Online|Offline: Video forum on xenophobia, part 2

Although it’s a longish segment, the discussion here largely centres around one theme: the trade-off between economic growth and population stability. All panelists agree that any discussion about population policy must involve the question of the economic model, though also that it’s not a simple trade-off. Naturally, each one has a different take on the question.

Zaqy Mohamed at several points highlights the risks that come with renegotiating the present framework, suggesting that he was adopting the defensive position that the present policy, while not perfect, is not far off from optimal. At around 2 minutes 35 seconds, he speaks of globalisation, and then (2 min 47) points out that Singapore has “a very narrow economy”. The bigger context, he says, is “What’s the economic make-up of Singapore?” He speaks about what changes people might want, but quickly characterises them as “a 180-degree turn” (3 min 00). In doing so, he was casting the question as an either/or one, when I think most people – I’m sure he himself included, at other moments – would agree that it’s a matter of calibration.

As Andrew Loh put it (25 min 08) “Government will say there are trade-offs: do you want economic growth or do you not want it? It’s black and white. But it’s not . . . because you may have your economic growth but your society is going to fall apart.”

At various points, one glimpses the assumed equation behind Zaqy’s comments that

being open to immigration = economic growth.

Starting at about 4 min 30, Zaqy cites some numbers showing how we need more people to power our economy. At that point, the equation seemed to have been extended into:

open to immigration = economic growth = more jobs for Singaporeans.

For example, he speaks of “the other impact” (15 min 15) and “how to manage the survivability of the SMEs right now”(17 min 08), and how the government is “also tasked to make decisions that also impact the lives of people who are employed today.” (18 min 26). The subtle suggestion was that tougher limits on immigration would jeopardise SMEs and thus Singaporeans’ jobs. He said he has this “fear for the ordinary Singaporean who has his family to look after.” (19 min 30).

However, towards the end, he made it clear that he had not put the whole basis of his views on economic, GDP growth (30 min 55), but on people’s wellbeing.

I had to step him to remind him that economic growth is not inescapably tied to population growth (12 min 40).

And then when Zaqy spoke about how the government was being consultative, presenting various scenario papers and so on (around 13 min 50), I cut in again to say that what pisses people off is that “every time we are going to discuss options, [the question] is being placed before the people as do or die. You either take this or you sacrifice this and all your good life will simply crash. I don’t think we should present it that way.”  (15 min 27)

The audience murmured in approval.

In general, however, the panel was agreed that a far more consultative approach is needed. A thorough discussion is overdue as to what direction, population- and economics-wise, Singaporeans want.

Andrew Loh pointed out that the lack of such a discussion and a sense of control lies at the root of the current unhappiness. “We’re not sure where we are going” (0 min 45).

So “when we want to deal with anti-foreigner sentiments, to get right to the root of it, the government needs to come out and tell us” (1 min 33). Tell us about population projections and not in a piecemeal fashion, he said.

Ravi Philemon spoke about the need for greater efforts at assimilation (28 min 20), and that it must be based on a more wholistic approach.”I think you need to take a more holistic view of assimilation… Everybody’s got a part to play in this assimilation process. Unless we take a holistic view of this assimilation process, it’ll be very difficult going forward and trying to have more reasoned conversations on xenophobia.”

Martyn See’s final point is that we shouldn’t get angry at the foreigner, but get angry with government policies (29 min 15). “It’s like someone has turned on the tap outside the house and the water is seeping through to your room and you are getting angry at the water, mopping up the floor every day. All you need to do is to go outside and turn off the freaking tap.”

But people, it’s not as simple as it sounds. There are going to be trade-offs. Andrew Loh speaks of a sweet spot (25 min 50), but even then, I’d be careful about assuming there is any single sweet spot we can all agree upon, or assuming that we know all the pros and cons in advance. It’s necessarily going to be a complex issue with no clear, risk-free answer however much we try. Sadly, what makes the debate even harder than it should be is the government’s manner of seeing Singapore in perpetual crisis – a product of the insecurity at the heart of their psyche – as well as resistance (born of arrogance?) to any questioning of their foundational policy principles and priorities. This produces a touchy defensiveness and contempt for alternatives (speaking generally, not referring to Zaqy). At the same time, on the part of the anti-immigration crowd, there is a complacent assumption that we can somehow turn back the clock to a less globalised age.

We cannot. The Singapore of the future must necessarily be different.

22 Responses to “Online|Offline: Video forum on xenophobia, part 2”

  1. 1 twasher 7 July 2012 at 01:42

    It’s worth pointing out that the “government’s manner of seeing Singapore in perpetual crisis” does not necessarily indicate a sincere belief that Singapore is in perpetual crisis, but is sometimes a rhetorical strategy employed to force people to acquiesce in otherwise unpalatable policies that are framed as necessary for survival.

  2. 2 Tsumujikaze no Soujutsu 7 July 2012 at 08:21

    Although I admit the need for economy growth since our location means we can easily be a bunch of sitting ducks on the far wider picture (i.e. we only have the people.), I believe the social fabric is not just about now. For now, tensions can be truly real, yet once we take a cold hard look at our aging society, we will see a very real danger: A chronic dependence on the foreigners.
    Now don’t get me wrong. I’m not anti-foreigner, but when such a policy doesn’t take into account of the aging population, things will be become murky in the far longer run. Unless government is about to enforce some pink IC system, the whole deal won’t pan out come 20-30 years down the road.

  3. 3 The 7 July 2012 at 10:21

    Ah, the PAP’s binary mindset at work again. Things are always black or white, yes or no, this or that, and nothing in between; whereas there are multitudes of grey in real life.

    Nobody is saying a flat no to immigration. Immigration has always been a fact of life in Singapore. Singapore is founded largely by immigrants. Expats (and here I mean the real expats) have always been welcomed in Singapore. It is only when they opened the floodgates that citizens begin to complain. And rightly so as the infrastructure was not able to keep pace despite the fact that growing the resident population is a very deliberate decision and planned decades in advance. So, where is the helicopter vision they so proudly proclaimed to possess? Where is the over-the-horizon radar? Oops, I forgot, they have been lax in their maintenance regime and the hardware and systems are no longer functioning.

  4. 4 tyu 7 July 2012 at 13:27

    Is increasing GDP the main function of a government?
    Back to basic…what’s the role of a good government?

  5. 5 Lost in Transit 7 July 2012 at 15:24

    Take note of the constant refrain “growth is good”.

    The entrenched belief that immigration is essential for growth and that Singapore has to grow means one thing for sure: there is no end game in sight for this strategy. There is no plan B.

    So when you hear numbers about the island’s population capacity bandied about (sometimes we hear 5.5m sometimes 6.5m) those are just milestones that will make a whooshing sound as they pass by. 7m, 8m, 9m… it will never be enough when the only trick to fuel GDP is immigration.

  6. 6 Poker Player 7 July 2012 at 17:36

    At the same time, on the part of the anti-immigration crowd, there is a complacent assumption that we can somehow turn back the clock to a less globalised age.

    Why of all possible assumptions impute this one? It could simply be that we know of many prosperous countries today with far lower levels of immigration. No turning back of the clock required.

  7. 7 Slychiu 7 July 2012 at 22:35

    I find it irritating that these MPs always talk as if they are the country, eg ” I halve my economic growth, I cannot afford to lose 3000 jobs…” etc

  8. 8 Darling 8 July 2012 at 00:07

    Do google Bermuda, a group of islands which is a colony of the British with little or no natural resources, much smaller than Sin with a tiny population of less than 68 thousand in 2009. It is doing very well in economy and was reported to have the highest GDP in the World in 2009.

    Me does not know if it is right to make comparison between Singapore and Bermuda as Singapore had been the World’s Number entrepot seaport for over a century whilst Bermuda is not. The Two do appear to have some similarities except for the geographical location.


  9. 9 The 8 July 2012 at 09:02

    /// At the same time, on the part of the anti-immigration crowd, there is a complacent assumption that we can somehow turn back the clock to a less globalised age. ///

    What globalized age??? This may apply to Malaysia or Indonesia who are reluctant to get onto the global platform. But Singapore???

    Singapore is the early adopter, if not the first, of globalization. It has to. From day one, we have courted MNCs while our neighbours and all NICs are busy protecting their industries. We have no domestic market and have to trade with the world or perish.

    What domestic market does SIA have? Fly from Changi airport to Tengah air-base? What domestic market does NOL, PSA have? Ship from Bukom to Jurong?

    Turning back the clock – ah ha, the binary mindset again!!! If we don’t want THAT MANY immigrants, if means we don’t want ANY immigrant.

    • 10 Tsumujikaze no Soujutsu 8 July 2012 at 19:57

      I’ll have to admit that globalization is legit factor. Yet the biggest problem lies in a breakdown in coherent acceptance where nothing has been done to integrate both ends of the camp. It’s one thing to expect something and quite another to see the desired reality taking place. Of course there will always be exceptions as I’ve personally experienced it before. Yet a chosen few can never represent the majority. What will we see 20-30 years down the road? We all might have gone six feet underground, but not the future generations. And that’s taking into account of the dwindling population that will create a relevant demand.

  10. 11 immy 8 July 2012 at 10:24

    Yes, it is not easy to do a U-turn in policies. But how did the situation, the resentment, arise in the first place. Yes, it is the policy makers not the foreigners.

    A lot of lives are currently locked in the present situation, the time & emotional investment for foreigners and new citizens, and the unhappiness in some locals who may be ‘priced’ out in terms of competition, jobs or the lack of in this uncertain time or due to structural inbalance, the crowdedness & the behavioral approach which seem to work well & got their way of certain foreigners from countries totally different from our more regimented one.

    Yes, it is never easy to change, calibrate or complete U-turn as there are bound to be winners / losers in such move – the same goes whenever new policies are implemented or when old policies were implemented in the past giving the current result.

  11. 12 ricardo 8 July 2012 at 17:05

    The most sad part for me was Zaqy. Here we have an obviously sincere young man; only a friend of our Lord LKY & the HoLee Family; so not yet one of their Ministers entitled to multi-million Dignity. He parrots the PAP line to perfection. His indoctrination is complete.

    But he’s not the only one. Even Mr. See, as he was reminding us that the Min. of Love had denied him permission to hold a rally, was thanking them for condescending to release a white paper sometime explaining the official line. Somehow, everyone still believes the PAP knows best.

    Unfortunately the days when Singapore’s economy was guided by competent visionaries like Dr. Goh Keng Swee, Tan Jee Say and Prof. Lim Chong Yah are long gone.

    Is it just my imagination that recent policy has been nothing but ill-thought out reactionary fire-fighting? Do they REALLY need to have mass blogging xenophobia and trains failing to tell them something is wrong? Did they REALLY think 2 million extra foreigners are good for everyone?

    In more democratic countries, dialogue is a two way process. Tan Jee Say and Prof Lim, with their proven competence, would have been involved in the planning even with their different political views. These issues are too important to be decided solely by inperts, dignified with pseudo competence by the PM’s office.

    In Singapore, the release of a white paper is progress and any remaining unhappiness must be due to the unwashed masses misunderstanding.

    But DPM Teo tells us what the really important key is.

    “Third there should be a system of succession that can take the country forward beyond one or two generations.”

    Expect our Lord LKY, the HoLee Family, their Ministers and friends to do whatever it takes ensure multi-million Dignity for at least one further generation of their dynasty.

    • 13 yawningbread 8 July 2012 at 17:19

      You wrote: “Is it just my imagination that recent policy has been nothing but ill-thought out reactionary fire-fighting?”

      I have the same feeling too.

  12. 14 Rubbish 9 July 2012 at 04:56

    I switched it off after the start of talk of Globalisation,Reality,Sinagpore’s survival,Blah,Blah,Blah.PAP has treated Singapore citizens like farmers from China,India,Indonesia,let them be,I wouldn’t spend my useless time to listen to these rubbish.

  13. 16 The 9 July 2012 at 09:13

    /// immy 8 July 2012 at 10:24
    Yes, it is not easy to do a U-turn in policies. ///

    It is easy if it impacts the policy maker personally. You forgot the “Stop At Two” policy. Or the reduction in personal tax. The abolition of estate duty.

    Enough said.

  14. 17 Chanel 9 July 2012 at 10:15

    Every illness has symptoms. For S’pore, the “illness” is bad immigration policy and one of the symptoms is hatred of foreigners. You can’t hope to eliminate the symptoms by just chatting about it.

    The symptom should serve as a warning to the govt that something is terribly wrong, but this govt doesn’t seem to care.

    Zagy claimed that letting in foreigners by the shiploads into S’pore “create jobs for S’poreans”, but I would like to ask him what kind of jobs are created? Do these jobs pay decent wages? What sort of work hours are required?

    The ugly truth is when companies can tap an endless supply of cheap foreign labour who are willing to work long hours, it doesn’t take a genius to figure out the impact this has on jobs for S’poreans!!

  15. 18 Jake Tan 9 July 2012 at 11:55

    Have to point out that from 2:30 onwards, MP Zaqy Muhammad start refer to Singapore’s economy as “my economy” or “I’ve got a …… economy”. I’m not sure if this betrays a certain sense by the incumbent PAP govt and its representatives that the economy is its exclusive sphere — everybody else is just talking about it theoretically and have no actual expertise and competence to be raising issues and discussing them.

    That is the sense I get watching the video from MP Zaqy’s remarks. Aside from the concessionary remarks about “consulting” more, we are perhaps not going to get much more. Recent rhetoric by PM Lee Hsien Loong equating population growth to economic growth does not give a sense that the govt is willing to calibrate its policies. We are still hearing about is a common refrain that if we don’t bring in more foreign labour, the trade off is economic growth — ie. the do or die “options” that Alex mentioned at the dialogue.

  16. 19 Peasant 12 July 2012 at 14:13

    We should not practise racism as people are born as a certain race and that cannot be changed.
    We should not discriminate any sexual orientation as people are born this way and that cannot be changed.
    I cannot say the same for foreigners. They have a choice and their deliberate decision to move to Singapore has caused pain to me and many others.

  17. 20 seorang 13 July 2012 at 22:45

    Here’s an interview with an Australian neurosurgeon Charles Teo, whose parents migrated to Australia from Singapore.
    Interviewer: At one point you actually felt that the intake of Chinese to Australia should be limited…?
    Dr Teo: I was in the category of someone who wasn’t mature enough to realise the benefit of immigration, and the advantages to a nation of immigration. I was immature and I thought by keeping us isolated, and restricted, we’d maintain our so-called Utopia. What I didn’t realise, until when I actually went to America, that by embracing immigrants and accepting them into your community, it’s gonna enrich your community in the long-run.

    If an Asian-looking ethnic minority brain surgeon can be xenophobic in ‘white’ Australia, and needed to live in the United States for some time before being ‘sold’ on the idea of embracing migrants, you can just imagine how the average Singaporean will feel.

    Dr Tony Tan proposed that it should be possible to utilise our CPF for overseas education after he stepped down from the Cabinet in the early 90’s. But the Cabinet(or key decision-makers) seemed to be against this.

    As important as housing and transport infrastructure is to absorbing migrants, the soft side, how open our hearts are, how generous and broad-minded we are, these are also ‘huge projects’.

    Just wonder if more Singaporeans had got the chance to go overseas using CPF savings, would our mind-ware be different today?

    • 21 Tsumujikaze no Soujutsu 16 July 2012 at 15:01

      I think what we’re seeing here is a cultural isolation. Way too often we’ve been caught up into the maelstrom of foreign pop culture without even bothering to expand our horizons beyond that. Granted such a factor will be a very good outlet to explore further, but how many people are willing to do that? The plus point with the US is this: They don’t have a predominant racial culture. That is why they’re far more willing to accept migrants. Ditto for us as well, but if we don’t have any means/willingness to redraw our comfort zone, everything will still stay stagnant. I think the biggest problem with us lies in the very fact we only see foreign culture within the limited scope of the said popular media. Beyond that, at least nine out of ten Singaporeans won’t be that willing to go further more. Simply put, if we can’t convince ourselves that the world is far bigger and far more explore-worthy, we’ll only be a bunch of ostriches with our heads in the sand. Ironically enough, the Internet should be an effective outlet to offset the handicap, yet I don’t see anything positive changes up till now.

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