Immigrants and foreign workers: Let’s talk real numbers

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.

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;[1]
  • 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.[2]
  • Canada is the world’s second largest country by landmass. It is 14,325 times the size of Singapore.[3]

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.


[2] CIA World Factbook.

[3] Ibid.

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.

24 thoughts on “Immigrants and foreign workers: Let’s talk real numbers”

  1. The details might be a bit off, but I think you got the big picture right. Thanks for keeping me sharp! Great job!

  2. Good article Gerald. I thought the National Day Rally Speech was overly sugar-coated even from the sippnets i hear and read. Thumbs up!

  3. I cannot see why singaporeans will not want to work if the remuneration justify the work. Clearly, there is a mismatch.
    Especially cannot take it when so called Foreign Talent (using whatever talent I dun know) are the ones driving our public buses, manning the hawker stalls, teleoperators of aftersales service, salesgirls at shopping malls, etc… Seriously, we have enough people wanting to do such work if the $$ is enough to pay bills!
    Rather than help reduce the problem of singaporeans not procreating enough by all ways and means, they take the short term view, import ready made adults! Cheaper lah, i can hear the PM whispers…

  4. “Canada is the world’s second largest country by landmass. It is 14,325 times the size of Singapore.”

    Very impressive number. You forgot to mention that 95% of Canadians live in 5% of the actual landmass so the actual number is 716 times. Can I attach a dark conspiracy to your omission?

    >>It is not “definite” that 80,000, 100,000 or 150,000 more foreign workers will create more jobs in Singapore.

    If you or anybody else in this world can guarantee something that Barack and his Billions can’t, you got my vote.

    Are you saying that your average Singaporean is so uncompetitive in the world market that they cannot survive without protective barriers? I really can’t work up the energy to empathize with people who can’t wake up their ideas and take up the whole host of training programmes offered almost free in Singapore. They choose to sit on their asses and b**** about the government NOT nannying them while simultaneously b****ing about the government nannying them.

    What do you want them to do? Roll out the red f-ing carpet?

  5. @Duh

    Those training programmes don’t work.
    Please don’t believe what you read in the papers.
    My agency runs those programmes. The success rate (of re-employment) is very low. It’s well-known among the relevant civil servants, but the compliant local media will never publicise such stats.

    Why don’t you try taking those courses, and see for yourself how useful they are?

  6. @Duh

    I’ve worked in different lines of work from service, food, sales and marketing. If there is one thing I do know, is that of all this service programs, they aren’t promising as how companies are providing them to be, or how the government and the papers are stating.

    For ten years of working in so many industries, MY own self standards in whatever line I do is far above what is taught and over promised.

    There’s a time to spout vulgarities, but in an issue like this, if you have no knowledge, true skills and standards and a competitive skill, you’re just rambling rubbish without knowing the facts of this matter,

    Do not deny you haver, if not you’ll speak differently from the beginning. Because if I have to bluntly put my rating on all training programs, sorry, but my own standards are far above what is in thos training programs. Those programs suck, and and seriously say it sucks ass from a straw. It is THAT bad.

  7. Well, the difference is that in my country when we take in immigrants we KEEP THEM FOREVER and we pay for their healthcare and unemployment benefits when they don’t have a job and we pay for their kids to go to school and university, and finally when they are old we pay for that too. Do wai guo ren get that in Singapore? I didn’t think so.

    Singapore might let me work there when times are good, but when things get tough then I’ll be the first to be kicked out and one thing’s for sure – even though I pay tax in Singapore when I get old I have to leave and go back to Ang Mo Land (except it isn’t Ang Mo Land anymore because it’s full of lots of Singaporeans and Malaysians – but that’s OK because ex-Singaporeans and Malaysians and their grandkids make good citizens.)

    Anyway thanks for blogging – it’s good to talk about these things.

  8. @Botak which details did I get “a bit off”? Do share with me so I can correct them.

    @Ben thanks! :)

    @hahaha If we’re not procreating enough, bringing in adults is only going to exacerbate our ageing population problem 30 years from now. Singapore’s TFT hit replacement level the year I was born (1977). So everyone older than 33 is not “replacing” our population, but adding to it.

    @Duh 716 times is still a very impressive number, no? And there is no law that bans Canadians from venturing into the other 95% of land.

    It was PM Lee who said we definitely need more foreign workers to create more jobs for Singaporeans, not me.

    “Are you saying that your average Singaporean is so uncompetitive in the world market that they cannot survive without protective barriers?”

    You’re probably a white collar professional, so you don’t feel the pinch as much as our blue collar friends. Try bringing in a flood of people who are willing to do your job for half your salary and see if your job is secure. Every country protects their own workers to a certain degree. It’s just that in Singapore that protection is very, very minimal.

    I think the other commenters have responded about the training. I’ve heard from training providers I’ve met on my house visits that what they said is true–that the training is not very useful or career enhancing.

    @Civil Servant, @Geeky Prince – Thanks for your comments.

    @Ang Mo – Your country takes in 250k immigrants and workers a year and your politicians are already making a whole lot of noise, saying they want to reduce it to, what, 150k? But the total population is more than 4 times Singapore’s, and there’s a lot more land (even though it’s only on the coast).

    “but when things get tough then I’ll be the first to be kicked out”

    Don’t believe that rhetoric. Employers make hard nosed rational decisions, not based on jingoistic/nationalistic sentiments. They’ll retrench whoever is more expensive and less skilled, regardless of nationality. Singaporeans definitely qualify for the the former. And you certainly don’t qualify for the latter.

    Again, this debate is not about whether or not to have immigrants, but how many.

  9. Hi Gerald,
    You missed the point about “but when things get tough then I’ll be the first to be kicked out”.

    In my country, the immigrants stay FOREVER. But in Singapore all the foreigners I know are on employment or PR visas which are valid for a max 5 years. If your country doesn’t need the people you can simply kick them out when their visa runs out.

    So, 1 foreigner in my country is worth how many in Singapore? The ratio is much higher because we keep them forever and pay for health, school, old-age, unemployment – which Singapore doesn’t do. So the lifetime “value” of one immigrant in my country is less than Singapore. My understanding from published reports that one immigrant in my country is neither plus or negative overall, we roughly breakeven. In Singapore immigrants are clearly more valuable as they all contribute to the tax base, don’t have direct costs and they bring in business and productivity. So I would guess perhaps 100,000 in Singapore is worth 500,000 in my country – before we consider population differences.

    You also miss the cultural reasons there is resistance to immigrants in my country – but that’s a completely different non-economic issue.

    So yeah, I think the Singapore govt has got this one right!

  10. @ang mo:
    1) i know you are a troll and i should not feed you. your writing is full of singlish type of expressions and errors, so ang mo as a nick is just a cover.

    2) please state explicitly which foreign country you are from or referring to.

    3) I’m not sure which immigrants stay forever in any country. in US, it takes more than 2 years even for a phd holder to get a green card. there are problems with illegal immigrants for sure, but you see, the law can deport them, and hence it’s not “forever”. blame the cops, blame the fence, but we are talking about legal immigrants.

    4) i know that US doesn’t provide pension unless you contribute to social security. you can’t blame unemployment benefits unless you hold a green card (even i’m not totally sure of that, it might require citizenship).

    5) “My understanding from published reports that one immigrant in my country is neither plus or negative overall”. please state and refer to what these reports are.

    6) “immigrants in my country – but that’s a completely different non-economic issue”
    really? is there any source/reference to this statement/opinion? I can say safely that in US, yes, it’s more than an economic issue, but NO, it’s strongly an economic issue when CS engineers can’t find work and lose them to indian sweatshops.

    7) in US, the H1B (which is a white collar work visa) expires once your employer terminates your employment. it’s an employment-based visa, something which i think is not the case in SG.

    @ Giam
    “this debate is not about whether or not to have immigrants, but how many.”
    i actually agree on the premise that “this debate is not about whether or not to have immigrants”, but disagree that the debate is on “how many”.

    i would definitely say that it’s about quality and quantity. for example, the servers, who most of them come from south american countries, in restaurants are generally much better than those in SG, in terms of ability to communicate and service politeness. they are also protected by minimum wage.

    my main gripe with the immigration policy is that there is no limit and there is no for justification such foreign labour headcount. there is no truth that these are jobs that singaporeans can’t fill, the real truth is that since there is no minimum wage, it’s a race to the bottom to wages, that is exactly how we can have 1st world (monopolistic/oligarchy) prices and third world (free falling/free for all) wages.

  11. @ Ang Mo Kio: Just because I don’t agree with you doesn’t make me a troll.

    Here’s the thing about immigration: it has BOTH positives and negatives. Someone can take an extreme view one way or another in a blog like this, but in the real world the govt has to find the way they think is best to balance those pros and cons for the best overall outcome for the country. So it’s never as easy as this kind of blog discussion makes it look.

    As you asked, one of the studies I cited earlier is this 400-page report from Australia:

    On page 153 you can see some interesting things: over a very long timeframe of higher immigration percapita income increases by a tiny $400 (less than 1%). However when non-economic issues are considered then EVERYBODY is a little bit worse off (wages, house prices, environment etc).
    And that’s a key difference with Singapore where many of the side effects mentioned in the study are either temporary, or have been deliberately mitigated by other government policies. In western countries most of those effects are permanent.

    And while the contribution of individual immigrants may be large, because Australia is a “big” country the overall impact is small – again Singapore is well positioned to see a relatively larger positive impact and I think that’s very obvious already. Furthermore I think this could be a strong quantitative basis for MORE immigration for Singapore (along with other steps the govt is already doing – maybe they read this report too!).

    AngMoKio, I recommend you look at para 1 on page 154 which you may find helpful to your position – I agree THAT could be worth thinking about in Singapore’s case. Personally, I think the govt has considered that and made the optimal trade-off, but that’s just an opinion.

    Finally AngMoKio, for issues like government support for education, health, unemployment and so on don’t look at the USA. They have a different philosophy than Canada, Australia and Western Europe so the USA is an irrelevant example in that regard.

  12. Singapore society is not in a good state. Behind the fanciful facade lies a simmering social tension that is just waiting to boil over.

    It would be nice if we can do a poll of Singaporeans (on the streets, in the heartlands etc) on whether they think that Singapore is heading in the right direction, as well as if they are optimistic about the future of our country.

    There will always be Singaporeans, who will continue to support the PAP, as long as their own welfare is well taken care of. The plight of the less well-off Singaporeans are, to them, “just facts of life”. The PAP plays on and encourages such sentiments.

    If things are not going well for the PAP, they would, in a knee-jerk fashion, point to other countries (be it other developing or developed countries) and say, “at least we ain’t THAT bad”, hoping that Singaporeans will feel “grateful” after seeing such comparisons. The compliant local media will also come up with reports of how things are much worse elsewhere to drive home the message.

    I’m not sure how long this can go on. If the ruling party continues to think that past performance is an indicator of future results, they are truly self-deluded. Sadly, the PAP has now become a parody of its former self, taking knee-jerk reactions to problems highlighted by Singaporeans, without clearly thinking through the consequences of these half-baked measures (as seen in recent events).

    Singapore is not the PAP. Singaporeans deserve better leadership than the current batch, who have evidently failed their own countrymen.

  13. Thanks for bothering to ask. I looked things up and found that actually I have got the details wrong myself.

    I had the impression that traffic in North America can be very bad in certain cases and if you are travelling from 100km away, you might need more than one hour. These are indeed some ‘dangers’ of the Internet Age. My apologies!

    (For those interested!)

    — Did some research(i.e googling) and found that for example, Torontonians, who spend the most time in transit in Canada, use about 80 minutes per round trip.

    — Also, on average, Canadians in cars spend between 51-59 minutes on the road, while public transit users endured average travel time of 94-106 minutes.

    — Canadians spend an average of 63 min a day commuting in 2005. That compares to 54 min more than 10 years ago in 1992.

  14. It would be interesting to see what Australia’s stats are. Huge landmass, 22 million people and we let in only about 6.5 people a year.

  15. From the year 2006 GE to the coming 2011 GE, PM Lee said every year about 20000 PRs were given citizenship. Which means for the past 5 years, 100000 PRs become Singapore citizen. You guess which political party will the new Singapore citizens support? House 10000 of them in Hougang, 10000 in Potong Pasir, 10000 in Aljunie, 10000 each in all the other constituency that the opposition party score well in the 2006 GE. Voila! PAP will continue to rule. The baton can then be pass down from the father to the son and maybe to the grandson like in N.Korea. I think what Singapore Inc. is doing is exactly what our former colonial master had done and that to flood Singapore with foreign workers so that employers can have a field day picking the cheapest workers available.

  16. Oh! i forget to mention the British government gave an excuse and that is because many Chinese Singaporeans were slaughtered by Japanese Imperial Army in WW11 for helping the Allied Forces fight against the Japanese therefore they allow many immigrants from overseas especially those from China to migrate here but the actual reason is because the British need a lot of workers to rebuilt Singapore after war. In the end there were excess workers and this result in high unemployment and exploitation. As for Singapore Inc., in order to be among the top 3 most competitive country to do business and also to increase Singapore GDP figures they use the “foreign talents” as an excuse to suppress the wage here. America is always among the top 3 most competitive country to business, why? America did not use FT as an excuse, she simply open her doors wide to allow many immigrants in. For America you just have to work and live there continuously for 5 years to qualify for Green Card and that is what i was told. But here no need so long sometimes 6 months can already. In my block alone there are many Malaysian PRs working as drivers, hairdressers and food stall helpers.

  17. Well of course, its the oppositions speaking. you can always find flaws in the current governance, i dont deny that. But can they do any better?

    I admit im neutral because all these influx does not affect me. i have a stable rice bowl and im very happy.

    But there are indeed pros and cons of immigration that ppl have to consider. definitely not an easy task for a nanny state.

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  19. Hi Gerald, excellent piece! And oh, welcome to a globalised world!

    I think two factors are at play here.

    First, the availability of cheaper, albeit equal if not superior, foreign talent.

    Second, singapore’s declining population. Hence the need to bring in more people from outside to sustain its vital industries, and to ensure a continued robust first-world economy. Otherwise, singapore will go the way of japan and some european countries whose economies are on a decline due in part to their aging populations.

    I understand where the local singaporeans are coming from. Like, it is their country, they pay ridiculous taxes, they enlist in compulsory military service unlike the foreigners etc.

    Unfortunately, the singapore government is concerned more for the welfare of the STATE, and not necessarily of its citizens.

    Although singaporeans enjoy a lot of economic freedoms, its politics is the exact opposite. Singapore remains a dictatorship with only a tiny cabal lording over state affairs. Public opinion may be strong, but it’s not the main barometer in crafting public policy.

    Nonetheless, it’s good to see blogs like yours. It allows for a more free-flowing discourse among netizens.


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