By Yap Shiwen
In the past few years, the sentiment on the ground has been for a better calibration of the immigration policy, in part to solve the problem of PMET unemployment, in part to control population growth. And throughout this time, some factions may have used it to distract attention from relevant domestics issue and to gain political capital, or to frame opposing views as inimical to the social and economic welfare of Singapore.
I’m a Singaporean. I served my National Service starting out in Pulau Tekong, moved to Seletar Camp and finished it, like most Singaporean males my age. However, my parents are both foreigners. Specifically, my mother is a Malayalle Indian born in the Indian state of Kerala but came to Singapore as a child, while my father is a Hakka Chinese born and raised in the Malaysian state of Selangor, but migrated to Singapore for reasons of study and later for work.
At the end of the day, Singapore is an open economy rooted in being an immigrant nation,reliant on global flows of trade and migration for our manpower and our economic wealth. In contemporary times, we face an increased density of people, an increase cost of living and a decreased level of purchasing power relative to the cost of living.
The problem that Singapore has at this point is multifaceted – a low TFR (Total Fertility Rate) with negative demographic consequences and a requirement for immigrants to make up for the shortfall and shortages in skilled manpower across different sectors for a variety of reasons. I’m not going to cover that. But we do have an instrument available to us that can be applied, if we look at it and reframe the problem.
And that is reviewing National Service policy, or rather military policy as a whole and reviewing Permanent Residency applications as well.
Military Manpower and Reservists
Every Singapore guy has encountered it on a personal level – manpower shortages. The Singapore Armed Forces is generally said to be in part a guarantor of security for Singapore, as as deterrent force. But more often that not, whether in your NSF or Reservist phase, you encounter instances of improperly deployed manpower and all the other administrative nightmares inherent in the NS experience – the wastage of time and the constant “wait to rush,rush to wait” processes.
With the reduction in TFR, and the resultant reduction in available manpower in the coming years, the SAF will face a shortage of military personnel at some point, though it is now able to maintain its current disposition, at least based upon currently available knowledge.
More importantly, National Service is an inherent part of the Singaporean male identity. We have earned our citizenship through the duty of NS and sacrifice of 2 years of our prime, for a country and government that may or may not appreciate us in any real sense and could simply be going through the motions, cynical as that is to say.
More importantly, it unites us, whether through a shared sense of grievance, dislike, reluctance, duty, service or the fact that we develop relationships with the comrades who go through the experience with us. It provides a baseline for social interaction and integration that most Singaporean men can identify with, whether in the SAF, SPF or SCDF. People are social creatures, with identity created through shared beliefs, attitudes and experiences. National service acts to provide such an experience.
However to many employers, the reservist requirement is cited as a liability, requiring that they surrender their personnel, sometimes key individuals in their organisations, for up to 2 weeks at a time, or 3.84% of a year. It also requires wives and partners to manage external activities and can impose extra stress on families, as well as SMEs.
Requiring that 1st generation PRs serve this would be a significant measure to integrating them into the fabric of Singaporean life and acculturating them towards being more ‘Singaporean’, as well as as resolve to a degree the issue of limited manpower in the uniformed services that has been brought about by the low TFR of the Singaporean population.
At the same time, it would also impose a uniform liability upon the Singapore workforce, removing the lack of such a liability from the considerations of employers, as now all residents would have it imposed on them. It reduces the incentive to hire foreign workers and PMETs without such a liability, unless they are required specifically due to their particular skillset or professional experience that is otherwise unavailable here.
There are military reservist systems in operation that can serve as the basis for a Singaporean model. All of them exist within Commonwealth nations. These systems are the United Kingdom Territorial Army, the Canadian Forces Primary Reserve & Supplementary Reserve, the Indian Territorial Army and the Rejimen Askar Wataniah of Malaysia.
In the case of the United Kingdom Territorial Army, Enlisted Personnel are required to undergo 6 training weekends, starting from Friday night and ending on Sunday evening in Phase 1 of their training. A 2-week battle camp then completes their training in Phase 2. NCOs (Non-Commissioned Officers) and Commissioned Officers are then required to undertake additional modules in order to qualify for command.
Adapting this model to Singapore, such personnel could be called in for training and then inserted into local units amongst the Singaporeans. This would act as a dual measure aimed at stemming any shortfall across the uniformed services, as well as exposing and integrating PRs through the formation of social networks with locals in a setting that fosters relationship building.
However the primary challenge to this would be whether the SAF would be willing to take on and expose foreign personnel to the operational procedures and doctrines of the SAF, which could compromise operational security in the event of a crisis. It is not a matter of logistics, but rather of political will and feasibility, economically and logistically. For the SPF and SCDF, it does not impose a security concern faced by the SAF but more of a matter of manpower.
Nevertheless, it does allow for the creation of a larger pool of manpower that can be drawn upon in the event of a war, as well as mechanism for social integration and acculturation into the Singaporean mainstream.
Dual Citizenship, Permanent Residency & Language Requirements
Dual citizenship has always been a topic of contention for Singapore, given the perceived risks and questions of loyalty, as well as the possibility of allowing a highly placed individual with dual nationalities to influence policy or engage in activity that may be detrimental to Singapore’s economic and social welfare.
In light of the falling TFR, and in conjunction with the fact that many spouses of Singaporean citizens have been denied PR status, let along Singapore citizenship, let’s allow for dual citizenship of all female citizens, especially for those married to a Singaporean spouse.
It may not be the economically beneficial measure for Singapore, but it is a socially beneficial measure in allowing a woman who is the mother of Singaporean children the legal rights and protections due to her as a citizen. It empowers and enables her to be in a position where she can better maintain the interests of her children.
If that is not palatable to society or the government, then a more pragmatic measure may be to allow dual citizenship for women from countries that have a significant global status or possess strong socioeconomic links with Singapore or are of a certain development status: Brunei, Thailand, Taiwan, India, Japan, Australia, Russia, Israel, Canada, USA, Brazil, South Africa, the United Kingdom, Germany, Sweden, Norway, Finland & the Netherlands. These are countries that are middle powers at the least, and the social and potentially economic linkages generated by such individual, should they be in the
right positions and of the requisite socioeconomic status, would be of benefit to Singapore by association.
For men, such a status would be conditional upon completing a term with the proposed Territorial Army or altered National Service conditions. It is a matter of expanding the realm of the possible and adapting models that act as precedents elsewhere, and of the proper implementation, should the will exist.
Finally, the automatic granting of Permanent Residency status to any individual married to a Singapore citizen, and with at least one child, will allow for better management of the TFR situation in Singapore. It allows for the rights of a Singaporean child to be protected and for the rights of the parent who bears a duty of care to that child to be protected and facilitate in their pursuit of that duty.
As far as I can recall, we’ve always been ‘Singaporean’. However, the influx of PRC migrants into Singapore has altered the language landscape of the nation and demographics. In the past, our migrant ancestors arrived from China, India and elsewhere. And they acculturated to the trade languages of the time, English and Malay. They learnt it and adapted, because that was the language in which they traded with their markets. And this held through since the colonisation of Singapore by the British Empire, through the days where we were part of Malaysia and even up till recently. Many of the older generation are able to speak a degree of Malay, with words like ‘makan’ a part of the Singapore lexicon and Singlish, our local flavour of English.
Similarly, we should impose a language requirement for anyone interested in working in Singapore, reflecting the requirement of the times. We are a global city with a multicultural identity – the identity of being Singaporean. At least this is the personal perception, which I feel may be inaccurate at this time. Language carries the identity of a people, as well as the culture, shaping thoughts and attitudes, the paradigm in which people conceptualise the world.
English is the link language of Singapore and the trade language of the world. When a worker in a service job or other vocation cannot speak basic English to me, I as a consumer/customer come away with a bad impression. For a business, this creates a liability that can cause customers to disengage, affect their branding and prevent outreach to other segments of the Singaporean population – the non-Chinese segment.
Moreover, as a minority ethnic group, it implies to me that Mandarin is valued over English. I have a basic right to expect that the person I’m talking to know English. It is disconcerting when a person of obvious non-Chinese heritage engages in a communication and is then expected to know Mandarin by the service or product provider I am engaging.
We area city with many different cultures coexisting. A clear minimum requirement of minimal competency in English would be a dividend that would have both social benefits and economic benefits.
While all these ideas bear significant challenges and externalities in their implementation and feasibility, all of them have the core social aim of facilitating the integration of disparate elements into a multifaceted Singaporean identity.
They also allow for political capital to be scored by the political party that sees fit to propose and implement it, and serve as a means to resolves shortfall in manpower that are relevant to the security aspects of public policy. It would also aid economic interests, especially in the service sector and blue collar jobs, where language competency is lacking in workers brought in from overseas, specifically and very often overwhelmingly, from China.
It is ultimately up to the Singaporean public to express a strong desire for this. We need to acknowledge our Singaporean identity and the necessity of immigration, the need for a well-calibrated migration policy that balances socioeconomic and business interests, and the integration of foreigners into the Singaporean culture.