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.