Perspective Unlimited

Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Getting Darker? The Immigration Debate

Discussing immigration often brings out the worst in people. In an ironic way, this is entirely consistent with the behaviour of Homo Economicus, the rational self-interested man. Since he cares only about his own well-being, economic science therefore finds it perfectly reasonable that he should react strongly to any threat to his livelihood or lifestyle – which immigration is perceived to be.

Wayne Soon wrote a thoughtful article that argued for the issue of immigration be settled through research – I gathered by which he meant for policy to be based on rational and substantial research into the impact of immigration. If there are indeed methods and data to support research, this is without doubt a good way forward. My fear, however, is that no amount of research or evidence can really 'settle' this issue.

This situation is analogous to the trade debate. All mainstream theories point to the fact that freer trade will always bring about overall welfare gain for the country. But the theories also acknowledge trade will create winners and losers. Similarly, while most objective research in the US/UK points to the overall benefits of immigration, there are also some segments of society that will lose out economically. This fact alone is enough to ensure that no matter how much science one puts into formulating immigration policy, it will always end up a political dance.

Watching the immigration debate in the UK gives a first-hand experience on how complicated this dance can become. In the last election, the Tories proposed an annual immigration cap ('controlled immigration' as they termed it). The Labour party duly rubbished that and extolled the benefits of immigration, and at the same time painted their opponents as a party of xenophobes. Nevertheless, when the new states (Bulgaria, Romania) entered the EU, the Labour government fearing a popular backlash, slapped restrictions on their free entry and promised to lift these only in the future. The Tories, under the new leadership, has since ditched the 'controlled immigration' line to soften their image. But this opened a gap for right-wing extremists who plied on immigration fears to hammer the Tories at local elections. Even the Tories are not right-wing enough as far as some citizens are concerned. This Financial Times article shows why. In the US, things are not much better as both parties appear fractured within themselves on how to deal with the illegal Mexicans. Immigration continues to be one of the most divisive issues confronting the main political parties.

In Singapore, the mainstream media has definitely discussed the issue in a balanced manner - pointing to the benefits of immigration while also raising the concerns of some citizens - probably only because it is state controlled. However, a dark thread is definitely emerging in some blogs: some bloggers make the claim that the ruling party is embracing immigration to dilute or even overwhelm the political power of native Singaporeans. Here are some examples I have picked from various blogs.

"VOTE VOTE VOTE VOTE VOTE.....I'm rich and you are not. I voted to keep it that way. You were too chicken to do anything. Right now we are turning so many foreign workers into citizens. In 3 years time, these foreign workers will VOTE the PAP in again. Hahahahaha....I win. You dumb Singaporeans lose AGAIN! hahahahahahah..... "

"But who cares, I suppose there are plenty of China nationals who are perfectly willing to take our places, and the economic machine will trundle on. Current residents don’t matter as long as they can be easily replaced by other units of economic productivity."

"In recent years most ordinary Singaporeans express frustration with GDP growth because it only means higher cost of living for them. They have to learn to see the bigger picture, with a bigger population, corporations especially the GLCs will have fatter profits - that to the PAP govt can only be a good thing. What do you expect the govt to do when its companies cannot grow profits because Singaporeans are unable afford more of their services, import people who can....better still, make them Singaporeans and dilute away the poverty problem. "

"The reason is simple: We are desperate for more Singaporeans -- as opposed to PRs. We need Singaporeans who love the PAP style of government, who vote for PAP and who can fill in those semi-sensitive positions in the defence and various ministries and stats board and GLCs!And what better way to brainwash them than when they are young and impressionable and when we can teach them National Education and the 5 core values via compulsory civics education lesson in primary and secondary school and teach them "the singapore story" through school outings to the Discovery Center (the one in Jurong)?"

"When it comes to elections, these foreigners will of course vote for PAP. After all, all they know is that the government has rolled out the red carpet with open arms at the painful expense of the locals for them."

Whether this is the tip of the iceberg or not, here we have a uniquely Singaporean phenomenon. As if the debate over immigration is not complicated enough, there are some early troubling signs that some Singaporeans are beginning to project their unhappiness with government policies onto immigrants, who are seen as the government's allied constituents. However nasty the immigration debate sometimes becomes here in the UK, there is at least no suggestion whatsoever that immigrants are ganging up with any particular party to marginalise the citizens.

Some of the remarks almost insult the intelligence of immigrants, as if they will become undiscerning PAP voters once they join Singapore. It is too too easy to mix unhappiness with government policies with fear and prejudices against immigrants, as the above quotes suggest. This is highly counter-productive and makes it ever less likely for the society to form some sort of a consensus on how to move forward on this issue. Thankfully, most bloggers remain commendably balanced in their views when discussing the issue of immigration. This is a sense of decency we could all do well to uphold.


  • I doubt what you said was a uniquely Singaporean phenomena isn't so unique. I reckon it's just one of the many manifestations of the feelings against a)PAP b)More foreigners WITH qualifications c)Both

    Immigration is always and everywhere a hot potato topic. Even in Singapore I doubt the PAP will dare, for lack of a better word, to ram through a more liberal immigration policy. However this is still rather speculative, since the PAP government have never been known to back down from a policy position they pushed earnestly in the first place. Policy making isn't such a hard thing to study in Singapore unlike other countries, cabinet ministers decide based on some figures and projections. They listen to some arguments for and maybe some against, weighing what they feel its necessary based on what they think is good for the nation down the road XX years, they decide on the policy. The rest is "easy".

    Thus I doubt they will change much from their initial position for an enlarged population. Personally I don't really like it. Since there is always an element of me, a native, having to adjust to the presence of foreign elements. I believe you recognise this point in yawning bread sampler blog.

    By Anonymous ted, at 3:01 pm  

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    By Blogger Bart JP, at 3:49 pm  

  • Hi Ted,

    Honestly, I personally don't find it comfortable to have many immigrants. But I also recognise Singapore practically has very little choice on this.

    More than GST, this must be one 'bitter medicine', hard to swallow but definitely good in the long run. As you would no doubt have read in the media, immigration debate has gone on and on without resolution, and with increasing hysteria, in US and Europe.

    Maybe, just maybe, this is one issue the govt should debate less and 'ram through' our throats. Ouch.

    By Blogger Bart JP, at 3:51 pm  

  • "Maybe, just maybe, this is one issue the govt should debate less and 'ram through' our throats. Ouch."

    Excuse me, since when does the Singapore PAP-led govt ever not do things this way? The "debates" are just formalities.

    Name me a significant policy that was radically modified due to a "debate". The parlimentary debate is a joke when there are only 2 voices who's willing to go against the grain.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 2:02 am  

  • I wonder if you, or Wayne Soon, spend enough time in Singapore to understand if the government is running a Uniquely Singapore Immigration Policy that is generating what you already feel, is an Uniquely Singapore backlash. Do you really think workplace discrimination is merely a figment of our imagination?

    I dont know how you can describe the mainstream media as both balanced and state-controlled; wouldnt the state-controlled media be pro-state? And if that is balanced in your opinion, that only means you are pro-state as well. Now even the government doesnt conceal the fact that mainstream media has a role in "nation building". Shouldnt you come to terms that you are not really that neutral at all in this debate?

    There is no analogy between Singapore and UK: UK does not have public universities with 20% of the undergraduates being foreigners. UK doesnt have a job market of which up to 70% of jobs goes to foreigners. And UK wouldnt have renowned economists who would announce their findings that most new jobs had gone to foreigners and retract everything the very next day because they made a mistake that exaggerated the number of jobs that were taken by foreigners. Except that, recent announcements have shown, those economists were right all along.

    The number of foreigners who take up Singapore citizenship is so small, their impact on the electoral map is negligible. So I agree with you that the bloggers who rant against foreigners who take up citizenship are being very silly. In fact, I welcome these "foreign stayers" with open arms. But the Singapore government's over-enthusiasm with foreigners, many of whom see Singapore as a stepping stone, is causing some real hardship for Singaporeans, myself included.

    Have a heart. I know as a stranger in a foreign land, you will certainly be inclined to support immigration policies. But please dont equate the Singapore immigration situation with the US and UK, because there is no similarity about it.

    By Blogger Jimmy Mun, at 2:55 am  

  • All Government debates in Singapore are just "wayang" shows as decision had already been made long beforehand.

    Just look at our debates on the opening of 2 IR in Singapore.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 4:04 am  

  • Actually, I don't think it is that unique. I'm not familiar with the situation in the UK, but in the US, it is quite clear why the Democrats are pushing for legalising the illegal immigrants, largely from Mexico. The Democrats traditionally have had good support from the Hispanic segment. Besides, if the Democrats do "win the battle", the newly legalised immigrants would definitely be grateful.

    By Blogger kuey, at 4:11 am  

  • "Some of the remarks almost insult the intelligence of immigrants, as if they will become undiscerning PAP voters once they join Singapore."

    I won't say that the comments are insulting the intelligence of immigrants. They are not always phrased well, but it is a true concern that these immigrants _might_ tend to favor the PAP more because it the PAP government's flexible immigration policies and openness to foreign talent benefitted them in some ways.

    Those who accept citizenship will likely be those who are in favor of or have no problems with the status quo. On the other hand, potential immigrants who find the PAP abominable probably won't find themselves accepting citizenship. The concern expressed by bloggers or people commenting in blogs are valid in at least some ways. Maybe the government doesn't have the intention to consolidate its power this way, people will inevitably speculate about the effects of immigration.

    By Anonymous Molly, at 4:55 am  

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    By Blogger Bart JP, at 7:18 am  

  • Dear all,

    I thank you for your comments. This is a tough subject, I cannot hope to give you a satisfactory answer on every thing.

    Unique: Immigration is a hot potato issue everywhere. The uniqueness in Singapore is that some natives are beginning to feel that there immigration is part of the ruling party's electoral conspiracy as you can see from the quotes. Though the hispanics vote Democrats, the party is quite split on the issue as well, since there are protectionistic, unionists factions inside that do not want immigrants to compete for the jobs. Also, Bush/Swarzenneger keenly court the hispanic vote, but are opposed by other factions.

    Workplace discrimination: This is something we need to address. There is the discrimination against NS males that is all the more grating for all of us. I am a Sporean male who also served NS. But this should be taken up separately - find ways to level the field rather than opposing immigration.

    Voting patterns: The voting profile of immigrants is entirely speculative. I personally feel that how they vote is irrelevant. While the hypothesis is that they are PAP leaning, the only relevant question to me is whether they are loyal Singaporeans. Not counting the high-income sort, I think that most immigrants share the same concerns as us: healthcare, education, costs of living, transport, and even freedom of expression here. While they may lean PAP, it does not mean they will not make the same demands you and I make, they can also be a force for positive change.

    My overall point is a simple one - If one is unhappy with certain bits of govt policies (transport, tax, education, NS whatever), lets deal with them separately and not lump them with immigration or direct dissatisfaction with other bits of govt policy on immigration, which I am afraid some bloggers are beginning to do.

    By Blogger Bart JP, at 7:22 am  

  • >Thankfully, most bloggers remain commendably balanced in their views when discussing the issue of immigration.

    I don't mean this in a nasty way, but I reckon that what you said above may only be true through rose-tinted lenses.

    By Anonymous XH, at 1:55 pm  

  • Bart,

    The KTM agrees with you that the question of immigration is all political. :-)

    If you remember, we had this little debate about the "correct" steady state? But that discussion wasn't about whether or not to import more bodies. It's purely a question of how many is the right number. :-) The KTM believes that it is probably easy to justify an overall improvement in the economy.

    What is true however is that because we tend to import only the higher-educated types, some of the Singaporeans will find themselves displaced lower down the food chain than before (we also import the lower-educated types, but die die the Garmen will not give them PR/citizenship lah. It's to keep us from having to pay 100 pounds for a plumbing job. :-P). Jimmy Mun has argued convincingly for his lot. :-P

    That said, in any policy someone is going to get screwed over. The question is who and the question is how much? Jimmy is not going to be able to change the policy with his pleas, because at the end of the day, the PAP really only needs 50% of the votes to stay in power (do remind your political masters about this simple fact when you return and see if you can convince them not to give these lousy pre-election ang baos can? This is not PSLE hor. Scared papa scold if marks too low? :-P The Progress Package really irritates the KTM). The KTM is quite convinced that immigration will actually make at least 50% of the Singaporeans better off. The KTM for one will have more customers for his KT!

    As long as PAP doesn't completely bungle the economy and refrains from upgrading politics and irritating and alienating the moderates like the KTM, they will survive the immigration issue at the polls. That's the KTM's assessment. :-)

    By Blogger kwayteowman, at 3:19 pm  

  • My response is not to the immigration policy. It is my personal experience of my life in Singapore.

    In 2004, at the age of 45, I had no job. I had spent nearly $8k of my money on retraining my skills. There were no jobs for 40 year olds and even today there isn't especially graduates. With a wife and 2 children I took the biggest gamble of my life:I left Singapore.

    I had with me $1000.00 and credit cards. My wife and kids stayed behind

    I went to a nearby OECD country and got a job after 5 months of

    Not even one employer asked for my age, race or religion in all my job applications. In fact it is against the law to put these details on your resume or cv

    They were only interested in what I can do.

    My wife and children joined me about 4 months ago. My permanent residence application has been successful.

    There is no incentive for me to go back except to see my aging parents.

    It is ironic that all through school, when we recited the pledge,we all pledged ourselves as one united nation , to build a democratic society and regardless of race , language or religion etc.

    All these years everything has been happening opposite to that pledge we recited in school.

    Anyway that is my two cents worth

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 7:19 am  

  • anonymous 7.19 AM,

    The KTM does sympathize with your plight. Do you have any ideas on how the Government could have helped you? Did you receive any Government aid during the time you were unemployed?

    The KTM would like to understand the situation of structural unemployment for PMETs in Singapore. Your inputs would be much appreciated. Thanks.

    By Blogger kwayteowman, at 3:36 pm  

  • Bart,
    the best truth is the truth as see from action rather than the word from mouth. Judge people from action rather than from mouth.

    I used to meet many FT who decide to stay in Singapore. What they told me is that as long as they are treated better in Singapore, they stay, wise they go. And true to it, many of them actually return to their country after parking and contribute to the Singapore's society and economic growth. That's means Singaporean then have to wrestle and finding meaning in those so called economic growth that are somehow aided by FT, yet these FT went back when they realize the growth that they help generate no longer seem beneficial to them at all (rising cost, increasing cost of "free" service, money-obsession culture even from our own government).

    Don't believe whatever statistic gov give. As I say, in gov, it is all about lies, damn lies, and nothing but lies, if they are going to achieve their own aim. This is affirmed by LKY who did say that he will do anything to stay in power for PAP gov. That's definitely including lies, and damn lies.

    How do you judge credibility of a person if sometimes a person tell lies and sometimes not ? And especially, in a place of conflict of interest happening ?

    The thing that I will bring across is what is the credibility of those MP and ministers who high-pay and bonus is linked to the economic growth of Singapore, and that the increasing FT will bring about the growth of economic ??

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 7:37 am  

  • To kTM,

    Just simply visit any agency setup by gov there, and the kind ppl will tell you to take up any job to survive whether you like the job or not, afterall, it is just a job only. This is what they say to me and you perhaps. The brutal truth they ultimately say is because "YOU ARE IN SINGAPORE, THEREFORE YOU HAVE NO CHOICE". If one want more choice, another choice is the MRT TRACK.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 7:40 am  

  • To kTM,

    Just simply visit any agency setup by gov there, and the kind ppl will tell you to take up any job to survive whether you like the job or not, afterall, it is just a job only. This is what they say to me and you perhaps. The brutal truth they ultimately say is because "YOU ARE IN SINGAPORE, THEREFORE YOU HAVE NO CHOICE". If one want more choice, another choice is the MRT TRACK.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 7:41 am  

  • To Anon,

    In Singapore, we only see one side of the story - that of FT coming to take jobs. My sister actually went to Shanghai to work as a team leader in an MNC. I also know of many Singaporeans doing so. From that perspective, Singaporeans are the FT going there to take their jobs. My point is - this is the reality of globalisation. We cannot afford to be one-sided, people come people go (including Sporeans) to wherever they find the best opportunities for themselves.

    Your point about the incentive problem - growing GDP using FT to boost govt pay - has been raised many times. I agree, it gives the impression of conflict of interest. Whether it really bias the policy maker's choice towards more FT, I don't know.

    By Blogger Bart JP, at 8:25 am  

  • KTM,
    You seemed to believe that the problems with no jobs for the over 40s as structural unemployment. Why is that these same over 40s are able to secure jobs overseas? Why aren't these same kind of jobs be available here but instead go to the foreigners? Think about that. Have you tried these so called govt help agencies? Do you believe the statistics that these agencies roll out to you to show how they have helped?

    How can I contact you? I am also over 40 and would like to get your help. Which country are you in. How can I find a job there?

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 6:46 pm  

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