Friday, 22 September 2023

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Winning the hearts and minds of orphans

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Straits Times

Khairulanwar Zaini

In forking out $10 million to ‘promote integration between immigrants and citizens in the community, schools and workplace’, the government discovers that adopting foreign nationals does not only produce social friction, but can become quite expensive as well.

Together we can (pay you to) move mountains

Coming soon after a concession by PM Lee Hsien Loong to have a ‘sustained, calibrated inflow of immigrants’ during a speech at NTU, the government goes back to a familiar route: throw an impressive figure, because in Singapore money will move mountains.

The highfalutin-sounding Community Integration Fund will disburse $10 million to subsidse ‘groups keen on holding events but which lack the resources to do so’. Thus far though, little has been said about the conditions – would a Chinese clan association be sponsored for holding a dinner for new Chinese citizens? How about a mosque holding a religious seminar between Muslim immigrants and locals qualify? The very lack of detail testifies not to a government undertaking ameliorative actions to reduce the social frictions of its own doing, but one trying to pay its way out of the responsibility.

For a government predisposed to jealously guarding its power, it is uncharacteristic to allow ‘organisations (to hold) projects – cultural gatherings, seminars, social outings and the like – to help immigrants and Singaporeans mingle and get to know each other’. It is not like the all-powerful, ever-competent government to allow trivial non-state ‘groups’ to pick up the slack, particularly on an issue of such sensitive socio-political importance, unless the government itself is devoid of a real substantive solution beyond funding marquee events that are limited to being headline-worthy and glossy photograph-material.

‘Civil society group facilitates cultural exchange programme between immigrants and citizens, with help from the state’ may well be the celebratory praises sung by a hypothetical Straits Times headline in the near future. And why should it not – self-congratulatory pats are in order for that brilliant win-win-win dynamics: civil society benefits, the government benefits and the nation benefits!

But alas, it remains that while a democratic government cooperating with civil society to achieve national goals is being magnanimous and enlightened, a soft authoritarian and paternalistic government deferring to civil society is one that is just lacking in ideas. The government, as power-sensitive as they come, will only cede authority when they realise that the responsibility is beyond their million-dollar capacity to resolve.

The grassroots teaches politics

The pinnacle of the integration masterplan: the Naturalisation and Integration Journey, effectively a condensed National Education lesson for immigrants vying for a pink IC and red passport.

Essentially an ‘updated orientation programme for new citizens’, it will introduce ‘key historical landmarks and institutions, and … grassroots communities here’. The inclusion of ‘grassroots communities’ as though it was an integral and representative segment of the population would certainly raise eyebrows. The nominally apolitical grassroots leaders and members often double up as the rah-rah boys of certain political inclinations, and it would be hard to imagine that they would refrain from passing their infectious enthusiasm to the coterie of new citizens.

A legitimate claim could be advanced that this form of political education is valuable in engendering civic and responsible citizens. The argument has such compelling beauty that we are forced to concede that political education for new citizen is not only fair but necessary, except for the niggling quibble that political education sponsored by the grassroots amounts to no less political indoctrination.

For all the bluster that political education is fair, political indoctrination is hardly so. Going through the grassroots is to naturalise the new citizens to the government, not the country.

Communication & Magnanimity

The requirement for ‘newcomers to attend basic English courses to improve their command of the language in order to better communicate with Singaporeans’ is laudable. Indeed so, except it becomes shocking to realise that basic English competency was not a prerequisite for immigrants seeking to work, particularly in the service industry, in a nation that is plugged into the international economy through the lingua franca of trade: English.

But as always, better belated than never.

Perhaps, improved communication will cajole Singaporeans to have ‘an open heart and mind, and an attitude of helping and accepting each other’, as the Minister for Community Development, Youth and Sports Vivian Balakrishnan advised.

But this magnanimity will be hard to muster, considering the obligations of citizenship. Being a Singaporean for natural-born citizens, regardless of talent, would entail the discharge of obligations and sacrifice in the name of duty and country. However, immigrant ‘talents’ are inducted with pride, pomp and circumstances, even if they have a halting command of English – no sacrifice needed, no dues of citizenship to pay!

This is particularly so when naturalised citizens and immigrants enjoy the security and peace procured by the two years’ worth of active service and subsequent ten of reservist duties, all solely borne by natural-born citizens.

The disparity is aggravated when considering that in the last five years ending in June 2008, the population grew from 4.1 million to 4.8 million. From 2003 to 2008, permanent residents swelled by about 30% to become 478000 strong. Meanwhile, the number of immigrants stands at 1.2 million in June 2008, courtesy of an influx of 449000 immigrants during that period. In contrast, the non-resident population only increased by a mere 700 from 1998 to 2003. (See Population in Brief: 2009 published by the National Population Secretariat)

Given that first-generation PRs and naturalised citizens are not subjected to National Service, there is another worrying implication on defence considerations. It is paradoxical to discover that our burgeoning population does not enhance our security capacity, but instead becomes a liability as we are compelled to draw upon a narrowing strength of natural-born soldiers to defend an escalating number of non-residents whose only loyalty to Singapore is economic.

Earning citizenship

For Singaporeans, particularly the males, the benefits of citizenships are not attained cheaply – there are dues to be paid. For any rapport to be established between natural-born and naturalised citizens, it is worthwhile to remember this.

Instead of assiduously laying out the carpet for naturalised citizens, the balance should be restored by encouraging the citizen-aspirants to labour for that red passport. Forget interaction sessions organised by civil society, forget government-sponsored Naturalisation and Integration Journeys – have these new citizens work out their own community projects to interact with the local communities instead. Ask them to form groups and establish their own outreach projects, whether to youths, the elderly or the disadvantaged. The government already finances community initiatives managed by youths, so it is hardly groundbreaking to require new citizens to undertake such a venture.

It may seem a little taxing and onerous for citizen-aspirants, but citizenship was never an easy thing for natural-born Singaporeans themselves. The exercise in civic consciousness has the added impact of leaving an indelible impact – more lasting than seminars or integration journeys or grassroots interaction could muster – with the critical constituents themselves: ordinary Singaporeans who are again being marginalised into pawns; on whom the onus of integration has been vested as though the social dissonance between locals and newcomers is their fault.

The new orphans of Singapore

Even then, it remains a very sanguine hope that Dr Vivian’s call will be answered. It is easy for him to adopt a non-zero sum attitude towards immigrants, since the government economic policy does share a non-zero sum relationship with the influx of immigrant labour. The reality for the individual citizen is starker: it is purely a zero-sum game between him and the immigrant for the coveted job.

In the rush to pad the labour strength to pursue its policy of growth at all cost, the government has effectively made orphans out of natural-born Singaporeans while they adopt the foreign-born ‘talented’ ones. There is a need for an honest reappraisal of the Singaporean economic growth model that addresses the sustainability and viability of being inundated by foreign cheap labour. The real danger is the turning of this discontent into full xenophobia, and the government owes it to itself and Singapore to mitigate the resentment of these new orphans.

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