COMMENT: The expat model is broken

·5-min read
Businessmen walk along the Marina Bay financial district of Singapore on Thursday, Jan. 14, 2016. Singapore, which is about the size of New York City, has a population of more than 5 million and its economy relies mainly on finance, tourism and manufacturing. (AP Photo/Wong Maye-E)
Businessmen walk along the Marina Bay financial district of Singapore, 14 Jan 2016. (PHOTO: AP Photo/Wong Maye-E)

By Daniel Moss

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- Something big is missing from Singapore's picturesque and impeccably maintained highway linking downtown with Changi A­irport: traffic.

The collapse in international travel has hit the city-state especially hard. Borders are shut to tourists and much of Singapore Airlines Ltd.’s proud fleet is mothballed. The idea of “flights to nowhere” had even been floated — effectively three-hour sight-seeing trips that would be bundled with staycations, shopping vouchers and limousine services. Now that has been scrapped for a plan to serve lunch aboard a grounded jumbo jet, a tour of the carrier’s training facilities and home delivery of first- and business class meals.

The ability to get in and out of a nation that takes about 30 minutes to traverse has been a big draw for the more than one million expatriates who live here. Non-Singaporeans make up more than half of senior management roles in financial services. The idea of being stuck flying in circles has many rethinking the informal bargain they’ve struck with the city they call home. A big part of that was the opportunity to work in a dynamic region and experience diverse cultures and nations for a few years. In return, Singapore got talent, industrialisation and unique ties to global networks, vital for a country without a hinterland or natural resources.

Singapore’s modus operandi has been to make itself a base camp for global capitalism and the people who make it tick. Lee Kuan Yew, the country’s first leader, laid out the welcome mat for multinational corporations: first for textiles, ship maintenance and petrochemicals, then for electronics, tourism and finance. Changi Airport, top-notch public transport, a commitment to education, and political stability made the city an appealing place to live. Relatively low tax rates only sweetened the deal (except for Americans, who need to pay income tax no matter where they live).

Now Lee’s vision is running into the wall of Covid-19. Singapore’s economy shrank a record 42.9% on an annualised basis in the second quarter from the previous three months, the deepest economic contraction since independence in 1965. While data point to a bounce before year-end, the government projects gross domestic product to decline as much as 7% in 2020. This has sharply refocused public discourse. Opportunities for locals are the priority.

When companies do pare headcount, they are prevailed upon to keep Singaporeans at the core of their staffing. Local press reports of legislative proceedings highlight references to a closely held list of firms on a watch list for their hiring practices. Banking and finance has fallen under heightened scrutiny. The government, which lost seats to the opposition in July’s general election, has tightened rules around employment visas for foreigners by raising minimum salaries twice this year. Figures released last week showed Singapore’s population fell slightly to 5.69 million in the year through June, the first drop since 2003. Work permit holders saw the largest decrease.

“We cannot sustain our openness if we do not provide enough opportunities for our own people,” Senior Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam told the Singapore Summit on Sept. 14. “It is not socially or politically sustainable. No society can be blindly open.”

Singapore is slowly cranking back to life after a strict lockdown. Throngs pulse through malls and hawker centres in suburbs of central Singapore. Subway trains are often full. A pilot scheme for international executives to travel in the region — under a strictly controlled itinerary and subject to Covid testing — is in the works. Children under six are no longer required to wear a mask.

But while the government will allow more people into their offices, work-from-home remains the default. As long as that’s the case, and the airport remains effectively a no-go zone, the more folks realise they don’t actually need to be in Singapore to do their jobs. If teams across Asia can be managed by Zoom from the living room, then that living room could be anywhere.

This realisation is crystallising as the headlines splashed across Singapore’s major English-language newspaper, the Straits Times, openly debate the role foreigners play in the economy. Far from feeling welcome, expats now spend a lot of time looking over their shoulders. Employers are quietly urging them to avoid anything that might attract attention.

That’s left many wondering whether uprooting their families has been worth it. You don’t have to come to Singapore for the privilege of getting laid off. Schools fret about families packing up. And those regional offices executives are sent here to run? They need to be able to get into them.

The caricature of the European sipping a gin and tonic under a shady tree with rent and school fees taken care of, pampered by maids, is woefully out of date. Relatively few employers these days pick up the tab for housing and tuition. Relocation company staff say the glory days of the expat packages ended with the global financial crisis. With economic warfare raging between China and the U.S., and fashionable talk about the world dividing into rival blocs, is an Asian experience still the resume booster it once was? A gig here feels no more secure than one at home.

As a 10-year-old boy, the flight returning to Australia from a family vacation in Europe stopped at the old Paya Lebar airport; I remember taking in the exotic night smells and marvelling at the lights of hundreds of ships anchored just offshore. As a newly minted college graduate, Singapore was my first stop on a cross-Asia trip. Living in Malaysia in the late 1990s, visits to the city-state were a balm for the haphazardness of Kuala Lumpur. I returned with a young family last year. We pay taxes, live in a middle-class neighbourhood and, through our spending, try to support the economy. I hope the shatter zone of the pandemic isn’t the end of our journey together.

Daniel Moss is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering Asian economies. Previously he was executive editor of Bloomberg News for global economics, and has led teams in Asia, Europe and North America.

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