In a parliamentary exchange during the Committee of Supply debates for the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) on Monday (27 Feb), Leader of the Opposition Pritam Singh suggested an English test when assessing a person’s application for citizenship or permanent residency in Singapore.
However, Second Minister for Home Affairs Josephine Teo expressed misgivings on how much such a test could help, given that those who are not proficient in English are likely to be foreign spouses.
Mrs Teo also reiterated that instead of using a naturalisation test or interviews, the immigration authorities here “consider various markers of social integration” such as an applicant’s family ties to Singapore or whether they completed National Service.
Mr Singh, the Workers’ Party Secretary General, in his “cut” to the ministry’s proposed budget, questioned what Singapore’s goals should be when bringing in new citizens.
He emphasized that Singaporeans do not want new citizens who don’t want to live here but only want the power of the Singapore passport for their convenience and a safe and secure environment for their assets and wealth.
Mr Singh then raised the example of Switzerland, which has a highly specific selection process for new citizens that entails applicants showing themselves to be “successfully integrated” into the country. For ordinary naturalisation, a person must have lived there for 10 years and hold a permanent residence permit. Applicants must also be able to answer questions on Swiss geography, history, politics, and society.
In response, Mrs Teo said that while the Singapore authorities also consider an applicant’s ability to integrate in Singapore, they do not use a naturalisation test or interviews because “all tests have pitfalls”.
Instead, they consider various markers of social integration such as family ties to Singaporeans, length of residency, whether the applicant studied in our national schools or completed National Service. Applicants must also complete the Singapore Citizenship Journey before being granted citizenship.
When Mr Singh asked Mrs Teo to confirm if an English test is part of the process of assessing permanent residency or citizenship applications, she asked if he was advocating that such a test should be applied before someone can be considered for permanent residency or citizenship.
“I believe it would be helpful so I would advocate for it,” Mr Singh responded while citing the latest Singapore Census report once more.
Mrs Teo then said: “I must admit to being quite surprised by his position. “The reason being that, firstly, one can imagine that for most applicants for permanent residency and citizenship – if they have been in Singapore for a number of years, particularly if they had worked here, a facility with English is not surprising and I would think that the test need not be applied.”
She questioned the need for such a test, noting that those who are not well-versed in English are “likely to be spouses of citizens or other permanent residents” who come from the same countries.
“Unless we’re saying that we therefore do not welcome such foreign spouses, I’m not sure to what extent a test of English that could be applied to prevent them from being considered would be helpful,” Mrs Teo said.
Mr Singh in his cut, asked if the government can share more details on how new citizenships are granted, as there are aspects of the process and criteria currently that are opaque.
Mrs Teo said in response, “First, detailed criteria can be abused to inflict an undeserving applicant’s chances of success. There are applicants who submit false documents just to obtain immigration facilities. This problem will be exacerbated if we publish the detailed criteria and applicants know exactly what areas they can game. ICA (Immigration and Checkpoint Authority) will have a harder time securing the integrity of our process. Second, we have unique sensitivities by virtue of history and geography.”
After Mrs Teo’s explanation for not disclosing the detailed criteria for assessing citizenship applications, Mr Singh confronted her with the question of whether the Singapore Census report is already publishing the details that she claimed were sensitive on a ten-yearly basis.
“Is it not the case that the census has already provided some of this data?” Mr Singh asked.
Mrs Teo then responded, “We have set this on previous occasions. I think you can imagine the scenario if you publish this information on such a current basis, how this information can be misinterpreted and also can be used to suggest that we are friendly, are not as friendly to certain nationalities and even to certain ethnicities.”
“So I don’t have anything new to add to the previous explanations that have been provided.”
Mr Singh also posed a question about the refreshed Singapore citizenship journey which Mrs Teo made in her speech. As Mrs Teo mentioned that the content was co-created with citizens, he asked what aspect of the content was co-created by Singaporeans.
Mrs Teo then clarified that she did not have the details of the programme on hand but would provide them to him later.
“I don’t have the details of the Singapore Citizenship Journey with me, but I think the point is that it is a programme that seeks to enhance new citizens’ understanding of Singapore’s history, culture, and values,” she said.