Migrant workers
An overhanging sword
Foreigners make up 60% of workforce; imagine the trouble if a serious downturn hits with a big loss of jobs. By Seah Chiang Nee

(Synopsis: Forbes writer believes this ‘migrant workers bubble’ could pop if Singapore's  finance and construction (property) are badly hit.)

DESPITE improved government efforts, Singapore and its people are still paying a heavy price for having too many migrant workers.

Even as it sped up the building of more flats and shortened applicant queues, two other problems related to overcrowding have popped up.

They had been around for some time but resurfaced with a bang in the first few days of 2014.

The first was reports that government hospitals had to place beds along the corridors and in a large tent to house excess patients.

Some sick outpatients also had to wait for months for a consultation date with specialists.

The 800-bed Changi General Hospital, for example, had to put patients in a big air-conditioned tent.

The larger Tan Tock Seng Hospital (1,200 beds) had to set up beds along corridors next to overfilled wards.

There were just too many patients. It is not known how long this emergency situation will last.

Other public hospitals with similar shortages were reported to have rented facilities from private or community hospitals.

“Every day, we have to make decisions regarding our 500 patients. Those who are not so sick are discharged to make way for the 50 to 60 patients waiting for a bed,” a manager was quoted as saying.

At Changi Hospital, a patient was quoted as saying: “There was no shower room and I couldn’t bathe for two days.”

A letter writer commented: “The corridor scenes packed with beds look like a war zone.”

These reports surprised many people, who were repeatedly told by leaders that Singapore was a top First World country.

They also learned that Mass Rapid Transit trains had broken down on several occasions. Free bus rides had to be provided to irate passengers.

One commentator said: “So far, the root cause has not been addressed – overloading. The system built for three million now handles 5.4 million.”

These mishaps heralded a bigger problem on the opening day of Singapore’s biggest, most expensive highway.

It links roads from the Central Business District to the East Coast, a crucial, busy artery that is heavily used by motorists.

As soon as it began operations on a Monday morning, the Marina Bay Expressway – the city’s widest, most expensive (S$4.5bil) highway – became a traffic trap.

Many cars were stuck for hours.

A taxi passenger who wanted a smoother ride was caught in the nightmare for over two hours. “My fare came to S$74.60.”

The traffic improved on subsequent days. It was still heavy but without the gridlock, mainly because some of the motorists used alternate routes.

Transport Minister Lui Tuck Yew said: “Things will be clearer in two to three weeks.”

The population has grown by about 25% or 1.2 million people in the last 10 years. In addition, some 15 million tourists arrive every year.

The huge foreign influx was not matched by the building of more public services, especially in housing, transport and healthcare.

The resultant public anger led to an unprecedented apology in 2011 from Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong with a promise to do better.

The expressway fiasco, however, unfairly masks the government’s earlier achievements in developing the city’s infrastructure like airports, harbours and reservoirs.

These also include highways and roads the authorities had considered important for economic growth.

But the subsequent mass arrival of immigrants has created new shortages and overcrowding in almost every public service.

Forbes magazine last week described Singapore as having, among other problems, “a population bubble”.

Some 36% of people here are foreig­n workers who came mostly for the money. If the jobs were to disappear, the vast majority would leave.

In perspective, the government began reducing the flow in recent years. Although more are still coming, the numbers are fewer.

It has reportedly created a manpower shortage, raising complaints from small and medium-sized companies.

Hardly a day passes without an employer lamenting lost sales because of the shortage.

A government White Paper calling for a 6.9-million population by 2030 is believed to be on the table for implementation.

Proponents for importing more foreigners mainly base their arguments on economic and demogra­phic grounds, with very little focus on the social impact.

In fact, their large presence – ranging from skilled professionals to construction workers – is raising increasing concerns about potential friction.

After experiencing its first mass riot in four decades, some critics have warned that this overhanging threat could worsen.

By 2030, nearly half the population will be foreigners.

On Jan 13, Forbes ran a controversial article titled “Why Singapore’s economy is heading for an Iceland-style meltdown” (Iceland failed spectacularly in 2008).

It gave a highly pessimistic forecast of the economy, red-hot property market, high household debts and the “migrant workers bubble”.

The writer Jesse Colombo said that each of these factors has built up its own bubble.

As interest rates move up, he warned, these bubbles could burst in a few years, dragging down the economy.

The Monetary Authority of Singa­pore quickly refuted that the country is facing a credit bubble.

Most professionals I talked to said the report was too pessimistic and a crisis is unlikely.

I will not go into details, but the writer added that if bubbles in financial services and construction (proper­ty) pop, so will the “migrant workers bubble”.

If that really takes place, managing an orderly outflow will be a tough act.

(This article was first published in The Star)