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The False Divide

Updated On: Feb 25, 2013

The projections in the Government’s White Paper have raised concerns among Singaporeans, in particular the estimates that say the country’s population could hit 6.9 million in 2030, with almost half of these foreigners.

There have been calls for more efforts to ensure that Singaporeans are not disadvantaged in order to attract the foreigners the Government believes are necessary to prop up the dwindling local-born population and ageing demographic.

Alternatives were mooted, including a lower cap on total population by restricting numbers of foreigners, and even a call to halt economic growth until the various social issues are resolved. The last suggestion in particular raised some eyebrows, given its assumption that growth could be turned on and off at will, while local issues were being dealt with.

In particular, it seemed to ignore the sentiments of international investors and companies, who might look askance at a country that is less concerned about growth and maintaining its international competitiveness than it is about dealing with internal issues.

As the debate continues, the two points of view will need deeper consideration and balancing.

If we look at examples in other countries, there are a few that are experiencing a similar sense of demographic marginalisation through foreign influx, notably the United Arab Emirates and smaller European nations.

In many of these cases, there is a realisation at the lower end of the value chain that economic segments filled by foreign labour are not substituted by the local population. Arabs and Turks clerking in grocery stores, Indians and Pakistanis building the Persian Gulf’s skyscrapers, or Filipino and Indonesian maids in Singapore are all part of the necessary fabric of these functional societies today.


Higher up the economic ladder, Singapore has brought in foreigners to boost a wide range of critical economic sectors. There is a need to be sensitive to calls for talented Singaporeans to be given opportunities to step up in these fields through its own human capital base.

Concurrently, it is important to remember that Singapore has attracted the top tier of global investment banks, asset managers, commodity traders and other financial services professionals. They are able to service not only the local market, but to leverage Singapore’s growing role as the premier hub for all of Asia.

One cannot distinguish the gains in competitiveness this essential strategic trajectory brings from the jobs it will also create for locals. Multinational supply chains with strong Singapore links will create jobs for Singaporeans here and across the region.

A similar trend is under way in advanced technology sectors. Beyond the electronics niche the Republic has established over decades, the new frontiers of big data, bio-tech and life sciences as well as alternative energy are largely commanded by foreign firms. Unless these firms locate in Singapore, it is hard to imagine a sufficient number of jobs being created for the growing number of local youth who want to study programming, design, management and other hot fields in the nation’s universities and polytechnics.

The divide between foreigners and locals is, therefore, in many ways a false one.


Singapore and other nations like China have done well over the past decades in absorbing foreign talent and companies, leveraging their technology and know-how, and building strong domestic competitors that can grow into world-class firms in their own right.

Given Singapore’s place in global educational performance rankings, there should be no doubt that Singaporeans are capable of such economic prowess in the 21st century. Importantly, new organisations have emerged to help accelerate this process such as the Human Capital Leadership Institute, jointly funded by the Economic Development Board and the Manpower Ministry.

To the question of whether our emphasis should be on local growth or positive foreign influence, the answer will not be completely clear until the population trends of the next few decades become more apparent. But we should consider if Singapore can continue to benefit from learning from others to get ahead, even as it heeds calls from within to become a more self-reliant society.

Dr Parag Khanna is a senior fellow at the Singapore Institute of International Affairs (SIIA) and director of the Hybrid Reality Institute. Nicholas Fang is executive director at the SIIA. This commentary was first published in TODAY on the 25th of February 2013