As expected, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong devoted the lion’s share of his National Day Rally speech yesterday to the topic of immigration, which has gotten many Singaporeans of all strata in society hot under the collar in the lead-up to an election year. This year he went into overdrive mode, spending a full hour citing conversations with heads of big foreign corporations and showcasing individual foreign workers in Singapore. From talented architects to hotel chambermaids, to good-looking medical technologists and bus drivers—all were used to justify his government’s excessive immigration policies.
(Before I go further, I want to state categorically that I am not anti-immigration, and I do not oppose bringing in skilled foreign professionals or blue collar workers who do jobs that Singaporeans lack the skills in, or shun. I have many close friends in Singapore, including in my church and workplace, who are foreigners. This article is not an attack on any foreigner, but a criticism of the government policies that have allowed in far more people than our small country is able to cope with.)
What was missing amidst all the attractive graphics, touching personal profiles and selective examples, were the actual numbers to justify the excessively high immigration rates that Singapore has experienced in the past decade.
PM Lee used Canada as an example of a country that has benefited from a very liberal immigration policy. He said that Microsoft located their research centres in both Redmond (in the US) and Vancouver (in Canada), ostensibly to be assured of an adequate supply of skilled immigrant workers regardless of differences in immigration policies across the border.
Let’s look at some of the numbers that were not disclosed in the speech:
- Canada, one of the most immigrant-friendly nations in the world, allowed in 500,000 workers and immigrants in 2009;
- Singapore admitted an average of 150,000 new arrivals each year between 2005 and 2009, with a peak of over 220,000 in 2008;
- Singapore’s population is just under five million. Canada’s population is 34 million.
- Canada is the world’s second largest country by landmass. It is 14,325 times the size of Singapore.
This means that despite being 14,325 times the size, and 6.8 times the population of Singapore, Canada only admits about three times the number of foreign workers and immigrants as Singapore does. Residents of Vancouver, Toronto and Montreal who find their city too crowded can easily move to other less populated outer regions within 50 to 150 kilometres of the city to escape from the city squeeze. In fact, many Canadians commute from their suburban homes to work every day. Outer regions of same distance from Singapore will be either Johor Bahru, the sea and maybe Batam. Even if you do want to relocate there, commuting to Singapore is not as easy. In Canada, you can reach your home 100 kilometres from your workplace in an hour. Here you will spend one hour just in the traffic jam at the Causeway. Therefore, Singaporeans have no such option to live in less crowded areas, unless they decide to migrate—which many do.
If Canada were to accept immigrants and foreign workers at the same rate as Singapore, it would be looking to admit 1.7 million people per year. Try getting Prime Minister Stephen Harper to sell that to his electorate!
It is ludicrous to compare the immigration policies of the second largest country in the world to one of the world’s smallest island-nations; one of the most sparsely populated countries to one of the most densely populated.
The real problem lies with the flawed assumption that the PAP makes when planning its immigration policy. This was laid bare in PM Lee’s speech. He said we will “definitely need more foreign workers so that we can create more jobs in Singapore”. This, he said, was a “trade-off”: If we want higher growth to benefit our workers, that also means accepting more foreign workers.
It is not “definite” that 80,000, 100,000 or 150,000 more foreign workers will create more jobs in Singapore. Neither is it a given that higher growth benefits Singaporean workers. It is more likely that higher growth disproportionately benefits the managers and shareholders of large local and foreign corporations.
What Singaporean workers have seen are their wages suppressed and the spectre of retrenchments, partially as a result of competition from low-wage foreign workers who are able to work longer hours and demand less benefits. The government’s belated attempt to embark on a productivity drive in lieu of importing more foreign workers proves this point is true.
PM Lee spoke of his conversation with Bill Gates, the chairman of Microsoft, as well as business and city leaders in Houston. Unsurprisingly, they all crowed about the benefits of welcoming immigrants, because these immigrants have helped keep down their companies’ wage costs and boosted their profits.
Did he speak to any ordinary American workers to ask if they were also facing job security concerns and downward wage pressure as a result of competition from foreign workers? If he did, he might have heard a different story altogether.
It is unfortunate that what we have is a government that, more often than not, sees things through the lens of a corporate head honcho rather than the ordinary worker.
The PAP Government should stop trying to repackage and sell a flawed policy. PM Lee says his grassroots leaders “understand logically why we need immigration”. Well, unlike his loyal grassroots leaders, I simply do not buy his argument for excessive immigration, either logically or emotionally.
 CIA World Factbook.