If you aren’t Chinese, you can’t compete in Singapore
The owner of the famous local briyani restaurant Blue Diamond, Abdul Hameed Mohamed Farook, is being prosecuted for hiring workers on an S pass (a visa category that requires a salary of S$2,200 or RM5,708 a month) but paying them far less.
This might appear quite patently dishonest and illegal, and I’m all for paying workers a fair wage, but it seems to me he had little choice.
His business is an Indian restaurant and to run an Indian restaurant you need Indian workers, or in a pinch maybe Pakistani or Bangladeshi workers.
However, Singapore doesn’t in fact allow you to hire Indian or any South Asian workers as restaurant staff. In fact, they can’t be given work permits for any jobs in the service sector which includes Retail, Restaurants, and Beauty among others.
The Ministry of Manpower (MOM) which regulates labour on the island has decreed that work permits in the service sector must only be granted to workers from North Asian sources; the People’s Republic of China, Hong Kong, South Korea, Macau and an exception is made for Malaysia
Now, Singapore is reliant on foreign labour. Any large scale business must hire foreigners — to stack shelves, to staff kitchens, to man pliers and tweezers.
But according to the MOM these foreigners can only come from one country — the People’s Republic (and to some extent Malaysia). Because no one is really going to be importing shelf stackers and pot stirrers from Hong Kong or South Korea.
This puts any non-Chinese business at a disadvantage as PRC workers tend to speak only Chinese and it is never easy to manage staff you can’t communicate with. It puts these community facing businesses at a particular disadvantage; perhaps an Indian-run shop can make do with PRC shelf stackers, but a Malayalee restaurant or saree store is unlikely to be able to manage.
Now you can say this is all to protect some sort of ethnic balance because there are so many Indian and Bangladeshi workers in construction that having service sector workers from China balances things out.
But firstly isn’t maintaining a “correct” race balance in itself a dubious exercise? And even if we accept this need for racial quotas, exceptions must be made for community facing businesses.
The local Indian community is simply too small and the Malaysian Indian community hardly large enough to provide the labour for local Indian restaurants, beauty parlours, flower shops and the like. And the fact that Chinese shops, hairdressers and restaurants have access to effectively unlimited cheap labour gives them an innate advantage.
The situation is patently unfair as it privileges one race over the other.
What does this policy say to us? That Filipinos can be maids but not servers? Indians are good for being construction coolies but we don’t want to see them as hotel staff? This is why you see Mandarin-speaking servers struggling to pronounce Palak Paneer across the curry houses of Singapore.
It’s destroying Singaporean businesses: Indians, Malays and Eurasians have been put in a position where they can’t compete on equal terms. The incentive to break and bend the rules in order to hire staff you can communicate with is very high and Blue Diamond is very unlikely to be the only offender.
For simply wanting to hire staff who speaks their language, a whole community is liable to be criminalised and if you ask me, that’s racist.
Surekha A. Yadav
Born and bred in Singapore, Surekha A. Yadav is a freelance journalist in Southeast Asia.