PN Balji on the political role new citizens may have in S'pore.

The politics of Born Again Citizens

PN Balji / Guest Writer

There was nothing really new in what this newsmaker was saying in an article in The Straits Times (ST Nov 28, 2008). Ms Sharmila Gunasingham, a Sri Lankan who became a Singapore citizen, was talking of how she found heaven on earth in Singapore, rising to become a partner in a law firm dominated by Chinese Singaporeans. She did it despite being a member of a minority race and a woman to boot.

What was this all about? Why was the ST devoting two full pages to a lawyer saying something we have read ad nauseum for so long, I wondered.

Then the penny dropped. Somewhere in the middle of the article was a mention of how Ms Gunasingham, the daughter of a former Sri Lankan High Commissioner to Singapore, was so touched by Mr Lee Kuan Yew’s decision to travel to Hong Kong to speak at a UBS function despite suffering from an artrial flutter that she wrote to him.

How ST came to know of the letter is a matter best left to speculation.

But what is more instructive is to look at the political dimension of the entry of the Gunasinghams of this world into Singapore and what kind of impact they will make when it comes to voting in new governments.

I call them the Born Again Citizens. Like the Born Again Christians, who are more Christian than the Christians, these new citizens are more Singaporean than those born and bred here.

Their benchmarks are different. For those who left Malaysia and sank their roots here, it is Singapore‘s meritocracy that is attractive.

A Born Again Citizen from Malaysia once told me that his meteoric rise in Singapore is something that he could never have dreamt of in Malaysia‘s race-based system. And for an acquaintance from India, the story was similar. Safety, efficiency and Little India were major pluses for him.

For many of those born here, such perks are a given. Their aspirations are different. They don’t want to be talked down to, they want more opposing views discussed openly, especially in the media, and they want more responsible Opposition representation in Parliament.

In short, more political space. And they are prepared to use their votes to get that. Political contests are such that you never know where the next electoral missile will come from.

In the last election in 2006, at least two surprises were sprung. The conventional wisdom that young voters are more prone to voting against the PAP was swept aside when the Prime Minister’s constituency saw more older citizens going against the ruling party.

Another belief that was thrown out the window in 2006: That Singaporeans will vote for the PAP when juicy carrots are thrown in front of them. They not only rejected Mr Goh Chok Tong’s promises of major spruce-up programmes in Hougang and Potong Pasir but went on to give increased majorities to Mr Low Thia Khiang and Mr Chiam See Tong.

The Born Again Citizens might just be another buffer the PAP needs to keep unpredictable election results in check.

We have heard a lot about how opening the floodgates to foreigners is vital to our economic survival. There is also a link, maybe unintended, to how they can help to maintain PAP’s political domination.

The population statistics show how big a political role this addition to Singapore‘s demographic profile can play. Since 2001, we have had 81,553 foreigners taking up the red passport. We already have nearly half a million permanent residents here, a big pool from which our new Born Again Citizens can be tapped. And then there are 143,000 foreigners on employment passes and 85,000 foreign students, another group who are potential citizens.

Go do your sums and see where they can lead to.


Retired journalist, P N Balji is now director of the Asia Journalism Fellowship



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