JULY 30 — When do immigrant nations decide they’ve had enough immigrants? It happens fairly often.
Australia, where 99 per cent of the population are descended from relatively recent foreign settlers, has had draconian controls for years.
The USA, which has long been relatively welcoming to migrants, has also now turned vehemently against its undocumented and aspiring new settlers.
And Singapore where the overwhelming majority of all our communities have roots here that don’t extend beyond 100 years has recently been tightening the screws on migration.
It’s an irony as these countries owe effectively their entire identities to migration.
Singapore would not exist in anything like its current form without migrants. So why don’t we want them anymore?
The usual staple of reasons; jobs, economic opportunities and xenophobia. We think these newcomers just aren’t like us, they are taking our jobs and well they might even be dangerous.
To be fair, it is a tough balance — with a natural fertility rate of just over one child born per woman, our population would halve in no time without migrants but open migration leads quickly to anger among established citizens.
Speaking at an economic conference in India, Singapore’s Deputy Prime Minister Tharman Shanmugartnam said that “excessive migration leads people to feel it is not their own society.”
He spoke out for the free movement of goods but not the movement of people. He also defended curbs on the movement of Indian professionals to Singapore as India’s National Association of Software and Services Companies complained that the movement of Indian software professionals to Singapore had been heavily restricted.
Despite the restrictions, however, it is clear Singapore has skills gaps in certain fields including IT but also in aspects of the sciences and senior management. We do need to import talent.
Without developers, thousands of them, Singapore’s economic future will not be bright. At the same time, we can’t be flooded by 100,000 Indian programmers a year.
One option is to implement a comprehensive skills based system (like Australia) to fill clear needs; a points-based system which looks at hard skills, languages, and more abstractly the ability to fit in.
However, cherry picking highly-skilled immigrants creates a class of privileged recent migrants that further spurs resentment.
Canada, Australia etc. have been in the skilled migration game much longer than we have and it is not that easy for Singapore to bag the top brass from China, India and even Malaysia.
We might look to globalise our recruitment pool -- go beyond China and India and look into Myanmar, Eastern Europe or Africa.
Pulling the best talent from new destinations also builds links to other parts of the world. It is a strong economic strategy but how do you choose one region or nation over another?
Do we begin with regional quotas for non-traditional areas like Africa, South America and Europe? Also what role should our companies and employers play, surely they should be able to import the workers they need to grow regardless of national origin?
It is all a far cry from the fast and loose systems of the past. One of my grandfathers effectively walked to this country from Burma. On the other side, my ancestors came from India and Malaysia so long ago no one can really remember how they got here — maybe they took a ship, perhaps they hopped on a caravan or even swam the Straits?
Many Singaporeans have similar stories: our ancestors came here as beneficiaries of free movement. No one asked them to prove their skills as IT developers or biochemists; they just sort of turned up and got on with it.
And this ragtag unscientific assortment of peoples created a pretty successful nation which is something we should keep in mind before we over-regulate things.
While I understand our core identity must be preserved, we need to remember migration is part of our core, an inalienable part of our history and ourselves and if we really shut the door to new migrants we will lose the very meaning of Singapore.