To make a better distinction between citizen and foreigner, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong promised $9,000 to every National Serviceman, payable at three defined milestones. Why nine? Why not ten, or 75? In any case, as a solution to the hoary issue of unhappiness with the numbers of foreigners and immigrants in Singapore, I thought this (or any amount) rather strange, but it didn’t take long for me to see it as a pre-election give-away in disguise.
Nonetheless, he spent a large part of his National Day Rally speech — Singapore’s equivalent of a State of the Republic address — dealing with the issue of foreigners in our midst, and to a large extent, he grappled with the key elements of it, explaining why foreigners were needed and expressing sympathy for the feelings of dislocation that resulted. He understood, he said, that people were “still concerned about competition for jobs, about crowding, and deeper things about the character of our society.” However, he offered nothing new by way of solutions.
Evidently, the open-door policy is going to continue, albeit some moderation would be in store. Saying, “Now we should consolidate and slow down the pace,” he estimated this year’s intake to be in the region of 80,000 instead of the earlier-announced 100,000.
It is still a biggish figure, representing an increase of about 1.5 percent of the population already here. Nonetheless, the government appears confident that “Singaporeans [will] understand logically if we argue it out with them why we need foreign workers,” in Lee’s words.
Many readers may not like me for saying this, but I more or less agree.
My feeling is that the People’s Action Party (PAP) has a better reading of the ground than one can glean from just looking at the blogosphere. If one looks only at what’s written on the ‘net, one would think that there was widespread and extreme frustration with the influx of foreigners. But over the last few months, I have also taken the opportunity whenever I could, to ask people, face to face, what they thought of foreign workers and immigration.
The responses were not aligned with internet sentiment. Almost all the people I have spoken to on this subject didn’t have strong feelings about it. They generally accepted that Singapore today cannot function without significant numbers of foreigners doing jobs ranging from the menial to the sophisticated. Without foreigners, our trash would go uncollected, our hospitals would grind to a halt, our bus frequencies reduced, and queues at retail check-out counters lengthen maybe twice as long.
They were all aware of the complaints, but it was striking how many of them referred to the complainers (apologies, for want of a better word) in the third person: “they”, “some people say”, and so on.
This is not to pretend that the people I spoke with are representative of Singaporeans as a whole, but at the very least, I think the frequency with which I encountered these relatively mild views contests the idea that anti-foreigner sentiment is very widely held.
* * * * *
Nonetheless, even if they are not the majority, those with grouses against the intake of foreigners have legitimate concerns. Lee himself conceded that. They however, don’t do themselves much of a service by failing to articulate clearly what exactly their concerns are. Very likely, there are different subgroups with different concerns, but to the listener, it’s difficult to tell them apart. This is especially when expressions of frustration tend to have these characteristics:
- emotive, sometimes xenophobic language
- complaints about job discrimination tend to be notional rather than backed by ground examples
- often linked to ranting about military service
- occasionally linked to anti-People’s Action Party cries
Below is a simple chart, showing the different categories of foreigners (or foreign-born citizens) in Singapore. The sizes of arrows are roughly proportionate to the numbers involved:
Different groups impact on Singaporeans in different ways, and I would encourage those with grievances to articulate clearly which group you are talking about and how exactly that group produces the concerns that you have. To help the dialogue along, let me sketch out the main groups:
Work Permit Holders – they tend to be low-paid, doing the jobs that very few Singaporeans want to do, mostly in sanitation, construction, shipyards and domestic caregiving. Their numbers however are relatively huge. With the exception of domestic workers, the government uses a “Dependency ratio” to control their numbers, i.e. a company cannot have foreign workers exceeding x percent of its workforce. Employers must also pay a monthly levy. Furthermore, only certain sectors are permitted to hire Work Permit Holders.
To those who are “anti-foreigner”, the question is this: What exactly do you want? Reduce their numbers? How are we going to get the 16,000 and 22,000 new flats that the Housing and Development Board (HDB) plans to build this year and next? How do we get our new metro lines built? Who will look after our kids and aged parents? If you accept that, no, we cannot realistically reduce their numbers, then the fact will be that the total numbers of foreigners will not be significantly lower, because Work Permit Holders are the bulk of them. My rough estimate is that there are perhaps about one million of this category here.
S-Pass and Employment Pass Holders – The S-Pass is for those with a technical qualification or diploma earning between S$1,800 and S$2,500 a month, and the Employment Pass is for those earning over S$2,500 a month. As far as I can see from the Ministry of Manpower’s website, the S-Pass is subject to a dependency ratio, but not the Employment Pass.
My guess is that this is the group that causes the most unease. Herein probably lies concerns about competition for jobs. More generally, the ready availability of Employment Passes (no dependency ratio) can have a dampening effect on salaries. The government, for its part, hardly releases any data that can help clarify the situation: we don’t know how many such passes are issued, we don’t know what salaries are paid to this group.
Permanent Residents – a portion of Employment Pass Holders and the families decide to become Permanent Residents after living a while here. The numbers involved have grown fast. Permanent Residents numbered 112K in 1990, 287K in 2000 and now stands at 541K in 2010, roughly doubling every decade.
Permanent Residents compete for resale HDB flats, places in schools, etc.
New Citizens – A proportion of Permanent Residents eventually decide to apply for citizenship. I’m not able to find consistent data over many years as to the numbers involved, but a report in AsiaOne indicated that we will need about 20,000 new citizens each year to top up the shortfall in our birthrate. (AsiaOne, 20 July 2010, 20,000 new citizens needed every year)
The question of new citizens brings along issues such as the racial balance — Lee referred to this in his Malay speech — and the equity of National Service, among other things.
* * * * *
I’m not going to be able to discuss in detail the various issues each category raises without making this essay hopelessly long. For now, the purpose is simply to point out that the multi-faceted issue of foreign workers and immigration is amenable to dialogue, understanding and resolution provided all parties articulate clearly what they want, pinpointing which category of foreigners they are referring to, and provided the government is more transparent about data.
It is not an issue of People versus Government. A significant number of Singaporeans, maybe even a majority, are not up in arms over the issue, even if they are uneasy over specific aspects of it.
And one more thing: I also feel our opposition parties should be clearer what ideas they have about this issue. It is not impressively responsible, in my view, to be standing on the sidelines egging the unhappy individuals on without themselves offering some coherent thoughts about a matter that is crucial to Singapore. They could start, for example, by saying something about what they would do about the abysmally low birthrate that is one of the root causes of our need for immigration.