Reacting to the foreign influx

Reacting to the foreign influx

More people are crossing borders to live and work in another country. While they might help plug gaps in their host countries’ labour force, their presence in large numbers can also be a strain on public resources and trigger local resentment. Governments have responded in various ways, and some have cut back on rights for foreigners, as The Straits Times’ correspondents found.

By Li Xueying, The Straits Times, 2 Jun 2012

Subscribers of The Straits Times can view the original report in full at http://www.straitstimes.com/Insight/Story/STIStory_806422.html

BRITISH-BORN Alex Lombardo, 46, has called Kuala Lumpur his home for six years. He has long got the hang of local lingo like ‘alamak’, mastered fiery sambal belachan and last year, settled down with his Malaysian wife, a freelance writer.

But when the couple went shopping for an apartment, Mr Lombardo, who is also a writer, found that he would have to hew to a new restriction: Like all foreigners, he can buy only more expensive property valued at at least RM500,000 (S$205,000) – up from RM250,000 two years ago.

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Across the Causeway, something similar is brewing. Over the past year, Singapore has been sharpening the distinctions between citizens, permanent residents (PRs) and non-resident foreigners, in response to growing disgruntlement among Singaporeans over the influx of foreigners.

In recent months, this stance has extended from education (priority will be given to Singaporean pupils enrolling in Primary 1) to entry to tourist attractions (Singaporeans will pay $20 to enter the new Gardens by the Bay; foreigners $28).

Across the world, other governments are taking steps in the same direction.

In Australia, for instance, non-citizens have seen their entitlements, particularly access to health benefits and social security, shrink. From the late 1990s, PRs have had to wait two years before they can claim unemployment benefits. There is also a 10-year wait for disability handouts.

Globally, more people are crossing borders – an estimated one in every 35 people at the beginning of the 21st century was an international migrant. At play are two factors: globalisation, propelling labour to follow the flow of capital and goods; and demographics, which has forced countries with ageing labour forces to open their doors to foreigners.

But this also has domestic populaces baulking at the increased strain that public resources are coming under. In Britain, for instance, public housing is open to all, including foreigners. There are no restrictions, so long as they fulfil needs-based criteria such as low income levels, and are legally settled.

But with five million people on the waiting list, the scheme is now under debate, with Mr Frank Field, a senior MP from the opposition Labour Party, preparing to table a Bill that gives priority to citizens.

Hong Kong has also seen a reversal in a specific area in recent weeks following the election of Chief Executive-elect Leung Chun Ying. Traditionally liberal in extending public services to foreigners, whether PRs or non-PRs, Hong Kong – bowing to public pressure – will next year ban mainland Chinese mothers from giving birth there unless they are married to a local.

Currently, they are entitled to do so, with their babies reaping benefits such as permanent residency, subsidised health care and free education.

This has given rise to what sociologist Hayes Tang of the University of Hong Kong describes as ‘the discontent of Hong Kongers that mainlanders enjoy the benefits at the expense of Hong Kong taxpayers’.

‘Culturally, the different habits of mainlanders and Hong Kong residents also pose some ‘cultural shock’ to Hong Kongers, whose public space has been transformed due to the large number of mainland tourists and migrants in Hong Kong,’ he adds.

In Japan for instance, where only 1.5 per cent of the 128 million population are foreigners, the latter enjoy privileges similar to the locals. Foreigners can enrol in the national medical insurance scheme and pay only 30 per cent of medical bills, just like the Japanese. They are also allowed to buy property of any sort, even land.

China, which also has minuscule benefits for its 600,000 foreigners, is also mulling over giving them more, as part of overall efforts to attract foreign talent. In April, a Ministry of Human Resources and Social Security spokesman said it will provide ‘effective social security to an increasing number of foreigners who stay permanently and enable them to enjoy equal treatment’. He did not give details.

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