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By Steve Kelman

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One more round of Singapore observations

1) In both Chinese and Indian cultures -- and perhaps elsewhere in Asia, though I’m not sure -- whiter shades of skin are, interestingly, highly valued for women. (For guys, darker skin has a somewhat macho image and thus less of an issue.) It is quite amazing to see the ads on the streets, and in department store windows, everywhere in Singapore for skin lightening treatments, which are available from pretty much all the major international cosmetics brands, from Lancome to Estee Lauder to the Japanese Shiseido. I even saw an ad for some contest being promoted by a big local department store chain among the different whitening products about which produces the greatest whitening effect – “may the fairest win” the contest announces.

2) Another interesting feature of Singaporean society (and again of a number of other Asian countries) is the increasing use of full-time household help – without circumlocution called “maids” – among professional and managerial families. This has spread rapidly in recent decades with the growth in wealth. “Thirty years ago,” reads a recent article in The Straits Times, “unless your family had a street named after an ancestor, few Singaporeans had servants.” Today it is one in six households. Most of the maids come from the poorer countries of the region, such as The Philippines and Indonesia. The government recently issued a regulation requiring that these maids, most of whom currently are on call seven days a week, be granted a day off (or extra pay for working seven days).

This produced a big discussion in the media, with voices pro and con. The maids are brought in on visas that do not allow them to become permanent residents or citizens of Singapore. Incidentally, just yesterday [March 28] a Hong Kong court ruled that a provision in Hong Kong law that does not allow foreign maids to become permanent residents after seven years residency (unlike other foreign workers who live in Hong Kong for seven years) was legal. A recent survey of Singaporean maids, however, showed that they put having a day off as only seventh of 10 listed priorities – the highest was getting the opportunity to attend training classes in English, cooking, or hairdressing.

3) Actually, close to one-third of Singapore residents are foreigners, mostly unskilled workers on limited-term contracts, along with foreigners with more-skilled jobs, for whom it is much easier to become a permanent resident. Interestingly, hostility to foreign unskilled workers was a big issue in the May 2011 elections, where the government had its poorest electoral showing ever – though, in general, multi-ethnic Singapore, with its mix of Chinese, Malays, and Indians, shows an amazing level of intergroup harmony. The country has strict laws against publishing racial slurs, and there have been two stories in the last week in the media about young people punished for racially insensitive Facebook posts. There was also a fascinating story recently about Korean university grads seeking to get skilled jobs in Singapore – as a way to improve  their English-language skills.

4) US universities maintain their great allure in Asia, and many US universities, often ones that are virtually unknown at home, actively recruit here. Recently an organization called Linden International Recruitment Tours co-sponsored with the US Embassy a “U.S. University Fair,” where Singaporeans could meet with representatives from Virginia Commonwealth University, the University of Vermont, and the University of Minnesota – but also from Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, Hult International Business School, and Savannah College of Art and Design.

Posted on Mar 29, 2012 at 12:09 PM


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Reader comments

Mon, Apr 2, 2012 Nan Kunming

I think the level of intergroup harmony in Singapore is what Chinese government should aim at. I was once amazed at the "four-langauge" notice board everywehre in Singapore. It is so helpful for tourists and also very "ren min"-friendly.

Fri, Mar 30, 2012

The naivete of the first of those observations is almost charming in the way that it seems to have come as a surprise to the observer. He didn't have to go to Asia to make the discovery. He could have rented a Hong Kong martial arts flick or a Bollywood musical epic at any time during the last 30 years.

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