 2006, said these perceptions were perplexing. Mengi said he had not encountered outright racism or xenophobia in all his years in Singapore, but agreed there was a tendency for foreigners – whether Chinese, Indian or Australian – to form enclaves. But this phenomenon also applied to Singaporeans overseas, he added. A Singaporean friend of his living in Perth had not made a single local friend after three years in Australia, Mengi said, mixing instead with other Singaporeans, Malaysians and Chinese.

Chinese Singaporeans more likely to worry about immigration: survey

Mengi felt it had been difficult to make friends with locals when he first arrived in the city state, mainly because life was busy and most citizens already had a well-established circle of friends. Small cultural differences also played a part. Mengi realised that the way he used language growing up was “totally unacceptable in Singapore”.

“If you tell somebody ‘no la, cannot be la, cannot’, where I come from we’d say, ‘aiya shut up la’. When I first said ‘shut up’ to somebody, everybody stopped dead in their tracks.”

In a research paper published two years ago, Nanyang Technological University sociologist Laavanya Kathiravelu said divisions between recent immigrants and long-time residents had superseded the social divides once thought the most insurmountable – those of race.

The government estimates 6.9 million people will live in Singapore by 2030. Photo: Roy Issa

She wrote that Singapore’s racial mix had barely changed in 15 years owing to careful immigration controls. But although racial harmony had been maintained, intra-racial tensions had intensified.

Kathiravelu said the state should move towards dismantling ethnic classifications and must encourage healthy discussion about race. She also believed the basis of the Singaporean national identity needed to change to become “truly multicultural and multiracial”.

The government has called on Singaporeans many times to be more welcoming of foreigners. Just in March, Deputy Prime Minister Heng Swee Keat said citizens needed to be open and understanding of foreigners, and while Singapore had to retain some form of identity and culture, the country must not propagate the notion that only people exactly like Singaporeans were “our people”.

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The National Integration Council, set up in 2009 to help foreigners and Singaporeans mix, said integration was a process that involved everyone. “Foreigners should learn, respect and adapt to our country’s culture and norms … They need time to adapt. Residents can help them by reaching out to neighbours,” the council said.

Tan Ern Ser, a sociologist at the National University of Singapore, said any xenophobia would only subside “when foreigners are no longer seen as a threat or unfair competitors, when their behaviour is consistent with local norms, when they are not seen as taking advantage of Singapore – and, more generally, when Singaporeans feel less insecure”.

For Mengi, the onus is on the immigrant to learn about the country and make an effort to fit in, something he has endeavoured to do.

“I’ve spent more time in Singapore than anywhere else, including the place I was born. So I can’t be anything else. Sometimes, people ask where I would retire and I find this question bizarre. Where would I go? I don’t really know anything else.”