Written by Ibrahim Hassan
(written prior to the conclusion of British Election)
I was a keen follower of the recently concluded UK elections and the primary issue dominating the electioneering atmosphere there had been mostly centred on immigration, not solely because of the notorious gaffe by Gordon Brown but because of the mass influx of Eastern Europeans who seem to “steal” away jobs from the indigenous British population. Some political parties have even resorted to putting up “British Jobs for British Workers” banners in their campaign hustling, hoping that it’ll resonate well with the electorate in attracting votes.
In the Singapore context, too, has the immigration issue been a perennial concern. Go to any coffeeshop and you will easily hear the many things – mostly in negative light – these immigrants do in Singapore; from their characteristics, behaviour, MRT-related hiccups to policy-affiliated concerns such as job displacements. I did talk to a 57-year old Singaporean recently at one of these zi chars and I was not surprised by what he has to say about these immigrants. “These cashiers, customer service officers, nurses, surely we (Singaporeans) are talented and skilled enough to do? We don’t need people from the Phillipines, China, to occupy these jobs that Singaporeans can do. Its unfortunate that some Singaporeans are unemployed while these people are roped in from overseas to work here.”
He has a point, a concern rather, stemming from an immigration policy where jobs – the entire spectrum from the upper to lower positions – has no actual numerical limit stipulation for foreigners, probably a by-product of the government’s “growth at all cost” strategy. The policy reaction – the mass influx of immigrants both skilled and unskilled – will undeniably exert considerable pressure on Singapore’s limited public resources, institutions and services including that of its schools and hospitals. Already, Singaporeans are competing with foreigners at every level from education in schools to jobs in workplaces. The competition appears to be steep in a country where roughly 40% of its population are made up of immigrants. Perhaps it is due to this seemingly cut-throat environment that generated said concern from the man, and I believe many other Singaporeans.
The Government is thus thrusted to a position where it needs to add critical factorial distinctions to differentiate the population make-up; the foreigners, permanent residents and citizens. These factorial distinctions, coupled with incentives, can cover programmes and initiatives such as the school balloting programme, which the government has already started doing, to show that it ultimately value its chief stakeholders, the people.
At the macro-level, the Government can consider tightening immigration flow at the middle-income brackets – where employability can be allocated to Singaporeans – by imposing a work permit cap on these jobs; instances include customer service officers, nurses, childcare teachers. These jobs require neither specialisation nor extraordinary skill to execute, diminishing the need to hire foreigners.
A cap, though, should not be introduced to foreign talent who’re arguably filling the vacuum of the domestic brain drain; it’d be an economic loss otherwise.
The Government has also made inroads in trying to transform the menial lower-income jobs into attractive ones for Singaporeans – by not only offering added perks and improving working conditions but also by increasing the foreign worker levy, which would level the playing field for our low-wage workers, advancing their competitiveness and prospects for employment.
Whilst the public sentiment against the massive foreign influx appears to be high, it has to be also noted that foreigners do bring with them a host of advantages and they do give Singaporeans a better value at deals and services. For instance, foreign nurses – who’re cheaper to hire – will bring down the total medical costs, benefiting the people. Giving foreign talent the opportunity to utilise their expertise and do business in Singapore will also help to catalyst our economy, and allow for job creation.
Consequently, the focus of the Government’s immigration policy has to be emphasised at integration and assimilation efforts, with the objective of reducing friction, narrowing differences and building common ground between the Singaporean and immigrant. Already, we’re witnessing mega cultural projects being launched at the grassroots level to develop rapport and strengthen bonds between citizens and immigrants, and a ten million-dollars integration fund helmed by the MCYS to oversee such an effort. If Singapore has already made steady gains in building a conducive, peaceful and harmonious atmosphere between its different ethnic communities, there is neither reason nor excuse why it cannot embark on another similar drive – this time with the immigrant community.
The next general election – whenever it is called – will certainly prove to be crucial for the Government in assuring the electorate that its policies are best for this country as the immigration hot-potato takes centre stage. Let there be free-flowing debate and the exchange of ideas on how the country is to move forward.