Saturday, September 02, 2006

Singapore's Pro-Immigration Policy - We have to reach outward to build within

Here's my 2-cents worth on PM Lee's National Day Rally speech about the importance of a pro-immigration policy to boost the talent pool here.

Well, the Government's valid point of view is to augment our country's competitiveness especially when we need to stay relevant to the burgeoning economies in China and India and to stay ahead of fast-growing competitors in our neighbourhood. What is critical in this push to attract foreigners to take up Singapore citizenship is that these immigrants will "top up" the talent pool here.

PM Lee mentioned Mustafa's Mr Mustaq Ahmad in his rally speech. Surely, more Mustafa shopping centres in Singapore will be nice. =)

The net gain of increasing the foreign talent pool to the well-being of our economy is said to be beneficial. (Top economists In the US have contended that immigration has been a net gain for American citizens. See the Independent Institutean "Open Letter on Immigration" signed by top economists and addressed to George Bush and members of Congress)

At the end of the day, the Government's intention is benign - It’s about making sure Singapore grows bigger, be it in terms of population or economic size. (see Kway Teow Man's thoughtful discussion at Singapore Angle)

Yet, whether it's packaged as 'pro-immigration', 'attracting foreign talents', or 'immigrants - not enough', any suggestion that Singapore needs to be more open to immigration have drawn and will continue to attract much flak.

The concern here appears to be simple and clear - attracting more foreigners will have serious implications on one's rice-bowl (livelihood), thus increasing the fear of retrenchment. To quote a concerned Singaporean who expressed his views on ST Forum, "the lesson to be learnt here is that Singaporeans have to compete with foreign talents in their quest for a job and the competition will intensify with more foreign talents". (ST Forum Online 29 Aug 2006) The opposition political party National Solidarity Party (NSP) has also jumped into the fray and argued for strict quotas on the number of talented foreign professionals allowed into Singapore. (See NSP press release on 22 Aug 2006)

Certainly, the concerns are not unique to Singaporeans. Around the world, immigration has become a hot political potato for politicians and voters in oft-said advanced democracies. In the US, critics are arguing for stricter immigration regulations to curb the rising influx of illegal immigrants. In Germany, millions of Turks continued to be called 'Gastarbeiters' or 'guest workers' without citizenship, despite many of them were born and bred in Germany. In the UK, public fears of migration are putting pressure on the government to impose control amid revelation that almost 600,000 Eastern Europeans have moved to the country to look for work. Furthermore, British authorities are realising the pitfalls of immigration laxity and are taking action against preachers of religious hatred who have not only fail to integrate into the local community, but have made use of years of lenient immigration and asylum policies to advocate racial-religious strife and violence against the nation-state.

Here's how I see it - the problem do not just boil down to jobs / bread-and-butter issues. There are serious nation-building considerations to be mindful of.

On one level, while Singapore celebrates ethnic and cultural diversity, the task of helping 'new citizens' integrate into the local community is an arduous challenge.

I stand corrected that no quantifier can accurately measure something as abstract as assimilation and patriotism. As top civil servant Chiang Chie Foo puts it, "there isn't a programme where you go through and you become transformed and integrated". For sure, how the 'new citizens' perceive events in their 'motherland' would have considerable implications for their successful assimilation into Singapore's local community.

On another level, anti-immigration views expressing the insecurities of the people cannot be ignored but has to be carefully managed. Xenophobia directed at foreigners or (in general) at people different from one’s self, can result in political campaigns for cultural purification and worse, aggression against the aliens (both 'new citizens' or otherwise).

Around the world, the anti-immigrant populist message of far right political parties continue to find resonance among the electorate, notwithstanding that it's more than half a century since the fascists inflicted much bloodshed with their murderous deeds during WWII.

Here in Singapore, we can ill-afford to have the Jean-Marie Le Pens and Pauline Hansons to tear the social fabric of our society that we have painstakingly nurtured over the 40 odd years of nationhood.

Undoubtedly, it takes more than a stroke of luck for the pro-immigration policy to work. Instead, the cohesion of our nation is a deliberate man-made endeavour. I understand that there are existing organisations such as the Hua Yuan Association which was set up to help new immigrants from China, to adapt to the nuances of local community.

Yet, while we demand new immigrants to blend in with society, Singaporeans have to also adopt an open heart to accept these new immigrants. The importance of grassroots activities cannot be overstated.

Indeed, while we reach outward to attract more 'new citizens', it must be noted that the task of 'building within' is an important ongoing challenge.

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