Monday, October 12, 2009

While Singapore government procrastinates, Singapore runs the risk of serious tensions

I had been speaking up against Singapore's foreign talent policies since the late 90s, starting with NUS forums.

In those days, the foreign talent policies were really felt only by the Engineering and Science faculties and some hostelites, and I was called xenophobe and nazi by people who did not experience it first hand and had no idea what I was talking about.

On graduation, I chose to work in IT, and over the years, I had been at the forefront of the impacts of the foreign talent policies. I continued to speak up, and as usual, the sectors of Singapore that did not see many foreigners, continued to give me labels.

Then suddenly, Singapore's open door policy picked up pace, and the presence of foreigners can now be felt everywhere, and mainstream opinion swings from one extreme to the other overnight.

From early on, I recognised the problem was with the government's foreign talent policy, not the foreigners themselves.

I had been room mate, project mate, co worker, vendor, teacher (in my years teaching in a polytechnic), and now an employer, of foreigners.

I had also seriously considered migration. I recognise the challenges a foreigner faces in a foreign land. I also recognise the value a talented foreigner can bring, not just to the nation as a whole, but also to the company I work for and my own personal well being.

The problem is with Singapore government's bipolar schizophrenic policies. You cannot use two rulebooks for two groups of people living in the same country, and not expect to have problems.

If Singapore desires to attract foreigner to stay here long term and eventually become citizens, then it is a no-brainer to believe that the best foreign talent policy has to start with a good citizenship policy.

But yet there are too many sacred cows in Singapore's citizenship policies that Singapore would rather choose to piss off both Singaporeans and foreigners than to address seriously.

1) National Service

The Prime Minister recognises that imposing NS on new citizens will scare them away. Well, imposing NS on the children of new citizens and PR will also scare them away. If foreigners are spared the unpleasantness of NS, why impose it on Singaporeans? Does Singapore really need a massive conscript army? If we have no choice but to stick with NS, then I think it is only logical that those who serve NS should be entitled to significant privileges. In Israel for example, Israeli citizens of Arab descent are exempt from military service, but many choose to do so or they will have significant difficulties with their job hunting. Some would no doubt say this amounts to discrimination against the foreigners, and it is a tough choice to make. But left as it is, we have to tolerate NS discriminating against citizens and potentially harm a citizen's employment opportunities. As long as the Singapore government shy away from this tough decision, the citizens will resent the foreigners. The foreigners will feel the resentment, and for them, staying put long term in Singapore will never be attractive, not to mention the NS liabilities they will bring on their sons.

2) Education subsidies

At every fee hike in the local universities, one of the usual justification is that undergraduates unfairly consume a disproportionate share of the Education budget. That's a fair statement, until you encounter the foreigners who are 100% subsidized, given a living allowance and are given privileged admission to local hostels.
Are they not enjoying an even more disproportionate share of the education budget? Clearly, there are two rules being applied. Tough choices to be made, but the Education Ministry prefers to bury their head in the sand.

3) Employer CPF

If Employer CPF contribution is such a good thing, then everybody should enjoy it. If it is bad for foreigners, it must be bad for citizens too. So why do we exempt some foreigners from "enjoying" the employer's CPF? Why do we create a system that makes Singaporeans more costly to hire and retain?

4) Subsidised healthcare?

Subsidised healthcare in Singapore is a saddening joke. Take a look at the B2 wards, the most subsidised wards in public hospitals. They are not free, and you may have to be put through means testing to qualify for a bed.

It is almost as though the hospitals went out of their way to design an experience as painful as possible to the patients, presumably for unfairly consuming an excessive portion of the healthcare budget. Not only are beds constantly in shortage, no air-conditioning (with dubious cost savings to partition out a non-airconditioned wards in an otherwise fully air conditioned hospital) and worse yet, deliberately limiting the attention the patients can receive from doctors and nurses, to better be "fair" customers in the A wards who pay more. This is not subsidised healthcare. It is substandard healthcare. Would foreigners envy citizens for this "privilege"? I doubt so.

5) Overcrowding

The Singapore government has uncharacteristically mismanaged the overcrowding situation. The number of foreigners Singapore brings in is in precise control of the government, and yet it has failed to ensure there is adequate transport and housing for the new immigrants. The transport end can be partially explained by the Nicoll Highway collapse that delayed significantly the completion of the Circle Line. But more importantly, the vestiges of the rules barring Singapore bus services from competing with the rail services (to guarantee the viability of SMRT) still exists. Worse still, both bus companies also operate rail services, which will prevent them from seriously competing against rail services. LTA needs to seriously buck up and stop procrastinating from making tough decisions, and stop the fake competition between SBS and SMRT.

6) Singapore's treatment of migrant workers

It is an understatement to stay that we can treat the migrant workers a lot better. (I define migrant workers as the category of workers who attract a foreign worker levy). Unfortunately, the Ministry of Manpower turns a blind eye to the near abusive conditions the migrant workers are made to live in. One would think that after collecting the hefty foreign worker levy, the Manpower Ministry should do a lot more to ensure that the migrant workers have proper shelter, transport, wages get paid on time, and in general, not be easy targets for scams. When we tolerate such abuses, not only do our souls die a little, but think about the strata of Singaporeans who have to compete for jobs with the migrant workers who gets paid little, transported like cargo and live in crammed quarters. And I'm sure for some migrant workers, they are always hungrier than Singaporean. As in starving hungry. When we tolerate bad treatment for the migrant workers, Singaporeans get hurt too. Who wants to hire Singaporeans when there are truckloads of migrant workers who can be kicked around?

For foreigners, Singapore citizenship is totally unattractive, and Singapore will always be a stepping stone. Unless we choose to create a new citizenship class that permanently exempts them and their descendants from the unattractive aspects of Singapore citizenship, only those with no choice elsewhere will want to stay. Singapore will become a dirt trap of foreigners, keeping the scum while the best will move on.

As for Singaporeans, most can tolerate the situation now... as long as we have a job. But if citizen unemployment rises significantly or if wages fail to keep pace with the costs of living rocketing up due to resource competition with foreigners, I fear the unease with foreigners will turn into full blown irrational anger and start directing that anger at foreigners, and it is not going to do anybody any good.

Remember, the racial riots of Singapore's yesteryears were also conflicts between locals and new immigrants.


  1. George says:
    Extremely well written.
    You said a lot of things
    that should be said in
    parliament but it never
    happened because it would
    be like asking eunuchs to
    impregnate the emperor's

  2. One day the whole country will crumble inwards under the social pressure. When it happens, I'll look at it from afar in the safety of my overseas home. When that happens, where will your men in white be?

    Quitter who is living comfortably outside Singapore.

  3. Thoughtfully-written piece. Thanks for the insight.

  4. Well written but just another dust in the wind.

  5. Yes, well said. But the ruling party is not listening, and won't because they think they know best.

  6. And the alternative ?
    Societies that have a habitual reproduction rate of below 1.7 are doomed to oblivion, unable to replace themselves.
    Singaporeans MUST marry and produce more than 2 children per marriage, otherwise new citizens can only come from migration, period.
    Now we start talking about honing and refining policies for these new citizens......
    contributing objectively without the vile invectiveand worthless vituperation

  7. thoughts aplenty,

    I may not have said so directly, but it is implied throughout the article that I want new immigrants to stay in Singapore, for good, and not use Singapore as a stepping stone.

    The two pressing things that need done, is that foreigners must not feel resentment from Singaporeans and they must see value in the Singapore citizenship. The government is doing too little to address both problems.

    And, I'm married with two sons. And I feel obliged to look for a way out of NS for both my sons. NS scares old citizens away too, you know. Singapore not only has one of the lowest birth rates in the world, we also have one of the highest emigration rate for a region with no significant push factor like war.

  8. That's reasonable.
    Statistics for new immigrants who stay, cf
    immigrants who use Singapore as stepping stone?
    Significant proportion or are we talking about an imaginary problem ?
    Shouldnt it be ' the locals must not feel resentment towards the new citizens '
    rather than the other way around ?
    After all, if you read some of the threads regarding this, many natives feel that the new arrivals have been foist on them, willy nilly
    by cold govt policy.
    I am sure you did NS just as I did.
    Piece of cake as long as one assumes the right
    attitude, eschews indolence, avoids tardines,
    keeps reasonably fit and is aware of one's limitations especially when down with an indisposition, agreed ?
    If our boys are not trained to protect the island,just who are going to deter our little
    ' Chinese ' enclave smack in the middle of the Malay Archipelago ?
    Yes we have a very high emigration rate,
    the reasons for which we can start another dissertation.

  9. Sorry, I mean 'deter our enemies from coveting ....'

  10. thoughts aplenty,

    if you want to talk statistics, then can you briefly explain to me how importing full grown adults will help with our low fertility problem? Do you know for a fact that new immigrants have a significantly higher birth rate than locals?

    The foreigners I worked with over two decades. Most of them are gone, within a few years. In the recent years, the main push factor for many foreigners is they don't feel welcome. Anecdotal, no doubt. But I challenge you to find any evidence to the contrary.

    The PM says imposing NS will scare new citizens away. I guess you are saying the PM is wrong.

    As for enemies coveting ... what exactly do they covet? What exactly do we have that our neighbours can seize with an invasion? Oil fields? Gold mines? You dont think the finest navy and airforce in the region is sufficient deterrence?

    Have you ever considered that if Malaysia or Indonesia wants Singapore to die, all they need to do is to withdraw all their nationals? What are you going to do then? Send our army to go force them back to work in Singapore?

    Have you ever considered NS is really just an imaginary solution to an imaginary problem?

  11. Interesting
    1)Bringing in healthy young adults expands
    productivity, generating a more favourable
    worker: retiree ratio.
    It does not increase the fertility rate of the natives.

    2)Touche! As long as citizens reproduce, either longstanding or new ones, the results are salutary

    3)More and more new immigrants are coming to our shores / everyone is complaining that there are insufficient HDB flats all around for 'them' and for 'us'/ population is increasing despite natives not reproducing enough to replace themselves....
    ipso facto prove that immigrants feel more than welcome enough to stay.

    4)NS for 1st generation immigrants is fraught
    with complex issues. Young professionals brought in to enhance the economy are beyond 18, many middle age.
    NS will be compulsory for offspring of 1st
    generation immigrants

    5)Enemies covet everything the island can throw up: womenfolk, menfolk, land , buildings
    .......need I elaborate ?

    6)Navy+airforce+army are all integral to national defence and NSF men perform service in all 3 branches. Sorry, I dont get you.

    7)It would be a great inconvenience for Singapore if the countries you mentioned really did force
    their nationals to return home. On the other hand there might be a huge hurrah coming from those who perennially complain that foreigners have taken precious jobs away from them.
    Somehow or the other the idea that Singapore would die simply because of this seems risible

    8) It is because we have a credible defence policy that you perceive an ever present danger
    to be imaginary. You may think otherwise the next time our neighbours rattle their sabres and revive their irredentist

  12. thoughs aplenty,

    1) You obviously dont work with foreigners. It takes money to come Singapore, either their own or the company paying. Either way, they will be obliged to stay here for a while, no matter how upset they are. Buying HDB is another matter. Remember the 20,000 Hong Kongers who nearly rioted to apply for Singapore PR in 1996? All they wanted was the right to speculate in Singapore property. Very few actually moved here.

    2) If you actually served NS, you would know that our navy and airforce have very few NSFs, almost none in key roles. Abolishing NS would have nearly no impact on their capability. NS is all about boots on the ground, ie army.

    3) Natural gas from Indonesia tripped for a seconds and we had blackout for hours. Singapore is dependent on people and resources from our neighbours. We are totally. Defenceless.

  13. 1)Well, the immigration policy has been in place for more than a decade already and the population is increasing yearly. This is not in theory only as a look around will reveal their ubiquitous presence. Yes migrants come and migrants go but the nett effect is still positive

    2)You cannot be more wrong about NSFs in the RSN and RSAF. Simply because these 2 arms are manned with far fewer staff than the SAF,
    the impression you get is that few NSFs serve in them. Once more, the Singapore Defence Force is an integrated unit of the 3 arms and the abolishment of NS will definitely affect its fighting ability. No war is ever won without the army, so is it any wonder that the army takes up the greatest human resource.

    3) Peacetime scenarios are as different as day and night from wartime scenarios. In peace, where gas is guaranteed by commercial contracts and policies are planned accordingly, disruptions lead to great inconvenience.
    In war, knowing full well the enemy will try its utmost to starve us of resources, strategies will change accordingly to provide for this. It of course is obvious Singapore just does not have the wherewithal to fight a protracted war.
    Nevertheless fight it will as best it can for as long as it can.
    Defencless? Hardly.

  14. thoughts aplenty,

    1) There is a net increase in foreigners because the sheer volume incoming overwhelms the volume outgoing. If you are working, you will know that.

    2) Prove me wrong. Other than air defence artillery, drivers and clerks, name me one RSAF or RSN vocation that is primarily filled with NSFs. I honestly do not believe you have served your NS.

    3) There is no winning wartime scenario for Singapore in the 21st century. If it ever goes near to that, we lose.

    The US ended the Bosnian conflict by a few months of aerial and naval bombing, without using any foot soldier.

    Once foot soldiers are involved, the US is stuck in Afghanistan 8 years on, not to mention Iraq. There is no winning scenario involving foot soldiers in the 21st century. That, and never fight a land war in Asia.

    Good luck for your GP exam, young person.

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  16. Wow, this lively debate was very interesting to read. I do believe however that a lot of factual information is needed to back up the claims made.

    For example, without any statistics showing the number of immigrants leaving Singapore because they don't want to stay here as citizens, I would tend to agree with "thoughts aplenty" that since our population has ballooned to 5 million people, there must be a net increase in the number of foreigners here. Of course, Jimmy Mun would probably know better because he has worked with foreigners for quite a long time, and he knows for a fact that there are a lot of foreigners who just use this prosperous island of ours as a stepping stone to greener pastures.

    The National Service (NS) issue is not something I can comment on, but I just don't really see how our army can function without NS. Yes, we have full-time soldiers, navy officers and air force pilots, but this number is small. I fret when I think of how many people would actually voluntarily join the army if NS was abolished - precious little, I would think.

    To many, our army may not seem very much needed in this time of peace and prosperity, but as cliche as this sounds, we really need to be ever-ready. Besides, in this ever-changing global landscape, the jobscope of a soldier is no longer limited to defending his country when others attack - the Singapore Army sends soldiers to help in humanitarian aid and peace-keeping efforts. Of course, at this juncture, someone will probably remind me of the fact that we didn't do much to help the people of Haiti, and I concede defeat... I'm quite appalled that we didn't do much to help...

    But anyway, there is more value to NS than just protecting the country. My brother completed his NS - he hated it when Mas Selamat escaped and caused a lot of trouble for him - but now that it's over, he can move on with his studies, confident that NS has not robbed him of opportunities in life. And if he has been robbed of some oportunities, by golly, he will strive to get them back and excel :)

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