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Singapore’s impotent immigration policy

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A foreign construction worker from Bangladesh walks past Singapore's city hall with the Singapore skyline in the background, 16 December 2013. (Photo: AAP)

In Brief

It appears counter-intuitive to suggest that a cosmopolitan hub like Singapore might have a problem with xenophobia.

Yet xenophobia has emerged as a major political concern in the city-state.


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Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong has routinely addressed the issue of immigration and foreign workers in his National Day Rally Speeches since 2009 — and in 2012 he openly warned Singaporeans to refrain from overt expressions of hostility towards foreigners.

The trigger for this new xenophobic fear was former Deputy Prime Minister Wong Kan Seng’s 2005 decision to engage in massively expanding the intake of foreign workers to avoid an anticipated recession. This directly led to the current situation where nearly 40 per cent of Singapore’s residents are foreigners — many of whom have no interest in developing ties to the country or the opportunity even if they were interested.

The government confessed that it failed to take any steps at all to provide infrastructural or social support for this influx of foreign workers. Bear in mind that while the government’s target population was only 4 million for 2010, the population passed 5 million that year — so even if the target had been taken seriously for infrastructure planning, infrastructure would still have been under stress.

After 2005, xenophobia started to emerge gradually, with immigration becoming a major issue in the 2011 General Election campaign. Yet even with this background, no one was prepared for the hostility that was unleashed against foreigners when a group of Chinese bus drivers went on strike in November 2012, nor the unprecedented 4,000-strong protest in February 2013 against the government’s publication of a White Paper, calling for even higher levels of immigration. There was also public outrage over the riot by South Asian foreign workers in Little India in early 2014. Reports of concern about the hardships and insecurities endured by foreign workers have only slightly softened the pattern of escalating hostility.

Yet there is clearly a new xenophobic mood taking hold that is threatening to become a full-blown crisis of national identity: does Singapore see itself through the prism of an ugly self-righteous and self-defensive nationalism, or is its natural pride in national achievements to be expressed as a positive, cosmopolitan form of national pride?

Such questions of national identity have historically been in the hands of the government, and Singaporeans are fortunate that its government is clearly dedicated to taking Singapore down the path of benign cosmopolitanism.

Unfortunately that is where the good news ends, because most of the policy options that would deal with this problem appear to be out of bounds to policy makers.

The heart of the immediate problem is the high number of foreign workers. The influx has been of such proportions that even if the government had taken basic steps to provide infrastructure and had given some thought to the social integration of this population of outsiders, a negative reaction from locals was almost certain. Singaporeans were used to giving little thought to the presence of foreign workers on a day-to-day basis. Beyond purely transactional or incidental interactions — noticing construction workers, or dealing with your foreign maid, a waiter, or your boss — they were largely invisible to Singaporeans except the few Singaporeans who frequented one of the preferred haunts of foreign workers at particular times of the week, such as Little India and Golden Mile Complex.

But this ‘invisibility’ is no longer the case — and has not been for almost a decade.

Singaporeans are not exceptionally xenophobic by nature, but by the same token they are just as prone to being defensive about differences as any other national peoples. Given stimuli, they react like anyone else — and there are presently over a million sources of ‘stimuli’ on the island.

The obvious solution for the Singaporean government, which has at its fingertips many levers of social, economic and political power, would be to drastically decrease the number of foreign workers. But here there is a problem: its development model relies on the exploitation of these foreign workers. This is precisely why former Deputy Prime Minister Wong Kan Seng increased the foreign worker intake in the first place.

The government is desperately trying to modify its development model to reduce reliance on foreign workers — for example increasing the level of prefabrication in construction processes — but there is no sign that it is willing to seek out a radically new development model that will solve the problem.

If we go beyond the immediate problem to more remote causes, we come to matters of national identity. Singapore’s state-constructed national identity rests on a firm foundation of racial stereotypes and smug confidence in the superiority of Singapore as a ‘success’ that ‘punches above its weight’ and is a ‘model’ to the world. The smug confidence may be slipping a bit in the wake of a litany of government failures, but it still has life in it; and the racial stereotyping is stronger than ever.

This is a heady cocktail on which to build a national identity — and not one that is conducive to level-headedly responding to an influx of very different foreigners who seem to be everywhere. Given this background, it is a credit to Singaporeans that their reactions to foreigners have not been more uniformly hostile: there does at least appear to be an emerging level of sympathy both at the elite and grassroots levels for the plight of temporary low-paid foreign workers.

The government is reluctant to do more than fiddle at the edges of its model of economic development and its model of community-based social construction. But without one or both of these models being radically transformed, it is difficult to see how it is going to be able to realise its goal of reducing tensions between foreigners and Singaporeans — no matter how seriously it seeks such an end.

Michael D. Barr is Senior Lecturer in International Relations and Editor-in-Chief of Asian Studies Review. His latest book, The Ruling Elite of Singapore: Networks of Power and Influence, was published by I.B.Tauris and New Asian Library in February.

4 responses to “Singapore’s impotent immigration policy”

  1. The old economic model has worked well in the past, growing the economy on the backs of hard work and a swelling workforce, with the population having grown so rapidly fifty years ago that the government encouraged sterilization and birth control. Of course, this has finally run up against a wall on an island the size of greater London. An inability to move beyond this model has also kept wages from rising, not helped by business hitherto dependent on an easy supply of cheap and less productive foreign labour.

    Most glaringly this analysis, and the government’s planning, has consistently dodged the question of how to accommodate the new increased population when it too starts to age and further immigration is untenable.

    Singaporeans have been offended by their political dis-entitlement to a say in what has been called a population pyramid scheme. For the ruling party to have brushed off popular disaffection with the immigration policy as the grumblings of dead-enders is telling of its disengagement with the populace, and a lack of appreciation for the suppression of wages and social ills the immigrants have brought.

    This analysis credited Deputy Prime Minister Wong Kan Seng for the decision to ramp up immigration as a means to forestall a recession, in 2005. That a former ruling party parliamentarian, Augustine Tan, suggested the same measures to support real estate prices in 2009 is revealing of the ruling party’s lack of a sustainable vision for recurring, cyclical economic movements.

    The population policy has forward demands for political reform like no other issue in Singapore’s history. The longevity of the ruling party would have been better off had it not started off on this path without popular consultation. Or perhaps not, considering the tendency for immigrants to vote for the ruling party with a view to keeping the floodgates open. Indeed, the 2013 Population White Paper envisages a proportion of Singaporean citizens of 55 percent of the total population, themselves including a sizeable number -unmentioned but mathematically deducted roughly a million- of newly naturalized immigrant citizens.

  2. I Quote “Yet even with this background, no one was prepared for the hostility that was unleashed against foreigners when a group of Chinese bus drivers went on strike in November 2012, nor the unprecedented 4,000-strong protest in February 2013 against the government’s publication of a White Paper, calling for even higher levels of immigration. There was also public outrage over the riot by South Asian foreign workers in Little India in early 2014. Reports of concern about the hardships and insecurities endured by foreign workers have only slightly softened the pattern of escalating hostility.”

    With the exception of the White Paper which was soundly criticized by the public, I strongly disagree that the China Bus Drivers strike or the Little India Riots resulted in increased hostility to Foreigners. Most of the locals I know felt for the plight of the workers and had great sympathy for them.

    The actual incidences that triggered off mass open hostility are more against the “elite” rather than low level foreigners:-

    1) The fatal hit-and-run accident by Romanian diplomat Ionescu which caused a massive furore, especially when he managed to leave Singapore without being brought to justice.

    2) The fatal accident caused by PRC Ma Chi speeding in his sports car (with a woman who is not his wife) and his family alluding in the Chinese media that the cabby (local singaporean) was at fault and that being rich was not a crime (paraphrased). A dashboard camera from a nearby taxi put on Youtube proved beyond a doubt that Ma Chi caused the accident. The accident killed a taxi driver, a sole family breadwinner, a japanese lady and Ma Chi himself. It caused a massive backlash against the rich PRCs who have long tested the patience of locals with their lack of social graces and aggressive behaviour.

    3) In more recent times, who hasn’t heard of Anton Casey and his snide comments about “poor” Singaporeans and the “stench of public transport”. It brought to the fore greater scrutiny on the actions of expatriates in Singapore and tons of anti “foreign trash” comments on the internet. As a result of the backlash, Anton and his family had to leave Singapore.

    There are of course other incidences. The bus driver strikes and little india riots while serious and significant as a reminder of failures in the immigration policy, were not significant in terms of public hostility towards foreigners.

    • In response to the above,

      On (2) why is the gender or relationship relevant of the car passenger?

      On (3) the Anton Casey episode was due to his comments about ‘the poor’ on the MRT and a taxi driver as a ‘retard’. He did not mention Singaporeans per se. They were crass class-based comments by someone who made their money in overseas finance. However, these were pounced upon and the word ‘Singaporean’ was added to them by commentators. He would no doubt have said the same in Hong Kong or London. They are offensive but to people in general not particularly Singaporeans even though this is how it quickly became (wrongly) portrayed.

      I agree with the argument that public opinion seems to be rounding on the ‘elite’ rather than singling out foreigners. However, there is also underlying tension between different groups.

  3. It’s not really xenophobia.

    Lee Hsien Loong tried to use ‘xenophobia’ as a shaming tactic to be used on the locals who are less than enthusiastic about the influx of foreigners.

    No, it is definitely not xenophobia. It’s the madness of having a rent-seeking economy and squeezing too many people on a small island for the sole purpose of pursuing economic growth while totally ignoring the social and infrastructural repercussions.

    Everyone in Singapore is feeling the strains – both foreigners and locals.

    For the highest paid politicians in the world, the Singapore leaders have lost all common sense. There will be hell to pay.

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