Bloomberg conference attendees are getting special treatment in Singapore—and it’s reigniting a debate over foreign workers

November 14, 2021, 12:00 AM UTC

Next week, Bill Gates, Elon Musk and 300 other big names from the worlds of business and politics will descend on Singapore for the Bloomberg New Economy Forum. The event is one of several international jamborees scheduled to take place in the city-state before the end of the year. The return of such summits is a boon for a country whose economy relies on travel and trade. When Singapore’s borders were closed between March 2020 and August 2021 to keep COVID-19 at bay, the country entered its worst recession ever and the government spent $100 billion, about 20% of GDP, to prop up the economy. The Bloomberg Forum is a chance for Singapore to show that it’s getting back to business.

But among Singaporeans, the return to a sort of normality is causing consternation as well as celebration. At the heart of their grievances is a single digit: five. That is the number of conference delegates who will be allowed to eat together at the Capella, the luxury hotel where the Bloomberg event is being held, and several designated restaurants around the city. Limiting parties to five people may sound like an onerous restriction, but compared with the rules governing ordinary Singaporeans when the limit was announced in late October it seemed positively bacchanalian. Since September, Singapore has been shifting from a “COVID zero” strategy to living with the virus. Its progress has been faltering: the country has established quarantine-free travel lanes with 11 countries but tightened local restrictions to arrest a rising case count, including limiting group sizes to two. 

When the Straits Times, Singapore’s main newspaper, reported that Bloomberg Forum attendees would be allowed to dine in larger groups, Singaporeans vented on social media. “Pretty pissed,” wrote one on Reddit, “that they allow strangers to dine together in five, but I can’t dine with my fully vaccinated family that live under the same roof.” Nevermind that, as the government was quick to point out, the Bloomberg rules were similar to those for weddings. The perception of unfairness stuck. “In other words,” said another Redditor, “requirements to dine in five must be elite, rich and powerful. Rest of you can suck it up.” 

Since then the government has eased restrictions slightly. From Nov. 10, fully-vaccinated Singaporeans can also dine in groups of five. But there is one major caveat: the new rule won’t apply to hawker centers, the open-air food halls that hundreds of thousands of people rely on for cheap food. The government argues that the centers don’t have the resources to vet who is eating.   

SINGAPORE – 2021/05/16: Singaporeans queue at a hawker center, where tables are cordoned off due to COVID restrictions on May 16, 2021.
Lionel Ng/SOPA Images—LightRocket via Getty Images

The kerfuffle is a minor instance of a major issue confronting Singapore’s ruling People’s Action Party (PAP): a perception among a growing number of Singaporeans that the government cares more about protecting the country’s status as an international center for business than it does about the treatment of locals. “You have segments of society that benefit greatly from openness and others who don’t,” says Walter Theseira, an associate professor of economics at Singapore University of Social Sciences. “People who work in multinationals or hospitality think it’s madness if we don’t open up faster. But loads of other people don’t see the benefit of Singapore being a global hub.”

In fact, many of them think the city’s hub status conflicts with their own interests. A major flashpoint is immigration. Since the 1990s, Singapore’s migrant population has been growing fast. Back then, it was around 700,000. Today it is over 2.5 million, roughly 45% of the island’s total population of 5.6 million. The government has long argued that Singapore has a small population of its own, about 3 million. It needs extra people to power its economy—both low-paid laborers to build the city’s gleaming skyscrapers and highly-paid white-collar workers to staff the international companies that occupy them.

But as the country emerges from the pandemic, opposition lawmakers and some swaths of the public are pressuring the government to reduce the flow of “foreign talent” in order to prioritize Singaporeans. In a poll published earlier this year by the Institute of Policy Studies, a Singaporean think-tank, over 47% of local-born citizens (as opposed to naturalized citizens or permanent residents) said immigration increases unemployment. Over 70% of those surveyed said they wanted strict curbs on the number of foreign workers. 

This problem is not new. Back in 2013, in a show of public anger that’s rare in Singapore, thousands of protesters joined together to oppose a government plan to increase immigration by 30% by 2030 to 6.9 million. The government quickly retreated, but the issue didn’t disappear. In 2019, protesters gathered again over the Comprehensive Economic Cooperation Agreement (CECA), a free-trade deal with India. In the protesters’ view, CECA opened the door to an influx of foreign workers who would get jobs at the expense of Singaporeans. As one opposition politician told the government at the time, “You better start respecting Singapore citizens first before you tell us to respect others.”

People rest in a seating area marked for safe distancing to prevent COVID-19 virus transmission in a shopping mall in Singapore on Oct. 30, 2021.
Joseph Nair—NurPhoto via Getty Images

What has changed since then, says Michael Barr, the preeminent historian of modern Singapore, is that “the government is having more trouble managing the problem.” As businesses faltered during the COVID crisis, unemployment among Singaporean citizens spiked to almost 5%, its highest level since the financial crash in 2008. The worst disruption was to industries like shipping and aviation, on which Singapore, Southeast Asia’s most important trade hub, depends. The uptick in joblessness left people feeling jittery. As a Singaporean recruiter, who preferred not to be named, put it: “When COVID started in Singapore, people knew that the worst was going to happen. Everyone wanted to hold on to their job, and people became very protective. Locals first.”

Singapore’s acclaimed education system compounds the problem. Its much-vaunted primary and secondary schools consistently lead OECD rankings, particularly in key subjects like math and science. Why, then, is there still such reliance on imported workers? “I find it hard to believe that after all the investment Singapore has made in education they still need to turn to foreign talent at the scale they are,” Barr says. “Either they have problems with education, or they are turning to outsiders unnecessarily.”

The discontent is bubbling up at the polls. At the general election in 2020, the PAP, which has held power for over 60 years, suffered one of the worst results in its history. Sure, it still took around 60% of the vote, but in a country where the government controls the media, gerrymanders voting districts, and makes it difficult for opposition parties to campaign effectively, the outcome was widely interpreted as a dramatic rebuke. The PAP’s vote share was down nearly 10% from the previous election in 2015, as voters swung towards the opposition Workers’ Party and the Progress Singapore Party, both of which argue for tighter controls on foreign labor.

As the country emerges from the pandemic, there are signs that the government is ceding some ground to its critics. Firstly, it is making it more expensive for companies to import employees. In August, it raised the salary thresholds for two types of foreign worker visas: employment passes, which cover most white-collar jobs, and S-passes, which cover technical jobs. Secondly, the government is considering a raft of new domestic policies, including measures it has long opposed, like unemployment insurance to strengthen the social safety net. “The government used to believe that the best insurance was full employment, and that insurance would hold people back from finding work,” Theseira says. “They are no longer trying to say that.” 

The Bloomberg New Economy Forum, then, turns out to be aptly named. Singapore is transitioning from being a hermit back to being a hub again. But as it does so, it is trying to figure out who its hub should serve.

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