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Understanding Government Immigration Priorities

By Chua Suntong -

During the Prime Minister (PM) National Day Rally speech on 26 August 2012, PM Lee mentioned the National Population & Talent Division (NPTD) was looking into immigration issues.  

The 3 main immigration components after the General Election (GE) of 2011 were

A1)Integration of the 10 000-20 000 Singapore Citizens (SCs) granted annually since 2005.

A2)Reducing the approval of new annual Singapore Permanent residents (SPRs) to about 20 000++

A3) Undecided on the current huge inflow of foreign Professionals, Managers, Executives & Technicians (PMET ) PQS workpass holders.  

From July 2012 onwards, ministers started urging new naturalized SCs to integrate into the mainstream. This differed from earlier efforts which the Government maintained it was the responsibility of existing homegrown locals to reach out to immigrants.

This exposed the weakness of the naturalization 1st policy. Prior to 2005, citizenships were generally granted on an integration 1st basis. This meant SC status was only granted to those who were deemed to have integrated.

The Government position was that renunciation of previous foreign citizenship by naturalized SCs meant loyalty to Singapore. However certain naturalized SCs could theoretically regain their previous citizenship or equivalent with little difficulty.

On 29 August 2003, the Philippine Congress passed the Citizenship Retention and Re-acquisition Act which reduced administrative obstacles for former home-grown Filipino citizens to regain their citizenship.

On 2nd December 2005, the Government of the Republic of India implemented an Overseas Citizenship of India (OCI) scheme. This scheme gave former home-grown Indian citizens to return to the Republic with partial citizenship rights.

Meanwhile, SPR reductions were caused by the following factors

B1)Decrease in vote share GE2011 caused by ultra-liberal & ultra-promotional immigration.  

B2)Increased preference of some SPRs not to become SCs. Demographically , aging SPRs were of decreasing value to the PAP government. The 2010 Population Census showed more SPRs aged 50 years & above.

B3)1/3 of National Service (NS)-liable 2nd generation male SPRs renounced SPR status to legally avoid NS. The 2010 Population Census of SPRs showed females had a 62% majority in the NS serving age range of 15 to 24 years old.

B4)During a Parliament sitting on 14th May 2012, backbencher  Dr Lam Pin Min asked the Minister of Health on the ability of SPRs to cope with less medical subsidies. (Parliament Report Volume 89 Session 1 Sitting 2). This indicated too many lower-income foreigners became SPRs.   

However, total PQS holders had increased from 243 000 in 2010 to 289 000 in 2011. Why were they increased if fewer of them would become SPRs?

We could answer this question by understanding Government efforts to control the 900 000 low-end R Pass holders. These efforts had limited success because wage depression meant it might not be practical for existing locals to take up these jobs.

The 289 000 PQS holders consisted of 176 000 middle-upper PQ holders to middle-lower113 000 S Holders. The PQ to S ratio was 1.5:1. The S Pass percentage of 39.1% among PQS holders appeared to be too high.

The S Pass & to a certain extent Q pass became a form of indirect cheap labour. The salaries were not low by overall Singapore standards but comparatively low in relation to local counterparts. Therefore any attempt in reducing PQS holders would face cost obstacles similar to reducing R Holders.

The adjustment of the S Pass Dependent Ratio Ceiling (DRC) also suggested the Government was preparing to view S Holders as transients & not potential future residents. The DRC linked the hiring of non-residents to the number of workplace residents. Residents were a combination of SCs & SPRs.   

During GE2011, the opposition National Solidarity Party (NSP) suggested a minimum salary of $4000 for Q-Pass holders. This was rejected by Manpower Minister Mr Gan Kim Yong who replied that younger & better educated Singaporeans would not want to take up jobs that pay less than $4000 monthly.

Since this was an admission that the Q Pass was an indirect form of cheap labour, why wasn’t a DRC imposed?

The PQ Pass system had its origins in September 1998 when the future Emeritus Senior Minister (ESM) Goh Chok Tong brought in huge numbers of immigrant PMETs & described them as “foreign talents” (FT).

The ESM hoped Q holders would create value in economics & reproductive demographics. However, reliance on R holders for economic growth showed the Q economic value was limited. The demographic value was non-existent as more immigrants led to fewer babies.

Pro-Immigration liberals dominated population policy formulation.  Controlling Q holders would end the ESM FT policy. Based on official & my estimates of new PQS approvals, the liberals wanted what I called a Plan 248. This meant  

C1)20 000 new naturalized SCs & 40 000 new SPRs

C2)80 000 new PQS holders consisting of 50 00 new PQ holders & 30 000 new S holders.

I had suggested to NPTD that Plan 248 numbers needed to be reduced by half into a Plan 124.

Although GE2011 had slowed down Plan 248, these liberals were not ready to concede defeat. One liberal example was Ms Yolanda Chin, a research fellow from the S Rajaratnam School of International studies at Nanyang Technological University.

In a Today newspaper commentary on 20 July 2012, she claimed the reduction of new annual SPRs would deter talented foreigners from settling down in Singapore. In addition, she argued Singapore faced a sellers’ market in talent demand.

Liberal thinking never properly defined suitable immigration. The fear of being in a sellers’ market meant the Government seemed obsessed with bringing in the quantity first.    

Liberal thinking also took a puritanical binary approach towards moderating immigrant reduction. Ms Chin described the anti-immigration camp as not appreciating the costs of a closed door policy (RSIS Commentaries No. 145/2012 dated 7 August 2012). Nobody ever advocated isolationism.  

The NPTD Population White Paper is due to be published at the end of 2012. The future population situation for the next 3 years will depend on the following decisions:

C1)Ability to manage PQS numbers properly.

C2)Choice between integration 1st or naturalization 1st   in approving new SCs.

C3) Willingness to resist pressure from pro-immigration liberals to restart mass granting of SPRs.

Regardless of increased or decreased immigration, the following is likely to remain:

D1)The current low total fertility rate (TFR) will either decrease or remain constant.

D2)Adult SPRs will contribute more to population aging but little to fertility.

D3)Resident & Citizen Old age-support ratios becoming socially meaningless. More immigrants displacing locals & not supporting these locals due to employer preference for younger foreigners.