Immigration: Are Singaporeans winners or losers?


By Tan Jee Say

“There are gainers and losers of a country’s immigration policy. Gainers are the users of immigrant labour namely, employers and consumers. Losers are native workers who compete with the immigrants.”

A simple, logical and bold statement from one of the world’s leading scholar-researchers on immigration economics. When I met Professor George Borjas at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government recently as part of my Harvard Fellowship, he made it clear to me that he was not taking sides in the ongoing debate on immigration in the US. He just wanted to state the facts as he saw them. Far too often, policy makers focused on the positive aspects but neglected to address the negative and harmful consequences.

With Prof George Borjas at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government on 25 November 2014

Big losers – choosy natives?

Prof Borjas reminded me of PAP ministers who constantly exhort Singaporeans to be grateful to foreigners for making the creation of jobs possible. They and their apologists even claim that the immigrants are merely doing the jobs that local citizens shun.

Prof Borjas said he heard a similar argument in the US but retorted that it was a false statement, stating categorically that “immigrants do jobs natives don’t want at the going rate“. He cited the example of taxi drivers in New York; there were hardly any native American driving cabs in the Big Apple as immigrant taxi drivers were cheaper.

However in the countryside such as in Iowa, cab drivers were predominantly natives. I told him of a comparable example with cleaners in Singapore. Like their counterparts in the US, employers in Singapore suppress the wages of Singaporean workers and blame them for being choosy. So Singaporeans lose jobs to cheaper foreigners or work at wages that only the weak and elderly would accept.

I asked about the minimum wage: wouldn’t it protect native American workers? He said the minimum wage in the US was too low and applied mostly to teenagers. And there were older workers particularly illegal immigrants who accepted wages lower than the minimum wage.

Prof Borjas told me US immigration is bi-polar in proportionate terms. A lot come in at the lower end with little education; the typical Mexican immigrant has only 6-8 years of schooling. There are also a substantial number at the high end, that is, immigrants with high degrees. However, there are very few in between. This is unlike Singapore where rules are relaxed for middle level foreigners to come in on S passes and replace middle level Singaporean managers and professionals.

The other losers – institutions, cultures and values

In addition to native workers, local institutions are the other losers of immigrant labour. Prof Borjas explained that immigrants come from societies that are at a different level of development from the US. They have a long term impact on the institutions, cultures and values of the host country. We notice the differences in Singapore too. Their standards of efficiency are also different and have an impact on the quality of services that has been negative in many areas of public services, in restaurants and over the counter.  We are all too familiar with frequent disruptions and breakdowns of MRT train services, burst water pipes at the world’s best airport, falling ceilings in shopping malls, major telecommunication and trading disruptions affecting financial institutions, and the failure of many other previously acclaimed world class services.

Limits of tolerance

The differences in culture and values have also given rise to increasing instances of social tension between Singaporeans and foreign workers. Have the limits of tolerance been reached? I put this question to Mary Waters, who is Professor of Sociology at Harvard and a renowned researcher on integration of immigrant communities in the US.

With Prof Mary Waters at the Department of Sociology on 20 November 2014

Prof Waters said it depends on the proportion of immigrants in the national population and their rate of increase.  She felt that at 12%, the proportion of immigrants in the US is not high; it comprises roughly one-third new citizens, another third on green card (PR) and the final third illegals.

However, the rate of increase has been uneven in different parts of the country, with the south and mid-west (“the new destinations”) rising from zero immigrant to 10% in one decade. It was an astonishing rate of growth. There was a comparable experience at the turn of the 20th century when one million immigrants came in from southern and central Europe every year. It led to riots particularly against the Italians and Jews that resulted in the enactment of anti-immigration laws in the 1920s up to 1965 when the legislation was relaxed because of the civil rights movement.

Foreigners now account for about 40% of the Singapore population and their pace of growth had been very rapid, with one million coming in over 10 years, representing a 25% increase. Even though the pace has moderated very recently (or so we are told), it still adds significant numbers to what is already a very high proportion of foreigners in our midst. The numbers are stretching the limits of tolerance. The Little India riot and other eruptions of social tension are clear manifestations.

Be winners, not losers

We should not risk any more social disruptions with additional foreign workers when we already have difficulty coping with existing numbers. To minimize discontinuity at the workplace, we can work with existing numbers of foreign workers, make better use of them or refresh them with better ones but keeping to current numbers and not increasing them. Over time, we should reduce their numbers and make greater use of  Singaporean workers.

For this to happen, there must be priority for hiring Singaporeans, a fair wage including a reasonable minimum wage and non-discriminatory employment practices that take into account the CPF contributions of Singaporean workers and the military reservist liabilities of male Singaporeans. When these conditions are in place, Singaporean workers will cease to be losers compared to foreign workers, and will emerge as winners. SingFirst has plans to make this happen and will announce its proposals in due course.

If you want to be winners and not losers in your own country, vote in a party that will put these fair working conditions in place. You have a choice to do so in the next general election to be held in 2015/2016.

Vote change to become winners, and not remain as losers.

Our freedom to choose is our power to change.

This article was first published on the website of local political party, Singfirst.