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If citizenship is valued...

Updated On: Feb 08, 2010

...Singaporeans will be fair to influx of foreigners

TODAY 6 Feb 2010


MORE and more people in the world are crossing borders to work, study and live. In New York for the past year, I found the experience interesting and easy enough. Singaporeans are an adaptable, plug-and-play people.

Back home now, I find myself seeing this in reverse. The place of foreigners in Singapore is being questioned. At a dinner last week, the hot topic was about whether the foreigners fit in, and what rights Singaporeans should enjoy.

Those who spoke up included successful professionals and businessmen. They did not shy away from discussing the issues even when half the table were foreigners. One foreigner present spoke but did not defend the influx. He had lived in Singapore for more than 10 years and questioned the numbers, qualifications and suitability of the more recent arrivals.

Such reactions may be understood. The influx is more than just abstract statistics. There has been a change in the texture of daily interactions at the shops and on the streets. Buses, trains and streets are swollen, congested. These raise questions of what Singaporeans may expect from their Government and their country.

So, the Government has responded. Steps will be taken to reinforce certain privileges that only Singaporeans can enjoy, over and above those offered to permanent residents. This week, a preview of part of the Economic Strategies Committee also gave assurances about the numbers and types of foreigners who will be allowed into the country. These adjustments will be welcome by many. But an abrupt U-turn in policy must be avoided.

There are rational, economic reasons for this. A large part of our economy is driven by foreigners - from the high end of finance and technology to the low end of construction, cleaning and other jobs that most Singaporeans avoid. Singapore also benefits from serving foreigners. Some shops, private medical clinics and even housing agents cater especially for them.

There are social benefits, too. Foreign domestic workers help run our homes when many Singaporean parents work full time. Parts of Singapore, too, have gained buzz from foreigners, like Little India.

But such reasons, to some Singaporeans, may not be enough.

For every Singaporean who benefits from incoming foreigners, another fears a foreigner can offer a cheaper substitute. Being served by foreign workers is also different from competing with them for jobs and apartments.

Beyond the economic reasons for country and companies, more must be made to empathise with the emotive response, and the micro-perspective of the individual.

Singaporeans need to feel more valued. If citizenship is made too readily available, or if long-stay permanent residents get all the benefits without ever becoming citizens, we must not be surprised if Singaporeans are upset. To borrow a commercial tag line: "Membership must have its privileges".

If this can be done, I believe Singaporeans will remain fair and open in mind and spirit. If Singaporeans are confident about their place in their own country, they will be better placed to become a cosmopolitan society.

There must also be practical steps to ease the competition over resources. When buses and trains are overcrowded, it is easy to blame foreigners. But it is really not their nationality but just simply the stress of numbers straining capacity.

If the emotive aspects and also everyday facilities can be addressed, Singapore has a chance of continuing to welcome a steady flow of foreigners, and avoid the nasty, near racist nationalism seen in some other countries.

We must, in particular, guard acting out our frustration with the lower end of foreign workers. Such workers take up tasks that most Singaporeans avoid and can do little to protect themselves.

We must still make efforts to create a sense of community and nation, but this now has to be in the context of a globalised world. While we live on an island, we cannot be insular. And if we want to be global citizens who can venture abroad, we must also be global in mind at home.

After my year in New York, many ask me if I considered staying on. I felt comfortable and treated fairly. In part, perhaps, this was because very few people are native New Yorkers. Almost everyone is from somewhere else. Diversity is not suppressed, yet most find their place in New York and want to stay for at least a while. A Green Card is much sought after and citizenship is a prize.

Yet, on the Upper East Side, where I lived that year, there are clubs and housing cooperatives that a newcomer cannot easily buy his way into, even with money. Enough of the city is open, but some doors remain exclusive.

There maybe something to learn from this. New York is a global city, and Manhattan is an island too.

Simon Tay
About the author: 

Simon Tay is chairman of the Singapore Institute of International Affairs. For 2009, he lived in New York as Schwartz Fellow at the Asia Society and taught at Yale University in nearby New Haven.

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