TOC Special Feature: Foreign Talent policy remains contentious, and for reason too

Pritam Singh / Founder of

The overall perception is of a poorly articulated, poorly communicated and poorly understood FT policy that incites questions of loyalty, nationhood and national unity for native Singaporeans.

The Straits Times’ report on 14 Aug 2009, “MM: Foreign talent is vital” of MM Lee’s Tanjong Pagar GRC National Day 2009 dinner speech did not reveal anything substantively new about the Singapore government’s foreign talent (FT) policy.

Its flavour was slightly different from usual reportage on the issue insofar as it buttressed the importance of foreigners in supplementing the country’s low birth rates – an argument which could potentially resonate more deeply than one which portends the decline of the Singapore economy in the absence of foreign talent.

The lacunae in the latter argument has been variously exposed over the last few years with a broad, data-backed consensus indicating that Singapore’s low-income workers did not see a rise in their median income in line with the rest of the economy. While various government ministers have over the years accrued this to the impact of globalisation, for a significant minority of Singaporeans, the perception continues to dominate that the FT policy does not benefit them, but instead squeezes prospective job opportunities and drives their real wages down.

More recently, the government argued along the lines of worker retraining and e2i, but preceding these reactionary initiatives has been a lack of information, debate and communication concerning the ramifications of what the FT policy entails for Singapore society and our low-wage earners; evidently, the most vulnerable group of Singaporeans affected by the FT policy.

Compounding the less than enthusiastic public response to the FT policy is the term ‘foreign-talent’ itself, which has hitherto been loosely and sometimes interchangeably employed with the word ‘foreigner’ in the public domain and media. The word ‘talent’ also obfuscates, especially when MM Lee was quoted as saying, “We accept only immigrants who increase the average level of competence of Singaporeans” only for ST to report immediately thereafter, “(t)hey [immigrants] must have skills and at least, secondary, preferably tertiary education.” Clearly, in the context of the MM’s words and the subsequent reportage of the ST, ‘talent’ is a very loosely defined word, not necessarily synonymous with conventional definitions found in a dictionary.

But more importantly, the ST article’s focus on MM Lee’s remarks covering population regeneration as a goal of the FT policy, involve two separate prongs to it. One element deals with population regeneration, a goal which many Singaporeans can appreciate, until the question is posed – what is the optimum population level for Singapore?

If the goal is to maintain the population of Singapore, which for a long time stood between 3-4 million, it is rather likely that the public vitriol against the FT policy would be more subdued. It would take either a brave man or a soothsayer to conclude economic decline would as a result ensue, if Singapore’s population stabilizes around the circa 4 million figure. Even the example used by MM Lee in his speech on Japan’s falling population and the future impact on its economy was instructive – it was based on a dire economic situation in Japan contingent on a declining population, not a stable one.

It is precisely this second element of the FT policy, the very prospects of economic decline and the necessary pre-emptive measures to meet this alleged challenge, which compounds the discomfort among Singaporeans. For some, the FT policy underwrites a population surge on a very small island to a population figure Singaporeans have little clarity about. As a result, the FT policy has given birth to the very real heartland reality of a more crowded Singapore, where infrastructure, on the surface of things, does not seem to have grown in parallel with the volume of foreigners allowed entry from 1998, when the effects of the FT policy began to be felt in earnest, particularly from 2002-2007. This sense of overcrowding has subsided somewhat, thanks to the latest recession. But even today, the unusually large number of linen and work wear hung out to dry on bamboo poles from some, ostensibly let-out HDB flats and even condominiums, offer leading conclusions to the number of occupants in each apartment. The perception of stresses on public facilities like the police force and separately, on the transport system by way of jam-packed trains and buses, have been but some of the more tangible and direct repercussions of the FT policy on heartlanders so far.

On a tangential, albeit worrisome note, class distinctions have taken root under the cloud of the FT policy, since the vast majority of policymakers and ruling politicians are likely to reside in districts and estates that do not deal with the day-to-day realities of the FT policy faced by heartlanders. Even relatively well-off Singaporeans are likely to host at best, mixed feelings about foreigners living in their immediate environment with the Serangoon Gardens episode of 2008 a primer of this deep emotive.

Arguments concerning class distinctions are brought into sharpest focus when some laymen opine that the real beneficiaries of a larger population in future are big business and corporate interests, with the bulk of Singaporeans having to readjust to smaller homes, congested roads, crowded public spaces, unintelligible service staff, and the worry of a real drop in living standards as a function of the preceding compromises.

The effect of these optical and cognitive realities creates a genuine feeling of unease and insecurity among a potentially large number of Singaporeans, who viscerally cannot make sense of a ST headline which reads, “MM: Foreign talent is vital”, especially when it is they who are perceived to be paying for it. Compounded by occasional government feelers suggesting the relocation of old-folk homes to Johor Bahru, the overall perception is of a poorly articulated, poorly communicated and poorly understood FT policy that incites questions of loyalty, nationhood and national unity for native Singaporeans.

While MM Lee sounded as if he was at pains to reinforce the importance of foreign talent to Singapore, the debate and concerns of many Singaporeans have arguably moved beyond those covered by the ST report’s ambit. In fact, MM Lee hinted at this himself, although these were not expatiated upon in the aforementioned ST article. After reporting that the total fertility rate (TFR) was 1.91, 1.19 and 1.14 for the Malay, Indian and Chinese communities respectively, MM Lee was quoted as saying, “If we continue this way without the new immigrants and PRs and their children doing national service, the composition of the Singapore Armed Forces [SAF] will change. So please remember that.”

Without prejudicing other interpretations to the TFR figures juxtaposed against MM Lee’s remark, one interpretation conveys the prospect of the Chinese community’s demographic percentage dropping below the current 76%, as the community hosts the lowest TFR rate of all the racial groups in Singapore. The curious lack of rigorous public debate in the mainstream media over this prospect and the FT policy in general is noteworthy. Would the essential character of Singapore society be so fundamentally altered if the envisaged percentage for the Chinese population existed within a band say from 65-80%?

Superficially, the preceding point comes into distinct relief especially when Singapore’s population is anticipated to rise to between to 5.5 to 7.5 million, or whichever figure is eventually pursued by the Ministry of National Development. One would have thought that any change in the character of Singapore society ought to hold greater relevance for Singapore’s racial minorities, rather than for the majority community.

Separately, what the ST report did not mention was that even for the Malay community, TFR rates have been steadily dropping from 2.48 in 1998 to 2.1 in 2003. Clearly, the problem of population replacement is affecting all Singaporeans, regardless of race, since all three major racial communities are below the magic 2.1-population replacement figure.

An arguably more significant take-away from MM Lee’s remark was the reference to the SAF and the projected prospects of more Malays in uniform, because of the TFR figures in question. Speaking on a similar subject in 1999, MM Lee (then SM) opined “(i)f, for instance, you put in a Malay officer who’s very religious and who has family ties in Malaysia in charge of a machine gun unit, that’s a very tricky business. We’ve got to know his background… I’m saying these things because they are real….” While those remarks proved controversial then, on balance, at least they contained caveats in that they identified potential religious overzealousness and family ties as determining factors for military deployment, not that of being Malay in itself.

But MM Lee’s more oblique and open-ended references this time need to be unpacked, something the ST article did not do, for whatever reason. Critically, the crutch-like reliance on race-based arguments throws a wet blanket on the progress of Singapore’s nation-building efforts since independence. Should such thinking continue, the FT policy will raise even more uncomfortable questions akin to those which question the loyalty of a Malay (or any other race for that matter) soldier whose family has stayed in Singapore for generations, against that of a newly-arrived Chinese or Indian who may claim to be as loyal as a Pavlovian dog but who cannot sing the Majulah Singapore without looking or sounding like an oddball. That the insinuation of a Malay soldier’s loyalty may even be raised, is testimony to the deep, intense and unsettling emotions engendered by the FT policy. This is not to say that the racial factor is irrelevant and that MM Lee’s latest remarks were totally disingenuous. But it is hard to imagine Singaporeans enthusiastically playing their part integrating new foreigners when elements of the political leadership appear to intuitively speak the language of race as the argument of last resort.

More broadly, framing the FT policy solely through the lenses of race also threatens to roll back progress made by Singaporeans since independence in the national unity and political maturity arenas in particular. Feedback in the ST Forum over the last few months recommending the induction of English tests and other qualifying criteria for new immigrants are indicative of a public attempt at determining a minimum set of hoops future citizens ought to pass through before succeeding in their application for citizenship.

Taken further, one wonders what sort of values new citizens would bring to our shores should they come from corruption-ridden, authoritarian countries and host nary a spark of talent and with no experience of living in a multi-racial society. Singaporeans ought to welcome these immigrants if they display a desire to cast away or replace the narrow and self-serving values picked up in their former countries of domicile and commit for example, to absorb the values defined by our pledge, crafted by our first foreign minister, S. Rajaratnam.

It is for this very reason that some qualifying criteria – beyond educational standards – for citizenship based on Singapore’s shared values and a reasonable competency in English, amongst others, stand out as more nuanced and realistic requirements for citizenship, rather than an overly rigid adherence to the racial balance.

In a final message to Singaporeans, MM Lee rightfully observed that the speed at which foreigners integrated into Singapore society depended on how Singaporeans treated them. But the question remains of how far the government is willing to go to alleviate the very real concerns, repeatedly made in a variety of fora, in addressing the immediate and future social costs of the FT policy on native Singaporeans.

According to the same ST article, MM Lee asserted that the government safeguards the interest of native Singaporeans, highlighting education, housing and hospitalization policies favouring citizens over PRs. If this defence is employed to justify the government’s FT policy, it must be a highly specious one, as Singaporeans do not benefit from education, housing and hospitalization policies because of the FT policy. Therein lies the principle reason accounting for the largely insipid reaction of many Singaporeans to the FT policy – a lack of acknowledgement by the government of the very real sacrifices Singaporeans of all strata, but especially the nation’s lower and middle-classes, have to make and will likely need to make in future, to accommodate more foreigners into Singapore.

The very deep and all-encompassing changes to Singapore society as a result of the FT policy call for not only fresh approaches in dealing with concerns of the Singapore public but the slaughter of some sacred cows as a result. Significantly, a relationship based on transparency and openness with the public vis-à-vis the FT policy must represent the central pillar of the government’s efforts rather than one that sees the intermittent release of government data providing selective details on the FT policy, with no interest in revealing the guidelines that has and will shape that very policy. In the circumstances, it is unsurprising that Singaporeans continue to exhibit indifference to the FT policy. In this regard, it may serve the longer-term interests of government to appoint an ombudsman for the National Population Secretariat and National Integration Council, the two central bureaucratic organizations that oversee the government’s FT policy.

In addition, it would be in the government’s interest to develop a more inclusive policy formulation mechanism specific to the FT policy and even invite and encourage opposition parties, civil society groups and NGOs to form committees to provide regular feedback. Not only would this attract the focus and attention of Singaporeans to a policy that is likely to have a profound impact on their lives and those of their fellow citizens, it would expose Singaporeans to the realities of policy formulation in a larger way and promote the building of cooperative bonds between the executive and the populace at large. Both the government and Singaporeans at large stand to gain from such inclusiveness with the larger objective of citizen participation in the national integration project more likely to succeed.

In the final analysis, the fact that the government, through MM Lee no less, sees a need to repeat the ‘foreign talent is vital’ mantra every so often, is indicative of the mixed results of the FT policy so far. While it must be regarded as a success from the perspective of sheer numbers, the overt public skepticism against the policy for a variety of reasons alluded to earlier and other reasons this writer is uninformed about, seem to resonate more than any desire to help new immigrants integrate into Singapore society. If left unchecked, such a reality could force new immigrants to constitute one half of a bifurcated Singapore polity in future, a state of affairs that bodes ill not just for Singapore society and national unity, but also for the same SAF MM Lee frets about.


Pritam Singh can be reached at [email protected]


Notify of
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments