Perspective Unlimited

Tuesday, May 29, 2007

On Citizens, Permanent Residents and Bumiputrification

I have wanted to write something about this for some time already, and my previous post serves as a convenient lead-in.

Three Reflections

Of the many national day rallies I have watched over the years, there is one that will be forever etched in my mind. It is the one when the then Prime Minister Goh suggested that Singaporeans who chose to leave were quitters, barely moments after praising Jing Junhong for winning us the Commonwealth gold medal and chiding Singaporeans for not accepting her as one of our own. Some amongst the audience must have turned to look at Jing. The camera too was trained on Jing's face, and the whole of Singapore watched. It was a moment of supreme irony, of contradiction, and of the tension that was globalisation. I think it was a TV moment that ranked up there with MM Lee's tearful interview after Singapore was ejected from Malaysia.

Two weeks ago, I was having my usual Wednesday coffee with some faculty members and colleagues. A lady researcher from Italy proclaimed that she was really proud to be an Italian when we were on the topic of football. A Swiss faculty member, Fred, replied in jest, "That is the stupidest thing I have ever heard. How could you be proud of something which you practically have no choice in?" Fred was right of course. Had the Italian lady been born English, she would have had nothing but football heartaches instead of two world cup victories in her lifetime.

My father was an economic immigrant from China. He had never wanted to make Singapore his permanent home. He arrived to a colony sometime in the late 1950s, but on the stroke of midnight 9 Aug 1965, he was suddenly a citizen of Singapore. Like many other Singaporeans, he found himself an accidental citizen of an accidental country. I, by default, became a Singaporean. If my father had gone to America instead of Singapore, his children would have been Americans.

Reduction of PR Benefits

Childcare subsidies for PRs being phased out over 2 years - Straitstimes 9 May 2007

Hospital subsidies for PRs to be revised from Oct 2007 - CNA 10 Dec 2006

Learning to make a distinction; PRs, foreigners to pay up to 80 per cent more in school fees over next two years - Today 6 Dec 2006

Levelling the Playing Field?

Much has been written, particularly in blogosphere, on the economic competition immigrants pose for locals. Three separate policy announcements on childcare, healthcare and education, but the overall thrust is the same. The Government, probably responding to popular pressure, is trying to show that it will put Singaporeans first.

The euphemism we often hear is that these policies are designed to 'level the playing field', which of course rest on the presumption that Singaporeans are economically disadvantaged compared to immigrants. Or it could be some assumption that citizens should always be treated better as a "legitimate sense of entitlement". Considering how accidental citizenship often is, the natural sense of entitlement is hardly a product of rational thought. Furthermore, as Wang points out, the fact that PRs do not get to vote sits badly with the principle of no taxation without representation. Not only do we not allow them to vote, we are now reducing the benefits they enjoy, even as they pay the same income tax, GST and COEs as the rest of us.

Let me now address the bugbear that is national service since so much has been written about the sacrifice Singaporean males make. We Singaporean males do national service because we are born Singaporeans by the chance of nature, and we basically have no choice about it. Some get on with it and with life, others perpetually turn it into an issue. If the government will to allow male Singaporeans the choice of reducing their benefits to the level of PRs in return for not having to serve, I think enlistment into SAF will drop by half. Besides, the female half of the citizenry do not have to make this national service 'sacrifice'. Are they then second-tier citizens? Who is balancing the equation or levelling the field there? It is an exercise in futility trying to always keep a benefit and sacrifice scorecard.

Softly Softly we Bumiputrify

When one looks at the various changes, it is just a couple of hundred dollars worth of benefits here and there between citizens and PRs. If national service is indeed such a big sacrifice as it is made out to be, we would be fools to think that a couple of dollars worth of subsidies can level the playing field. The difference is probably also too marginal, thankfully, to make Singapore less attractive to would-be immigrants.

Unlike Singaporeans born here, PRs choose to be in Singapore, their being here are not accidents of birth. Jing had to take up Singapore citizenship in order to represent us. Many PRs however continue to remain citizens of their own countries because of family ties, residual loyalty, and of nostalgia - perfectly understandable reasons, the same reasons why many Singaporeans choose to keep their Singapore passports even though they reside overseas. There is really no need to push PRs into taking up Singapore citizenship as many are already as Singaporean as you or I, having studied and lived here for years. A pink IC is no proof of loyalty to Singapore. Conversely, if many PRs became citizens just to advantage themselves with a few more hundred dollars of benefits, we should be very concerned indeed.

Though these changes are mostly cosmetic, an unhelpful precedent has nonetheless been set. Symbolic as they are, these new measures are acts of discrimination against permanent residents, which are aimed at placating locals who feel threatened by the perceived economic advantage of immigrants. The original bumiputra policy also began this way. If it is politically necessary to have these symbolic differences, so be it. But let's have the good sense to guard against any further bumiputrification of our socio-economic policies. We either welcome immigrants or we keep them out. Only an insecure nation discriminates against them.


  • Gidday Bart

    Be prepared for firestorms.Good article.

    For NS, I would think that it is possible to reduce to 1 year subject to some refinements over a period of 5-7 years.

    A word of parental advice for your consideration to ease the passage of parenthood.

    Teething gums: remedy- Dentinox, a teething gel baby safe with mild anaesthetic. So parents can sleep

    Diaper rash: 2 types, oil based or cream based diaper creams.
    NB, most expensive does not mean better.

    Yu Yee Oil; before sleep for the baby, will soother and wram the tummy.

    Nasal drops;pls see instructions Illiadin(different dosages for different age groups)for infants who have stuffy noses.

    Books, Dr Miriam Stoppard relatively well balanced.
    Moral based courses, you can try subject to personality of your child "Growing Kids God's Way" by Enzo's.

    Best wishes to your and your spouse journey as a parent.


    By Anonymous WANG, at 1:30 am  

  • Yet few seems to notice that after the PRs and Foreigners had lost some of their "benefits", the "saved" amount is not going towards improving the lot of the citizens.

    If someone's going to argue that the amount is insignificant, why then bother to reduce the benefits?

    Singaporeans are nowhere better in their current state.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 2:01 am  

  • Dear Bart,

    It is entirely possible that the real reason that spore's govt is reducing the subsidies not because it want to placate the locals (just an excuse to kill 2 birds with 1 stone), but rather to cut down on future govt expenditure.

    Given the target of 6.5m pop, it is to be expected that PRs and FTs are going to make up the bulk of the ppl. So it might just be the case that the govt decide that it is not politically and economically feasible for it to spend more on non-citizens than on citizens.

    As the previous anon had said the sporeans had not gain from the reduction of benefits given to PRs.

    By Blogger at82, at 2:32 am  

  • Aiyah Singaporeans should see NS as a privilege instead of a burden. Once they understand this, they will feel much better.

    Besides contrary to thinking NOT all Singaporeans males serve NS. My rich friends' father just pay deposit, then they go US to study after secondary school...I never saw them again. You can always opt out - if you're RICH!

    Anyway no country that has NS ever have such an open immigration policy. Try becoming a PR or applying for work permit to go to israel. It is only extraordinary leaders that we have who are confident of reconciling these 2 things.

    What do you get being a Singaporean? Priceless things like extraordinary leaders who work for our interest, free exercise during NS, a pink card in the wallet, occasional ang pows....only stupid PRs hang on to their citizenship for countries without the benefit of great PAP leadership...since they are so stupid better not have them as citizens and lower our standards.

    By Blogger LuckySingaporean, at 3:03 am  

  • Bart I disagree with your analysis. I have posted a long reply on my blog to prevent a long comment.

    I tend to see NS as part of our culture. It's a duty for us males, and I'm hoping females get to do it too. More importantly it defines our culture. NS permeates Singaporean life, and it is an important part of being Singaporean.

    By Anonymous pmg, at 3:13 am  

  • I think there are some important distinctions to make here.

    The so-called discrimination against PRs so far is the reduction of state subsidies of certain services for non-citizens. The PRs have the option to remove this discrimination anytime they choose to take up the Singaporean citizenship.

    The discrimination that is practiced under the Bumiputra policy up north is on a completely different beast. Seats for higher education are reserved by race. Jobs in civil service are reserved by race. Government contracts are reserved by race. Formation of companies requires members of a specific race. And one cannot choose to become a Bumiputra - you are either born one, or you are not.

    I think the two are quite distinct and different, and to label the current practices as discrimination is completely baseless given that the subjects in question can easily regain those subsidies should they choose to pledge their allegiance to Singapore.

    By Blogger Anonymous Craven (AC), at 3:21 am  

  • You forget to mention in your article that PRs are eligible for NS. I was one of them, as I have a British father and Singaporean mother. In June 1989 I was called up to Mindef at Bukit Gombak for a medical checkup, and was sent enlistment papers. I was meant to start NS in December 1989, but chose to leave Singapore and give up my blue IC, as I had plans on joining the British Army (Scots Guards), as my family have done for 4 generations.
    If I had served NS in Singapore and stayed on, I would never have given up my British citizenship anyway. I don't think I'm the only person who faced this dilemma. I had 2 friends who were Singapore PRs, one British and 1 Japanese, who served NS in Singapore. None of them had any intention of becoming Singapore citizens.
    Not everyone who does NS gets the benefits you decribed, which are meant for Singapore citizens.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 11:20 am  

  • Wang,

    Thanks for the tips. My wife is very suspicious of Yu Yee oil, we use it very sparingly.

    PMG, Craven, AT,

    I did my national service. But my point is that it is silly to keep harping on the sacrifices we make in national services and demand compensation for it. How does discriminating against immigrants help recoup my two and a half years? NS experience repays me in other ways, there is no need to harp on it any further. Singaporean males can choose to be more noble about it, and not always bring out NS to justify redistributive policies.

    I understand that Malaysia's bumi policy is based on ethnic considerations, not citizenship. I considered for long whether to make the connection between ours and theirs since they are not exactly the same policies. But in the end, I decided that they are both reactionary policies based on the fear and perceived grievances against the supposed economic advantage of immigrants. I may have taken some liberty in the use of the bumi term, but I do hope that we learn to see discrimination as discrimination.

    But I expect many to disagree with me.

    By Blogger Bart JP, at 11:29 am  

  • Thanks Anon 11:20 for sharing this bits. Those PRs who serve NS without actually wanting to become citizens are truly worth our recognition.

    By Blogger Bart JP, at 11:33 am  

  • Bart,

    I disagree with your "bumiputrification" theory. Agree with at82 that it's all a matter of dollar$ and cent$.

    2 million extra bodies is a lot, and many of these fellas wouldn't become citizens. The savings from cutting their subsidies can be substantial, not to mention the savings from the one million who are already here.

    Given the rising costs of healthcare, it's all very $en$ible. Ask yourself another question: suppose the KTM is right and it's all about saving money, how else could the Government have packaged it without denting it's "pro-foreign talent" stance?

    No saying that I agree with the move to cut subsidies. Personally, I think it is good to be hospitable to our visitors. Just sharing my views on what it really boils down to.

    By Blogger kwayteowman, at 12:06 pm  

  • This comment has been removed by the author.

    By Blogger redbean, at 3:34 am  

  • the bumiputra policy is a policy that discriminates its own citizens based on race.

    a citizen and a pr can never be the same. citizenship comes with responsibility as well. and as for the sacrifice of national service, please ask the parents of the 3 national servicemen who died while training there when a jet crashed on them. is ns something to be trifled with?

    i also post at

    By Blogger redbean, at 3:37 am  

  • Redbean,

    What did I say that suggested that NS was to be 'trifled' with? Did I say that citizens and PRs are the same? I say that we should be a big-hearted nation and treat them equally since they also pay all the taxes. Don't be one of those who jump up and down every time NS is mentioned.


    Many PRs will be disappointed that you choose to say them as visitors. Many PRs have stayed in Singapore as long as you or I. Many have Singaporean spouses.

    If what you say is the reason behind the policy - ie saving dollars - it is a indeed a scandal. 6.5 million people, more taxes. Why cut the benefits of PRs who also pay taxes? The govt reserve not big enough issit? ;-)


    By Blogger Bart JP, at 9:22 am  

  • Honestly, I don't really see lower subsidies for PRs as discrimination. I think there are plenty of precedents in other countries where PRs do not receive the full privileges that citizens enjoy, and I simply don't see why a PR should have the sense that full subsidy is something that they are entitled to - especially in the light that most of them are able to become a full citizen but reject it because they want to enjoy the benefits that their previous citizenship bestow upon them.

    I see that you have linked PR's payment of taxes to their enjoyment of privileges that PRship brings. Similiarly, we can look at the rest of the commitments that come with citizenship as payment in return for full subsidies that is now the privilege of citizenship.

    I feel that there should be, and there must be distinctions between a citizen and a non-citizen - because a citizen pledges full allegience to the state, and bears all the responsibilites that come with citizenship. The balance is between responsilibities and privileges - to have one without the other is simply unbalanced, unfair and unjustifiable.

    By Blogger Anonymous Craven (AC), at 8:36 am  

  • NS is an important difference between citizens of Singapore and FTs.

    2 of the best and most productive years of their lives is not and should not be easily brushed off. Add to that the numerous injuries and few deaths and the sacrifice is magnified. Now there are anecdotes, increasing in number, that private employers discriminate against NSmen for having to serve NS.

    As it has been pointed out ad nauseum, if the FTs are miffed about "discriminations", just take up the citizenship!

    And this does not just affect males, it affects their families too.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 7:44 am  

  • I agree with all the points posted by Mr. Wong, at82, lucky Singaporean, Anonymous Craven (AC). I wish to add on:
    I think I need to stress again that Foreigners pay tax because the income they are earning are derived from Singapore. They are here to look for jobs which are created by the government, funded by the local Singaporean, (our forefather) father and us!
    (Please do not discredit our forefather by saying they are foreigners initially. NO!! They built Singapore from nothing to something.)
    By the way, Bart your child is in UK right? UK is much a better place for your child to live in right? So do you think you are suitable to represent Singapore government?
    By I am not a hypocrite, at 4:07 PM

    I do not understand your intention.

    By Blogger Just Wondering around, at 2:57 am  

  • I was in a dilemma of whether I should apply for citizenship when I stumbled upon this article. A good one!

    I would like to share my 5-cents worth (I know it's very late - one and a half year after the blog was posted).

    I (SPR) have been staying in Singapore for 8 years. I love Singapore for what it offers - security, stability, infrastructure and many more. I love Singapore so much that I feel that part of me is a Singaporean. Part of me hates the influx of immigrants who are flooding the country. And I feel that paying taxes is my duty, because I see with my very own eyes that the money is being put into good use. My country offers nothing to their citizens, even when they pay taxes.

    But as much as I hate to admit it, my love is not compelling enough for me to convert my citizenship. Why? The sentimental value, I guess. I was born elsewhere. My family and relatives are back at my home town. My childhood memories are all about my home town.

    I would agree with at82 that financial benefits would be the main reason for one to convert their citizenship, without which, there's no sane PR would give up his/her citizenship just for the proud feeling of being a Singaporean.

    Singaporeans have to waste their 2 youthful years to serve NS and they get financial benefits in return. These tens of thousands of dollars of subsidy for housing, education, healthcare, etc are not enjoyed by SPRs & FTs. So I guess the distinction (instead of discrimination as it has negative connotation) between citizens and SPRs is fair after all. Isn't time equals to money?

    Why punish PRs when they pay the same taxes? Yes, PRs do pay their taxes, but they also enjoy the benefits like infrastructure, cleanliness, security, etc. And in time of war, they are free to flee.

    Of course, each individual is different. Some may value their time more than the financial benefits while others give up their citizenships for a greener pasture. There’s no end to the argument ‘is the government fair?’ because the world is not fair to begin with.

    I pity those SPRs who serve NS - they get neither the financial benefits nor their 2 youthful years.

    The question is whether there will still be discrimination against SPRs who converted to citizens?

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