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New citizen issue – poor grasp, useless ideas?

Howard Lee -

Regrettably, I did not watch this year's National Day Rally, as I would have liked to appreciate the nuances of Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong's words.

Nevertheless, I managed to grab my free copy of Today on Monday. It amazes me that Today can, similar to the massive coverage after the closing of the Youth Olympic Games, dedicate 13 pages to one Rally, five of which were specifically on the new migrant issue, when all they were trying to say was this:

  • PM Lee focused chiefly on the issue of new immigrants among our midst, which was felt to be a key concern to citizens.
  • His key message: Citizens will always come first, but the import of foreign talent is essential for Singapore's survival. As such, steps will be taken to make citizens feel valued and to integrate new citizens better.
  • He also announced a number of initiatives in the pipeline, such as new housing and education policies, as well as an incentive package for National Servicemen.
  • In general, the Rally was deemed by journalists and interviewees from all walks of life to be good. It was perceived to be a down-to-earth assessment of our migration woes, and supported by real-life examples of positive migrant integration stories, addressing citizens' valid concerns yet also encouraging a positive attitude.

So much for my summary, and now for the cranky, business end of this article: Was Lee's Rally as meaningful, spot-on or motivational as it was touted to be?

The focus on new immigrant was the correct direction – this is a topic that has struck a nerve among our population, to say the least. However, Lee’s approach to the issue was wrong – he neither addressed the concerns appropriately, nor indicated the appropriate measures to alleviate these concerns. The second point should not be a surprise – if he did not have a proper grasp of the issue to begin with, how would he be able to address it properly?

Lee’s acknowledgement of the migrant issue was based on the presumption that citizens are uneasy about new migrants, in relation to limiting job opportunities and stresses on our living spaces. He has identified the problem, but none of his proposed solution made any sense in solving it.

A good example would be the $9,000 education and housing subsidy for National Servicemen. On the surface, it seemed like a positive gesture to differentiate between citizens and migrants, but that is all the surface work it really does. No consideration was given to the fact that, even after all the money has been used up totally to pay for an NSman’s education (forget about housing, the amount will barely scratch the surface of the massive housing loan that he would have to take eventually), his problem with foreign talent really hits when he enters the workforce and competes for jobs. The incentive cannot address this issue directly.

If you were to examine most of the initiatives he mentioned, you will notice a similar vein. They were geared towards placating citizens to make them feel more valued than migrants. However, they do not solve the fundamental problems of our lax migration policies. Pumping up on transport, education and housing systems does not give any real advantage to citizens. It only enhances a system that both citizens and new migrants are free to exploit, all the way up to saturation point.

In other words, the Rally was little more than lip service to the new migrant issue. Policy changes that are long overdue, such as better equity to NSmen, have been recast as incentives to “solve” the new migrant issue. It presupposed that citizens are disenfranchised about the influx of foreign talent and want to be valued. But that is barely representative of the problem. Singaporeans are generally a pragmatic lot. If we are inclined to take these incentives in good faith, we will know that we would only be disappointed later, discovering that they do not essentially resolve the issue.

What will? We need to roll out policies that clearly define the meaning of “talent” in the term “foreign talent”. If you noticed the examples in the Rally news coverage, the ranks of new citizens hailed to have “adapted well” to life in Singapore included a bus captain and owners of an architect firm. I do not doubt the achievements of these new citizens, and they have done well in their own rights. But are we being too lax with the word “talent”, when we are hard pressed for examples of how new citizens punch above their weight and bring in greater value to our nation? We need to reevaluate our migration criteria, and it will risk protectionism. However, I am of the view that a fair dose of protectionism can possibly do us some good now, at least in sending a clear signal to the world about what Singapore seeks, and how we value our citizenship.

It is sad to see the National Day Rally degenerating into merely an attempt to “boost the morale” of its intended audience, for that is what Lee is trying to do. Essentially, his message is for us not to make a big deal about it, accept the foreigners in our midst as the reality of our constructed “world view”, and here are some goodies to sweeten the deal if we behave. Utter nonsense.

I do not believe that Singaporeans are that myopic to see our problems in every foreigner we meet. There is also no indication that we will take to the streets or begin a series of hate crimes targeting new migrants. I believe that the current gripe that citizens have revolve around the policies, not the people that the policies favour. There is a need to pay attention to policy issues, rather than continue side-stepping it and risk the issue degenerating to a level of intolerance that we will all regret.

Even more unfortunate was when Lee continued to expound the qualities that make up the Singapore Spirit – determination, trust, competence and confidence. He was surely making a direct reference to the YOG, but in the light of the migrant issue, I could not help but flag it as his endnote to encourage Singaporeans to “soldier on”. Draw an extension line, and you would notice that these qualities describe the very meritocratic ideals that have so far been the impetus for placing new migrants on equal footing with citizens.

The Singapore Spirit should be the embodiment of the unique Singaporean identity, something that we can hold as a standard, even to benchmark against foreign talent seeking citizenship. It is a great waste and pity that it should have been squandered as such.

This National Day Rally, in my personal opinion, will probably go down in our nation’s short history as the one that said a lot, but meant almost nothing. The attempted focus on the migrant issue seemed little more than a poor attempt to drag citizens into an immigration vision that is fundamentally flawed, and we are nowhere closer to making a positive change.