Sunday, August 13, 2006

A Milestone Protest

Last week, a particular community living in Singapore achieved a milestone for itself. It organized a protest for what it saw as an injustice committed by the Government. The community was outraged that the Government had taken a heavy-handed approach in regulating the industry. It was also unhappy with the majority of Singapore for siding with the authorities.

I was, of course, talking about the 'Study Mamas'.

Oh yes, before I forgot. The community of bloggers too achieved a milestone last week with their silent
protest at the MRT station. They managed to round up about 30 protesters, compared to the 100 that the 'Study Mamas' managed to mobilize.

Back to the 'Study Mamas'.
Study mamas in embassy protest
Loh Chee Kong

Upset with the negative glare cast on them in recent weeks, close to 100 study mamas gathered at the Chinese Embassy to register their unhappiness on Friday.

Their grouse: The "unfair" accusations heaped on study mamas ever since a high-profile murder of a Chinese national masseuse exposed the sprouting of sleazy massage parlours in neighbourhoods.

It is alleged that many study mamas — a term for foreign women accompanying their children who are studying here — drive these parlours, which have now come under tighter regulations.

Mdm Lee, who had worked as a technical officer in China and has a 10-year-old son studying here, told Today: "We came here to show our unhappiness with all the unfair accusations hurled at us.

"Many of us are not doing anything shameful or improper, yet Singaporeans seem to view all of us through tinted glasses after what happened. In one fell swoop, all study mamas are accused of being involved in indecent activities and it seems they want to drive us out."

The 38-year-old masseuse was among the steady stream of study mamas who gathered in front of the embassy from 9am on Friday, after being notified through SMSes by their peers. Barely two hours later, the gathering along the narrow Tanglin Road swelled to almost 100 of them, prompting police officers and embassy staff to disperse the crowd.

They left after an embassy official assured them "their concerns will be reflected to the Singapore Government", said Mdm Lee.

As of July last year, there were about 6,800 study mamas here, mostly from China. Since August 2003, following revelations that some of them were giving sexual favours for cash, the Ministry of Manpower stopped granting work permits for study mamas in the massage industry.

It is understood that while study mamas can work after staying in Singapore for a year, they cannot operate in "objectionable occupations" such as massage parlours and food stalls, or as bar or dance hostesses.

But another study mama at the protest, who gave her name as "Alice", said: "We don't really have a choice in working as masseuses.

"We can't work at coffeeshops or as toilet cleaners as employers think it's troublesome that we need to renew our work permits from time to time."
Singapore had chosen the education services as one of its key economic pillars. It is a relatively new-comer in this game, compared to countries like US, UK and Australia, for example.

Like Australia, Singapore allows the student to be accompanied by a student guardian. To accompany a foreign student in Australia, the student guardian must show proof and declare that she has the means to support herself and any other dependent (eg children) that she may bring along to Australia.

Depending on the country of origin, this 'financial capacity' should provide for her living expenses ranging from 1 year to the entire duration of the student's programme. The amount set by the Australian government includes a living expense of A$12,000 per year (for self) and A$1,800 – A$2,400 per year for each dependent child that she may bring. Student guardians must also declare that they have enough funds to pay for return airfares for both self and each child.

What is important to note is that this 'financial capacity' is over and above the 'financial capacity' required for the student that the guardian is accompanying. For the student, this 'financial capacity' will include the tuition fees and living expenses for this student for the entire duration of his/her studies.

Suppose a foreign student enrolls in a 2-year high school programme in Australia, which may charge A$5,000-A$15,000 in school fees annually. If he were to bring along a guardian, the total 'financial capacity' of both could amount to as much as A$75,000.

In Australia, student guardians are not allowed to work, although the foreign student may engage in part-time work of at most 20 hours per week during his studies.

In contrast, a foreign student in Singapore needs a local sponsor who must post a security deposit of at most S$5,000. The student guardian can work after 1 year in Singapore, although not in the 'objectionable occupations', as determined by the Government.

It seems to me that Singapore is more 'lax' than Australia in granting student and student guardian visas. Lest you have the wrong impression about me, I have nothing against foreign students and their guardians. They help bring about a more cosmopolitan and vibrant Singapore. I have many non-Singaporean friends and had always found them to be a refreshing change.

We all know that price conveys the market segment one is targeting. Looking at the 'price', my guess is that Singapore is targeting a different market than, say, Australia. It could be a deliberate policy, as Singapore is new to the game and sets out to capture greater 'market share'.

In my view, as far as the China market is concerned, it is such a huge market that there is sufficient volume in every segment of its market. In any case, a small market like Singapore can never cope with nor absorb the 'volume' that China has to offer. With rising income levels, a Chinese friend commented that the current 'fine' for having more than 1 child in China of 50,000 RMB had become less effective in birth control as the amount had become pretty affordable to many Chinese nowadays.

As such, we need not be so concerned about 'pricing' ourselves out of the market. By re-defining our target market, Singapore can also reinforce its standing amongst an increasingly sophisticated international student market.

Otherwise, for as long as government has to define a list of 'objectionable occupations', the unhappiness that some Singaporeans have over student guardians who flout the immigration laws may escalate. As will incidents like the protests by the student guardians who feel 'wronged'.
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