22 March 2014
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Singapore's migration dilemmas

Singapore has built its economic strength on the back of immigration. But now the city-state's migration policies are testing its society and politics.

Singapore has built its economic strength on the back of immigration. But the city-state's migration policies are now testing its society and politics. The social and political stresses have become most evident in popular reaction to the Singaporean government's recent population White Paper which the government bulldozed through parliament.

Over 4000 Singaporean citizens recently attended a rally to protest against the White Paper's prediction that Singapore's population could rise by 30% to 6.9 million, with immigrants making up nearly half that figure. Many locals blame immigration for rising property prices and living costs. Singapore is now the third most expensive Asian city, and the sixth most expensive city in the world, according to the Economist Intelligence Unit.

Singapore, arguably the most successful Asian miracle economy, with a GDP per capita exceeding even that of Japan, built its economic strength through immigration. Back in 1819, when it was established as a British trading colony, the small island had a population of just a few hundred.

Singapore then drew in large numbers of laborers from neighboring China, India and the Malay Archipelago. Waves of immigration continued, with migration in recent times concentrated on both low-skilled and high-skilled workers. The last decade has seen a very rapid increase in migration, against the backdrop of a rapidly ageing population, and a fertility rate of 1.2, well below replacement rate of 2.1. Fertility has indeed been below replacement for more than three decades.

Today, Singapore's population stands at 5.3 million, of which 3.3 million are citizens. A further 500,000 are "permanent residents" (PRs), often skilled migrants who have decided to make Singapore their home. PR status can be a track to citizenship, in a country which is more open to foreigners than most any other Asian country.

Non-residents account for another 1.5 million. They are a very diverse group.

About one million non-residents are low-skilled or unskilled workers who work in construction, domestic labor, services, manufacturing and marine activities. These migrants are a transient population, who are not allowed to bring their families. They come in under contracts which limit their stay. And they have virtually no hope of ever becoming citizens.

A further 100,000 are international students, mainly from China, India and Southeast Asia, as Singapore seeks to develop as an education hub. Then there are skilled workers, mainly from Malaysia, China and India, as well as US, UK, France, Australia, Japan and Korea.

On the surface, Singapore's migration policies would seem to be a great success. Indeed, Singapore is run as efficiently as an enterprise rather than a country, with permanent staff members and many other workers on short-term contracts.

But cracks and tensions are appearing everywhere in this tightly managed country. At the time of the May 2011 general elections, there was widespread expression of discontent with the government's immigration policies.

These cracks and tensions are numerous.

First, while Singapore accepts more and more migrants, a growing number of Singaporeans themselves are leaving Singapore. Many migrate as highly skilled workers in fields like banking, information technology, medicine, engineering, and science and technology. Then there are a good number of Singaporeans who pursue first degree or postgraduate studies overseas.

Close to 200,000 Singaporean citizens live overseas, mainly in Australia (50,000), UK (40,000), US (20,000) and China (20,000). According to some social surveys among Singaporean youth, more than half would like to leave the country to build their careers. Another reason to leave Singapore is to avoid national military service.

Just speaking with Singaporeans, you get the clear sense that the small-island state has limited opportunities, and that youth hunger for the freedom, and dynamic and creative societies of multicultural countries like US, Australia, Canada and New Zealand. Also seemingly stable authoritarian countries can often prove to be more brittle than they appear, which means that a "residential hedge" makes good sense.

Skilled migration might seem the least contentious form of migration, especially since the government insists that only jobs not filled by citizens are taken up by foreigners. But here there have been many public concerns that foreigners are taking managerial and professional positions away from Singaporeans.

Perhaps the greatest public discontent has been towards the growing number of migrants from mainland China. They are widely perceived as being uncouth and ill-mannered in Singapore's highly disciplined and well-behaved society.

Anti-migrant feeling came to a head last year when a Chinese Ferrari driver crashed into a taxi, killing himself, the taxi driver and a passenger after running a red light and crashing into the taxi.

In fact, criticism of foreigners has taken an increasingly xenophobic tone over the past year, and contributed to a decline in support for the government. Somewhat ironically, cultural divides run deepest between Singaporean Chinese and new immigrants from mainland China, and between Singaporean Indians and non-resident Indian nationals living in the city-state.

Many native Singaporeans say foreign-born residents take jobs, push up property prices and add new strains on the city-state's infrastructure, especially its crowded subways. Singapore has indeed experienced a widening income gap between rich and poor, and its Gini coefficient is now higher than those of China and the US.

Many think that the government has been giving immigrants unfair advantages. For example, male Singaporeans and permanent residents are required to serve in the military for two years when they turn 18, while new citizens, residents and foreigners are not. One parliamentarian has even proposed a "national defense duty" on PRs and other immigrants to create sharper differences between Singaporean citizens and immigrants, and to address the imbalance in national defense service obligations.

Another important migration issue in Singapore is the poor treatment and living and working conditions that too may low skilled workers suffer. For example, there are an estimated 200,000 Chinese migrant workers in Singapore, employed in the city’s construction sites, factories, shops and restaurants.

As the China Labor Bulletin reports, they work long hours for low pay in frequently hazardous conditions. Many have to endure abuse, discrimination and violations of their rights, but few can obtain legal redress. Their movements, behaviour and even their “moral conduct,” are tightly controlled by their boss, who can terminate their employment and send them back to China at anytime and without any justification.

Many have to sign contracts that contain onerous or even illegal clauses that significantly constrain their civil liberties on arrival. Once in Singapore, workers routinely have their passports withheld. Their accommodation ranges from adequate to appalling, and they are kept as far away from Singaporean citizens as possible in order to minimize social interaction. Access to medical care is often curtailed.

Violations of migrant workers’ rights are widespread, but many workers choose not to take legal action because they lack the knowledge and confidence to pursue a claim. Singapore is currently the second largest global market for Chinese labour behind Japan.

In December 2012 five Chinese bus drivers were arrested for leading what the authorities termed an illegal strike protesting discriminatory wages and summarily deported back to China. Freedom of association for Singapore’s many migrant workers is restricted by law. But there have been too many cases of migrants' rights abuses to mention, with Filipino and other maids often being victims.

“Singapore’s status as a world-class economy has not kept it from having a remarkably poor record in respecting the rule of law, and civil and political rights,” said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “The Singaporean people must be wondering when their government is going to trust them enough to exercise the same basic rights as people elsewhere.”

It is not just international NGOs that are on the case. Local NGOs and trade unions are too. And the home governments of many migrants are increasingly active in assisting their nationals.

Singapore is also a hotspot for human trafficking. As reported by the US State Department, "Singapore is a destination country for men, women, and girls from China, India, the Philippines, Indonesia, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Thailand, Vietnam, and elsewhere in Southeast Asia, subjected to sex trafficking and forced labor. Some women are recruited through offers of legitimate employment and deceived about the nature or conditions of the prospective work. Others enter Singapore with the intention of engaging in prostitution but upon arrival are subjected to forced prostitution under the threat of serious harm, including financial harm."

In short, Singapore is now faced with a vast array of challenges in the area of migration policy, which is the country's most important issue now. And fundamentally, they represent a challenge for Singapore's system of benevolent, authoritarian capitalism.

The impact of migration on Singaporean society is becoming more complex, as the society itself becomes ever more complex. Integrating migrants like those mainland China is proving a greater challenge than initially imagined. And unskilled migrants want and deserve to be better treated than they are today.

The discussions and debates over the White Paper show that Singapore's citizens wish to have a say in the elaboration of migration policy. They will no longer accept policies being foist upon them by the country's technocratic elite.

And this yearning for a more open, participative and democratic society is above all manifest in the growing exodus of young well-educated Singaporeans to other countries.

Singapore may be approaching a crossroads in its development model.


John West
Executive Director
Asian Century Institute
Tags: asean, singapore, migration, population

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