Foreigners aren’t your problem, capitalism is
To say that the population issue will feature in the upcoming general election is an understatement. The ruling People’s Action Party (PAP) saw its lowest vote-share ever in the last election, with immigration policy being one of the main sources of unhappiness. The Population White Paper, launched after the last election, triggered a protest that drew about 4,000 people – a huge number for Singapore. The matter is far from settled; discussions of the government’s performance often circle back to immigration and population issues.
20 years ago, in 1994, Singapore’s population was 3.419 million. As of June 2014, the population is about 5.47 million, a growth largely achieved through immigration. Public infrastructure has been struggling to keep up. And while some of these issues, such as housing, have been better handled since the last election, the physical sense of crowding remains.
The thing that gets people’s goats the most, though, is a sense of unfair treatment. A liberal immigration policy has been seen as the government’s way to grow the economy at all costs, importing foreigners to grow the country’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP) at the expense of citizens’ lives.
Singaporeans – particularly older professionals (PMETs) – feel like they’re being edged out of the market, as foreign employees are able and willing to work for less, or are more likely to hire and work with their own compatriots than Singaporeans. And while Singaporeans are required to make regular deposits into the Central Provident Fund (CPF) where the minimum sum required before withdrawal at age 55 has increased, Permanent Residents (PRs) and non-citizens are technically able to simply withdraw all their money and leave Singapore whenever they feel like it.
Then there is the gnarly question of National Service. While every young Singaporean man aged 18 is required to spend two years of his life either in the Singapore Armed Forces, Singapore Police Force or Singapore Civil Defence Force (with years of reservist duties to follow), many male immigrants with PR status are not required to undergo such training – many of them would probably be considered too old by the time they move to Singapore. Sons of PRs are required to do National Service, but it’s often felt that these families can simply give up their residency status and leave Singapore; a choice not open to Singaporeans who don’t have anywhere else to go. (That militarism fosters the rhetoric of “deservedness” when it comes to citizenship also feeds into the debate.)
All this results in a sense of injustice, where, whether it’s really true or not, it feels far more beneficial not to be a citizen. After all, it would appear that foreigners – with a citizenship in their home country to fall back on should they weary of Singaporean life – have all the options, while Singaporeans simply have to put up with whatever policies come our way.
The true and the blue
A language of ‘Us versus Them’ has evolved to express this sense of anger and frustration. ‘Pro-foreigner’ and ‘foreign trash’ refer to either those considered as traitors or whose presence in the country people resent. ‘True blue Singaporean’, on the other hand, separates the born-and-bred from the recently naturalised ‘new citizens’.
Political parties have lost no time in making use of this nationalistic language to appeal to voters. “SDA will spell out what makes a True Blue Singaporeans [sic] in our Constitution, and ensure that the highest political offices can only be held by local-born Singaporeans. …We will preserve a ‘Singapore for Singaporeans’ value strongly, where in everything essential and beneficial, it will always be ‘Singaporeans First,” said the Singapore Democratic Alliance in a manifesto that reads like a Nationalism Bingo card.
That there should be some clear benefit to citizenship of a particular country is not a point of contention. As individuals with the strongest ties, and therefore greatest responsibilities, to the country, Singaporeans should enjoy some privileges. There’s nothing controversial about this argument; it’s the social contract between citizens and governments in many countries.
But there’s more…
Yet keeping a tight focus on immigration and the number of foreigners in Singapore might be missing the woods for the trees. Inequality is a massive problem in Singapore, and the country’s leaders have so far been reluctant to institutionalise more redistributive social policies, preferring to dole social support out in a more piecemeal fashion.
A recent debate illustrates this point: the government has been urging hawkers to keep their food prices low, so that poorer Singaporeans will continue to be able to afford their dishes. Hawkers and others in the industry have argued that expecting stalls to maintain a blanket low rate is unrealistic against a backdrop of rising overheads. Instead, they've suggested that the government issue cards to the lower-income, who will then be provided meals at a discount while others continue to be charged a fair market rate.
The government has not yet responded to this suggestion (the relevant minister’s response to a young hawker was essentially to “do your calculations carefully”), yet the premise behind the original idea is telling. Instead of providing state-issued food stamps or subsidies to help the poor afford nutritious meals, hawkers as private business owners were expected to amend their business models to meet this social need.
If Singapore’s policies are built on such assumptions, tightening immigration – which has actually already been done – cannot in itself bring improvement to the lives of Singaporeans.
The country’s problems do not come from the flow of foreigners, but from a model of capitalism that prioritises profit margins and high GDP over social justice and individual quality of life.
Paul Tambyah, a professor in infectious diseases at the National University of Singapore, highlighted this point at a recent political dialogue. He spoke of the difficulties faced by young Singaporean doctors, where any complaint of poor working conditions would be met with threats of hiring foreign doctors from the Philippines or India willing to work for less.
Listening to Dr Tambyah, it struck me that no one really won in this scenario: neither the local junior doctors who had to deal with less-than-satisfactory conditions, nor the poorly-compensated foreign doctors brought in to fill the gap when the locals got fed up. The only victor in such a situation would probably be the hospital itself, who has to neither increase salaries and improve conditions, nor deal with vocal employees. This, then, is a problem not of foreigners taking local jobs, but of a capitalist model that sees everyone as digits to be moved about in a simple cost-benefit analysis.
In such a society, the reduction of foreigners in itself is not going to make anyone’s lives better; we’d still not have the redistributive policies and social support needed to make society more equal and inclusive. It is only when we focus on structures and policies that reduce inequality and treat all people with dignity that we can collectively better our lives.
NOTE: This piece can be read together with a previous post on why fighting for marginalised, low-wage migrant workers can only benefit local workers too.