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TOC's Selene Cheng runs into an iron veil of secrecy.

ICA, MOM refuse to release Burmese statistics

Selene Cheng

Why is labour information being hidden from citizens? Is a culture of secrecy healthy for good governance in Singapore?

Getting official statistics from government agencies is next to impossible, as The Online Citizen (TOC) recently found out after reporting on the gridlock outside the Burmese embassy on 27 April 2008. Burmese nationals had gathered there to vote in a referendum on a new Constitution.

The night of 27 April saw Channel NewsAsia reporting on television that the Burmese community in Singapore is estimated to be 30,000 strong.

Members of the Burmese community TOC had spoken to, however, put the size of the community at around 100,000.

On 29 April, an article in the Straits Times (ST), “Three-day extension for Myanmar poll”, put the number at 50,000. On May 3, yet another article appeared in the ST on the Burmese community in Singapore (“Myanmar community here gets bigger”). The article noted that the Burmese embassy in Singapore estimated that there are “100,000 of its nationals living here, up from 60,000 at the beginning of last year”.

TOC on a number investigation launch

The huge discrepancy between the size of the Burmese community as expressed by different sources prompted this writer to try and confirm exactly how many Burmese there are in Singapore.

On 28 April, this writer sent separate queries to the Ministry of Manpower (MOM) and the Immigration and Checkpoint Authority (ICA) requesting statistics relating to the Burmese community.

MOM was asked if it could provide statistics relating to the number of Burmese nationals who hold employment passes/work permits, and the number of Burmese nationals who hold student visas for the current year and if possible, for the last five years.

ICA was asked if it could provide statistics relating to the number of Burmese nationals in Singapore currently residing long term, and/or working, and/or studying in Singapore (excluding those who have become Singapore citizens); the number of Singaporean PRs who are Burmese, and the number of Burmese student pass holders (and the breakdown of how many are PRs, and how many are foreign nationals), again for the current year, and if possible, for the last five years.

Automated replies from MOM and ICA indicated a response time of three and five working days respectively.

“We regret to inform that the required information is unavailable” -- MOM

This writer received MOM’s response on 2 May, the fourth working day after 28 April. The reply? “We regret to inform that the required information is unavailable.” Unsure as to what “unavailable” meant, this writer emailed MOM again to ask if “unavailable” meant:

a) the information does not exist as it as MOM does not log who it gives employment passes and work permits to,

b) the information exists, but no one has created and/or compiled statistics on breakdown by nationality, and therefore it is not possible to know the number of Burmese in Singapore,

or

c) the information exists, but it is classified.

MOM replied on 7 May confirming that the information was “available, but it is classified”.

The long wait for ICA’s response

5 May, the fifth working day from 28 April, saw no reply from ICA. Finally, on 12 May, ICA replied: the information was “not available”. As with MOM, this writer emailed ICA again for clarification.

ICA replied on 12 May, apologising for giving this reporter “the impression that the information requested is not available”. ICA clarified that while they had the statistical report, they were unable to release the information to the public.

Secrets, transparency, and the people

The quest to find out how many Burmese there are in Singapore reveals one thing: nobody knows for sure how many Burmese there are. An iron veil of secrecy surrounds the information, which is tightly guarded by the government agencies.

The number of Burmese, though, is not the real issue. The real issue really is this: there is a lack of transparency from the bureaucracy. Without detailed statistical reports available to the public, how can the public trust the figures quoted by the government every now and then? There is no way to verify the information.

The issue of the number of foreigners in Singapore is very close to Singaporeans’ hearts. Taking the ST’s Forum page as a barometer of Singaporeans’ sentiments, it is clear that there is rising discontent over foreigner-related issues. Language barriers between foreigners and Singaporeans in retail situations; concern over the proportion of foreign students in local educational institutions, and worries over the criteria in awarding, and the number of scholarships and bursaries awarded to foreigners, versus Singaporeans; the rising number of foreign-born sportspeople representing Singapore in competitions; and the most touchy of them all, foreigners taking up a significant proportion of jobs, both blue and white collar ones.

Out of all the abovementioned issues, the one that has garnered the most discontent is jobs, and naturally so, because it involves the rice bowl. But if Singaporeans cannot even obtain basic information on how many foreigners there are in the country and the breakdown by nationality, what more information on economic sector participation (i.e. what percentage of jobs do foreigners take up in various industries)?

How then can Singaporeans know where they stand in relation to employment competition, and prepare themselves accordingly?

How then may Singaporeans know if they are indeed being given priority in employment (in terms of the citizen-to-foreigner ratio, not “blind” priority ignoring the quality of candidates) in their own home country?

Manpower Minister Ng Eng Hen feels that the government has “got the balance right” (“Tensions over foreign workers will continue: Ng Eng Hen”), and that Singaporeans got the majority of the “professionals, managers, executives and technicians’ jobs” last year. Perhaps Mr Ng is unaware of the reality in the streets – just one small example we have is the significant number of former white-collar professionals who are now part of the taxi driver fleet.

Something is seriously wrong if so many tertiary-educated Singaporeans are ending up as taxi drivers.

Singaporeans have come to expect good governance. One of the hallmarks of good governance is a transparent bureaucracy, which is able to provide citizens with information necessary to making choices that affect their daily lives. Surely, no information is as crucial as information relating to employment.

The time for secrecy is past.

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