Delivered in Parliament on 14 September 2021
While today’s Motion is ostensibly about jobs for Singaporeans, I believe an inescapable part of the conversation is about immigration and its impact on our economy and society.
Immigration is a topic that is complex and sensitive, and we must as a society — together with our Government — learn to have difficult conversations with each other without vilifying those who may have a different opinion to ours. Too often do we hear cries of ‘xenophobia’ and ‘racism’ being thrown at those of us who may raise — often legitimate — concerns about the changing nature of our social fabric or the strain on our labour markets. And on the other hand, those who try to speak up in defence of greater international movement of labour and trade are labelled as sell-outs and as ‘opening the floodgates’ at the expense of hardworking Singaporeans.
This polarising approach is neither healthy nor productive, and I believe all of us must take a more nuanced and open-minded approach.
Singapore is a young country. And immigration has been a fundamental part of our story for a very long time — from our founding as a free port in the 1800s to our transformation into a modern city in the 1980s. Immigrants have, and will always continue to shape our story. We are the country we are today, only because of our embrace of diversity and different histories, and this has to continue. Indeed, for most of our pre-independence history, immigration exceeded natural births. After independence, the Government first tightened immigration, then implemented a policy that uses migrants to fulfil a certain role in our labour force as one of the economic tools to drive the growth of our economy.
I do not think that many will deny that this is a complex and difficult balance to get right. This is because the consequences of immigration are often felt very personally by individuals. These changes in the make-up of our society cut at our daily experience: who we see in our communities every day, the languages we hear around us, and the sheer numbers of ‘others’ we have to share our already crowded public spaces with. And above all, the PERCEPTION of the impact of immigration on jobs. This is especially against the backdrop of unprecedented disruption caused by the shift to, amongst others, Digitalisation, Industry 4.0 and a re-balanced normal, all of which have been exacerbated by Covid.
On the other hand, the promise is that immigrants bring skills and a diversity of experiences, and often take up the slack in our labour markets. However, these benefits brought about by our foreign manpower policy tend to accrue more generally and are less directly experienced by individuals. The argument that more trade, more foreign workers and more enterprise equals better and more jobs for Singaporeans is less visible and is not always immediately evident.
Tensions are felt when this ‘grand bargain’ is not one that all Singaporeans have bought into.
This could be especially hard to bridge because many come to the debate with views that are seen through a personal lens, one that could bring biases due to personal life experiences, which would in turn lead to a very generalised view over our foreign manpower and immigration policies. And citizens may thus approach the matter without the required nuance or balance that academics or policy-makers have the luxury to adopt. Our citizens are, after all, still feeling our way through how to respectfully debate such sensitive topics. It is hardly right then that we dismiss all these views and concerns as narrow-minded and xenophobic.
The challenge to citizens to accept and accommodate MORE people into our communities, with the different histories, languages, accents, ways of life and cultures they bring is not always an easy one for a society to accept – and it is imperative on us all to play an active role to manage and mitigate any potential fall-out.
Indeed we have seen how our public debate around immigration and foreign manpower has changed over the last decade. In 2013, during the debates around our population white paper with the now ‘iconic’ 6.9 million figure, then DPM Teo told this House that “the growth in foreign workforce, total population, infrastructure and housing were not aligned’, and accepted that it ‘contributed to the anxiety, crowdedness, integration problems, and the daily inconveniences faced by Singaporeans today’.
Additionally, we must be mindful of how world events can shape the conversation. It has also been pointed out that the current era we are living in has been an unprecedented one which became hyper-globalised, with its roots in the 1980s, when Reaganism and Thatcherism took off. Movement of people, goods and services, have become much easier, and together with the growth in the middle classes in massive and emerging economies such as China and India, has had an impact on our domestic markets and society in general. But it must not be forgotten that globalisation has slowed down since 2010, and that the trend of increasing globalisation is not a linear process — as history has indeed taught us. Our reliance on foreign labour — whether skilled labour or the low waged migrants we see taking up the slack as carers in our medical and social systems, as live-in help for households, and also for building sites — may prove to be our Achilles heel if we assume that we can simply turn on the tap for these roles to be fulfilled at any time, and that the workers will come in. Our policies — including our FTAs — need to be sensitive to this and not be blind-sided by any reverses in globalisation trends, which is currently threatening to be the case.
This is especially important in the current era, where we see the rise of nativist politics and Governments from around 2016, as evidenced most famously by the Brexit vote and election of Donald Trump. Too easily have immigration and migrants become convenient bogeymen, just like CECA and our FTAs appear to have done, often against all data that suggest otherwise. Singapore IS vulnerable to such dangerous sentiments, and shocks caused by Covid and the anxieties wrought by a changed world only adds to the fears of our people, and need to be addressed through more sensitive policies and engagement with the populace.
Now, more than ever, there needs to be humility in the approach taken by our leaders to such matters, and the listening ear of the Government needs to be attuned to and prod at the genuine concerns behind why some of us feel the way we do so strongly — sometimes in the face of endless explanations that our assumptions or understanding of these policies and FTAs are flawed. Rather than immediately take issue with the speaker, we should understand that lived realities on the ground could be very different to ours, and we should pay attention to whether these views and experiences could reveal potential blind spots in the implementation of our policies.
We must also remember that widening inequality is as dangerous as any threats to our economy, as this only drives fears relating to the quality and quantity of the jobs available to Singaporeans, and can lead to anger and resentment against any incomers who are perceived to be better off and to have taken our rice bowls. Widening inequality thus leads to increasingly polarised politics, which has a certain irony, as data suggest that it is technological advances — which are in turn exacerbated by the failure of politics and government policies to address these trends — rather than globalisation trends — that drive how equal a society is.
Having said all of this, what else can we do to address the concerns and tensions highlighted above? Two big areas where we can work more on are, first, building more, stronger, and meaningful bridges between immigrants and citizens, and second, embracing a strong, transparent and data-driven culture.
In order to better understand one another, much effort needs to be expended by both groups — immigrants and citizens alike — in order to have these immigrants properly integrated and accepted into society. There needs to be mutual understanding, tolerance, and finally meaningful relationships between these two groups, to minimise the pitfalls associated with ‘the other’ and also make real the benefits and increased richness to community life that our migrants can bring to our country.
To this end, it is notable that the European Programme for Integration and Migration states that this is — quote — a two-way process of adaption by migrants and host societies, and, of identification and respect for a core set of values that bind migrants and host communities in a common purpose — unquote.
I think this approach needs to equally apply to incomers who choose to sink roots and take up a pink IC, and those who may be here on a more temporary basis.
While I note that there are initiatives organised through the People’s Association, what has been less clear to the public is whether the organisation itself is seen to be there primarily to serve partisan interests, and more importantly, how successful these initiatives have been. Judging by the recent episodes that have come to our national consciousness — both online and off — towards foreigners, this would suggest that we need to redouble our efforts in bridging any gaps that remain between the groups. How can we — together, in a way that is accepted by both sides — come up with a common core set of values that each of us respects, that would bind us together, to lessen any mistrust and negative feelings that may be currently amplified by uncertain economic times and the fear for one’s livelihoods? I do not think this is something that Government leaders and associated bodies such as the People’s Association should ram down the throats of a sceptical populace.
Perhaps what is lacking is the buy-in from both sides that it is not only important for Singaporeans to adapt to having ‘foreigners’ in our midst, but that our foreign friends must also play their part in wanting to integrate into the communities they are in. Efforts need to be made to learn the norms within Singapore society — whether it is how we ‘chope’ tables, or the inclination to queue wherever we go. This does not mean losing the richness of the culture or practices that come with one’s history; Singapore will continue to embrace diversity as being at our centre.
And indeed I do see examples of some immigrants reaching out to us as we conduct our ground work and expressing their desire to volunteer to work with us and give back to the communities they live in. It is heartening, especially when we note that they do not do this because they are after priority queue numbers for school places for their children or some other benefit, but because they truly believe in doing something to further the communal spirit that should overcome differences in our backgrounds. I only wish that we see more of these, and that we continually look for ways and means to improve the situation, to allow more ground-up, non-government directed avenues for interaction and understanding between citizens and immigrants, allowing voices to be heard from both sides.
That said, we also need to have a no-excuses approach to discriminatory, prejudicial behaviour, and against those who seek to sow discord between immigrants and our host communities. Both groups deserve to have their rights protected stringently. Just as the law comes down hard against those who make offensive and aggressive gestures against foreigners or those from different backgrounds, we also need to ensure that Singaporeans do not face discrimination in the workplace — and I hope that the welcome but long overdue anti-discrimination legislation announced will be strong and robust enough to achieve this.
Finally, I cannot stress enough the importance of a transparent, data-driven approach to immigration and our foreign manpower policies. At the moment, decisions on whether or not to grant citizenship, permanent residence, and various work passes are made by the ICA and MOM respectively, but no reasons are ever given. Likewise, data relating to our resident labour force often lumps Singaporeans and Permanent Residents together.
While the Government may have reasons for doing so, the best medicine against misinformation, cynicism and resentment is cold, hard data, and to build a transparent culture around the data relating to our policies.
We also need to understand that residents who are married to foreigners or who have foreign family members are often left wondering and speculating about why their family member’s application for LTVP, Permanent Residency or Citizenship was rejected, and what they could do to change the outcome. They would naturally compare this against the number of immigrants moving into the neighbourhood who are granted the immigration status that they have been applying for — some for decades — sometimes without any ostensible familial ties to Singapore citizens. Is it any wonder that resentment would build up?
The Government thus needs to take the lead in this by being proactive about the type of data that is shared, from information about our workforce broken down into Singaporeans and Permanent Residents, to providing clear pathways to citizenship for those who are already part of our Singaporean families and communities. Data on these hot button topics should be published and shared regularly, to allow citizens to understand the impact of government-led policies on the shape of our economy and society — and to allow our academics and commentators a fact base with start with.
A proactive, transparent and data-driven approach to the conversation around foreigners may not convince every cynic. But it would go a long way to quiet any unfounded claims, leave less room for conspiracy theories to flourish, and give short shrift to those who seek to sow discord amongst us and seek boogeymen — a prime example of which would be CECA and FTAs.
Mr Speaker, in Chinese please.
To conclude, immigration and foreign manpower have been heated issues in Singapore for many, many years. CECA and FTAs are but the latest iterations of the debate. This is a difficult, complicated topic, and an issue that many other nations continue to struggle with. We must therefore create a strong ecosystem for conversation, interaction and disagreement on the topics at hand. We must say no, to a continued top-down approach to immigration where we are told what is good for us. The danger is that over time, resentment continues to build, and anti-immigrant sentiment spills over into nasty incidents where there is a heavy element of racism and xenophobia that also affect our Singaporeans as well — such as the unfortunate events that we have seen in recent months.
I hope the Government will take this as an opportunity to re-think the way these topics have been managed and discussed so far, and instead lean more into enabling conversations on the ground to change hearts and minds, rather than continue to decide what is best for Singaporeans and dictate our story for us.
Mr Speaker, I beg to move the following amendments to the motion proposed by the NCMPs from the PSP.