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Shaw, B., & Rahil Ismail. (2010). ‘Good fences make good neighbours’? Geographies of marginalisation: Housing Singapore’s foreign workers. In C.H. Chang, L.C. Ho, T. Seow, & K. Chatterjea (Ed.), Proceedings Southeast Asian Geography Association Conference 2010. Retrieved from
Singapore has one of the largest percentages of foreign-born workers in the world, and
this labour has been a significant factor in the city-state’s transition from a ‘Third World
to First World’ economy. Success in the Singapore case has been predicated upon a dual
or segmented labour market which differentiates between the highly educated and highly
skilled ‘expatriate talent’ sector and the semi- or unskilled ‘foreign worker’ group. The
latter have been particularly prominent in the ‘five Cs’ of caring, carrying, catering,
cleaning and construction but at the same time have been denied substantive citizenship,
or sense of ‘belonging’, by virtue of their lower incomes and state restrictive practices
which govern factors such as working conditions and access to housing. In this context
the 2008 burst of NIMBYism over the proposed housing of foreign workers within the
privileged upper middle-class neighbourhood of Serangoon Gardens seized Singaporean
attention. While the purported issues were of congestion, overcrowding and traffic
management the public debate was conducted amidst uncomfortable racist and classist
subtexts. Yet the occurrence of such an episode had a certain degree of inevitability given
the frenetic pressures of a globalising world on the city-state, and the government
response accordingly developed as one of authoritative persuasion. Essentially, the issue
of housing foreign workers has been integrated into the broad canvas of managing and
remaking the Singapore identity as more Singaporeans find themselves living in the midst
of foreign workers.
This paper was published in the Proceedings Southeast Asian Geography Association Conference 2010, held at Hanoi, Vietnam from 23-26 Nov 2010
Appears in Collections:Conference Papers

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