Let’s welcome foreign talent, but…

Political commentator Seah Chiang Nee rightly pointed out that Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong’s National Day Rally speech last night was “preparing Singaporeans for a larger influx of foreign talent”.

On the whole, I feel that the Government’s immigration policies welcoming foreign talent are important for Singapore to stay competitive. PM Lee has taken a progressive step by encouraging all Singaporeans to accept these immigrants with open arms and recognise them for their contributions to our economy and our society.

However it is critically important that the Government manages the delicate immigration issue well to avoid the troubles that have befallen many other developed countries which have thrown open their floodgates to immigration. We have seen in the past year the troubles in France when many youths from its North African immigrant community went on an arson rampage in Paris, and the racial riots in Sydney between Lebanese and white Australian youths. More seriously, we have witnessed how the British government’s hands-off approach to multiculturalism and alienation of immigrants has resulted in some British-born sons of Pakistani immigrants plotting appalling acts of terror against their own countrymen.

The root causes of these instances of racial unrest and terrorism boil down to a lack of effort to properly integrate these immigrant communities and racism against them by the majority white population.

The Singapore Government’s top priority should therefore be to ensure that new Singaporeans and permanent residents are properly integrated into Singapore society. Immigrants bring in the languages, cultures, religions, ways of thinking and social behaviours of their countries of origin. Singaporeans should welcome this diversity. However immigrants must understand – and I believe the vast majority of them do – that for the most part, they are expected to adapt to the Singapore culture, and not the other way around.

Unfortunately, this has not always been the case in other countries. I spent 5 years studying and working in California, which home to more immigrants than anywhere else in the world. In Los Angeles, immigrants often live in separate enclaves. For example, the Latinos live in East LA, the Chinese in Chinatown, Alhambra, Monterey Park or San Marino, the Koreans in Koreatown, etc. Within these communities, it is not unusual to find not a word of English being spoken. I remember making a shopping trip down to Monterey Park one day with my white American friend, who, on realising that she was the only non-Asian in the whole area, remarked that she didn’t feel like she was in America anymore. Can you imagine how a Malay or Indian Singaporean would feel if he or she walked into a shopping area and realised that everyone there was PRC Chinese and all the shopkeepers couldn’t speak English? At least in Chinatown, older Chinese-Singaporean shopkeepers are still able to communicate in bazaar Malay.

Having a common language is the most important factor in ensuring that new immigrants are properly integrated. In Singapore, our common language is English. All immigrants should be able to meet a decent level of proficiency in English. The ability to speak Chinese alone is not enough, even though three-quarters of our population are Chinese. Citizenship education, which should cover the history of Singapore and the importance of maintaining racial harmony, is critical if immigrants are to understand what it means to be a Singaporean. This citizenship education should not only be required of those who apply for citizenship, but also for the many more who apply for permanent residence (PR).

In addition, since the Government’s stated rationale for its liberal immigration policy is to attract foreign talent to settle in Singapore and contribute to our economy, this policy should also be race-blind. Many Singaporeans suspect that the influx of Chinese nationals in recent years is somehow to make up for the very low fertility rate of Chinese-Singaporeans (currently 1.08 children per woman) and to maintain our current racial balance. As PM Lee has pointed out, PRC Chinese are not the same as Chinese-Singaporeans. They should therefore be accorded no more advantages than prospective immigrants from India, the Philippines or Myanmar.

The best way to ensure an objective, race-blind and transparent immigration policy is to adopt a points system. In Australia, people who wish to apply for PR have to accumulate the required number of points to satisfy immigration requirements under the Skilled Immigration Points Calculator. Among these requirements are age, English proficiency, skills, work experience and occupation. Singapore’s immigration requirements, while generally believed to focus on these same requirements, are much more opaque. The Singapore immigration authorities do not divulge their reasons for any rejections of PR applications, presumably to save themselves the need to explain any “politically-incorrect” reasons for rejection. This needs to change if we want to market ourselves to the world as a country that is race-blind and founded on meritocracy.

Singapore was built up on the strength of its immigrants. A liberal immigration policy could benefit Singapore, not just economically, but socially as well, as it adds to our diversity and our strength as a global city. It will expand native-born Singaporeans’ horizons and imbue in them a global mindset which will give them a distinct advantage when they venture abroad for business. However, the floodgates should not be opened too wide to allow any Tang, Teck or Ali to enter Singapore. New PRs and Singaporeans should also be actively integrated into Singapore society and must never be allowed to develop racial enclaves to the exclusion of native-born Singaporeans.

Technorati: Singapore, foreign talent, National Day Rally, immigration, multiculturalism

Author: Gerald Giam

Gerald Giam is the Member of Parliament for Aljunied GRC. He is a member of the Workers' Party of Singapore. The opinions expressed on this page are his alone.

12 thoughts on “Let’s welcome foreign talent, but…”

  1. I think that your support for more foreign workers is very much colored by the fact that such policies either have a positive effect, or no impact on you as an entrepreneur.

    Lowering cost and raising competitiveness through suppressing wages by importing foreign workers can only bring us so far.

    When the poor gets poorer and lives on the brink, will the 3M be really adequate when they fall seriously ill?

    When the poor loses their job and becomes ignored even by statisticians by being labeled chronically unemployed, who will help these Singaporeans? Will you hire poor Singaporeans who need to feed their families living in high cost Singapore, or will you hire cheaper Indians and Chinese workers?

    I feel the government have too high a tendency to label jobless Singaporeans as being too picky with jobs, and it is worse when our leaders have absolutely no stomach for any criticism despite constant empty promises to open up.

  2. The enclaves are starting to emerge. The western part of Singapore, Bukit Batok, Jurong West extension are starting to see many PRC settling there.

    If one takes public transport on weekend nights (saturday or sunday nights) that passes by Serangoon, one will see the number of Indian nationals that are in our economy first-hand.

    I agree that our immigration policy tends to favour PRC and Indian nationals over others as there appears to be a larger proportion of them circulating in the Singapore economy. Malaysian workers have long been a mainstay in F&B and hospitality industry but probably we are also seeing influx from non-traditional sources like other ASEAN countries.


  3. Anonymous – I believe that more social assistance and welfare should be provided to jobless S’poreans who face difficulties making ends meet. But shutting off foreign workers is not going to help their situation much, because the pitiful wages we pay to our foreign workers will barely cover a poor Singaporean family’s public transport costs. (Actually my article was about foreign talent [i.e., employment pass and s-pass holders], not foreign workers [i.e., work permit holders].)

    lunatic_fringe – Thanks for pointing out about the enclaves. I wasn’t aware of it.

  4. I think the suggestion that the government be transparent in assessing citizenship or PR applications is an excellent one. I suspect that keeping the selection criteria secret allows the government to make race-based decisions without scrutiny, while claiming publicly that all applications are given “thorough consideration”. I know a very well educated and highly qualified Korean national who had tried many times to obtain PR. Each time it was unsuccessful. But I know many Chinese nationals with much lower qualifications who obtained PR the first time they applied! How can the government prove to me that they are not discriminating based on race, ethnicity, language, etc. when they do this kind of thing in front of my eyes and then offer no RATIONAL explanation? Indeed, they keep it all a secret. And the Singapore government dares suggest that it is one of the most transparent in the world!

  5. I also know many Filipino professionals who needed many tries to get their PR, but the ethnic Chinese Filipinos always get it in a snap. So even within a particular nationality, there is also a differentiation.

    I think our govt has a Uniquely Singapore definition of “transparent” and “open and inclusive”. Just like how GIC is has enough checks and balances because MM Lee is the chairman and he scrutinizes its accounts.

  6. I think Singapore should only get citizens of ASEAN countries that are economically developed. They should not contribute to the brain drain happening in their less developed ASEAN neighbors.

    Race is such a sensitive issue … If the S’pore gov’t wants to be opaque in its immigration policies then so be it … being transparent in its immigration policies would still give rise to social tensions, the more immigrants you let in, without them properly integrating into S’pore society, the more social tensions will be created in the future.

  7. anonymous – You brought up a good point about contributing to the brain drain in developing countries.

    While this is a moral concern, practically Singapore is too small to significantly brain drain our neighbours. We’re looking at 80 million population in Vietnam, 70m in Philippines and 250m in Indonesia. And in any case, these “talents” leave because they can’t maximise their potential in their homelands. By working for a few years in S’pore, they could pick up our skills and work culture, and eventually go home and contribute to their own country. Even if they don’t, at least we have improved the living standard of one family.

    Perhaps you’d like to explain more why you think it is to our advantage as Singaporeans for the Govt to be opaque on its immigration policies?

    I fully agree with you that we should properly integrate new immigrants.

  8. hello Uncle Gerald. I think your blog posts are very well thought of. I specifically like this piece on immigration.

  9. i still feel that foreigners are not made totally welcome and not well intergated into our society. we should do more to make them feel at home.

  10. I think that foreign talent may cause competition among Singaporeans for job opportunities, compete with Singapore sportsman/sportswomen for glory and fame in national competitions. However, they made contributions to Singapore. Singapore should extend our hands in welcoming foreign talents and recognize them for their contributions to our economy and our society.

  11. Some of these foreingers are just here for the short term. I know a lot are just waiting for their H1b Visas (USA). With the property market skrocketing and the salaries not increasing very much, a lot of these FTs will be moving to other countries.
    Also, some of these FTs can’t compete with other people in their countries that’s why they leave and move here. Maybe Singaporeans will just have to do the same….migrate to another country(?)

  12. I hope im not too late for comment, the problem is that Singapore goverment is long run by ethnic Chinese since it got its independence from Malaysia. No doubt that Lee Kuan Yew lead Singapore to prosperous. The local Singaporean Chinese community is dropping every year due to emigration and family prefer not to have any child. And since the goverment is Chinese run since the start until now then they probably believe that is is their contribution which bring Singapore to its today. So do you actually think they will let go their country to other race? They know in the future their own local Singaporean Chinese population will drop to its lowest point where they will become a minority, so thats why they keep increase the immigrant from PRC. Its all about blood. They’re same blood. If you say PRC citizen create problems in Singapore, but think twice if you accept more islam people, it will create a even more wider issue. PRC assimilation is more easier compare to other races as they’re the same skin, that make marriage easier and in the long run, these problems will probably be solved.

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