Singapore and Dubai: two very different approaches to the COVID expat

January 20, 2022, 12:30 AM UTC
Jeevan Vasagar, author of "Lion City: Singapore and the Invention of Modern Asia", writes that Singapore's inward turn is indicative of broader difficulties for expats during the COVID pandemic.
Lauryn Ishak—Bloomberg/Getty Images

COVID-19 was supposed to unleash a new era of global remote work. Business outlets published stories of Zoom-proficient white-collar workers, no longer tied to an office, hoping to dial into meetings from Bali or Barcelona.

Rather than usher in the world of the globe-trotting professional, the COVID pandemic may instead indicate the end of the expat.

Two global cities—Singapore and Dubai—show the two approaches to life under the virus. Singapore is putting its own citizens first, with one government minister memorably describing foreign workers as “ballast” to be shed in a storm. In contrast, Dubai has thrown open its doors, becoming a party city for Europe’s elite, competing for remote workers and moving towards a more liberal interpretation of citizenship.

Singapore’s experience shows that even the most open places can easily turn inward when faced with a deadly threat.

An eagerness to attract global investment, knowledge and talent was one of the driving forces behind Singapore’s postcolonial economic transformation from a port city to a manufacturing hub and financial center. Singapore has always sold itself as a connected, cosmopolitan place—and so COVID hit one of the city’s key selling points.

For foreign workers in Singapore—especially the elite accustomed to effortless international travel—COVID was a sharp reminder of just how small the place actually is.

And the pandemic accelerated a trend to favor local hires. In September 2020, Singapore raised the minimum qualifying salary for foreign professionals. For the first time, Singapore created a sector-specific minimum, with new foreign hires in financial services needing to be paid at least $3700 a month.

Since 2020, work pass holders have needed permits, in addition to their visa, to re-enter Singapore. Many expats complained of being stranded overseas while waiting for approval to return.

There has been a xenophobic tilt to Singapore’s politics for years, but these measures deepened a feeling among many expats that—despite contributing to Singaporean society by paying taxes and in some cases creating jobs—they were not extended the same consideration as citizens during a crisis.

Whatever the reason, foreign workers aren’t staying. Since the start of the pandemic, Singapore’s total foreign workforce, from Filipina domestic workers to French investment bankers, has dropped 16% to 1.2 million. The number of foreign white-collar workers has dropped by about 14% to 167,000 over the same period.

By contrast, Dubai offered itself as a base for the digital nomad. The city launched a one-year virtual working program that cost $611, advertised as living and working “by the beach”.

In a more profound change, the UAE transformed its approach to citizenship, announcing that it would grant passports to doctors, artists and others with specialist knowledge and talents. It’s the first time in its 50-year history that the country—which has long seen very little mingling between Emiratis and foreigners—has opened citizenship to non-Emiratis, even if its stringent conditions mean this stream will remain a trickle rather than a flood.

While Singapore and Dubai have differing attitudes towards wealthier professionals, the COVID pandemic exposed both cities’ shoddy treatment of low-wage migrant workers. Singapore’s crowded dormitories for migrant construction and manufacturing workers were ground-zero for the city’s first major outbreaks. While these were brought under control, the workers’ lives remain circumscribed, with tighter restrictions on movement than the rest of the population, even as the city ‘reopens’.

In Dubai, blue-collar workers were frequently left to fend for themselves as the economy contracted in 2020—with reports of men left penniless and starving in labor camps after losing work.

At the other end of the wealth spectrum, both Singapore and Dubai have become havens for the super-rich, with the number of ultra-wealthy individuals in Singapore rising from 1000 in 2019 to more than 1300 in 2020, while the same class of ultra-rich in the UAE swelled from around 400 to just over 700, according to Credit Suisse.

But even though both Singapore and Dubai have sought to attract the uber-wealthy and neglected poorer migrants, they are now taking very different approaches to a post-COVID world. And while it is true that Dubai relies much more on foreign labor—nearly 90% of Dubai’s population is foreign, compared to 27% in Singapore—that alone doesn’t fully account for the different outlooks.

Singapore appears to regard migration as a buyers’ market. The government tolerates, even encourages, a public narrative that is largely dismissive towards foreigners and puts its own people first.

Even if Singapore does draw on foreign talent again, it may come from different places. Placements in Singapore’s independent schools and private colleges plummeted during the pandemic, but demand from China has helped some schools bolster their rolls. Singapore may turn to Asia’s growing middle class for talent rather than expats from the West.

By contrast the UAE is eager to establish itself as the West’s preferred partner in the Middle East, with a range of policies to facilitate this including extensive security cooperation with the US and warmer relations with Israel.

Singapore has long been seen as an exception in Asia—especially as its competitor Hong Kong is buffeted from all sides. Its economic resilience, efficiency and stability mean it is likely to remain attractive to outsiders, even if it offers them a frostier welcome.

But it is Dubai that is casting itself as a truly global city. For most of the world’s expats, the future is more likely to resemble Singapore.

Jeevan Vasagar is the author of Lion City: Singapore and the Invention of Modern Asia, out from Pegasus Books in March. He is currently Environment Editor at the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, and was the FT’s Singapore and Malaysia correspondent from 2015 to 2017.

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