Singapore’s Impotent Immigration Policy

It appears counter-intuitive to suggest that a cosmopolitan hub like Singapore might have a problem with xenophobia.

Yet xenophobia has emerged as a major political concern in the city-state. Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong has routinely addressed the issue of immigration and foreign workers in his National Day Rally Speeches since 2009 — and in 2012 he openly warned Singaporeans to refrain from overt expressions of hostility towards foreigners.

The trigger for this new xenophobic fear was former Deputy Prime Minister Wong Kan Seng’s 2005 decision to engage in massively expanding the intake of foreign workers to avoid an anticipated recession. This directly led to the current situation where nearly 40 percent of Singapore’s residents are foreigners — many of whom have no interest in developing ties to the country or the opportunity even if they were interested.

The government confessed that it had failed to take any steps at all to provide infrastructural or social support for this influx of foreign workers. Bear in mind that while the government’s target population was only 4 million for 2010, the population passed 5 million that year — so even if the target had been taken seriously for infrastructure planning, infrastructure would still have been under stress.

After 2005, xenophobia started to emerge gradually, with immigration becoming a major issue in the 2011 General Election campaign. Yet even with this background, no one was prepared for the hostility that was unleashed against foreigners when a group of Chinese bus drivers went on strike in November 2012, nor the unprecedented 4,000-strong protest in February 2013 against the government’s publication of a White Paper, calling for even higher levels of immigration. There was also public outrage over the riot by South Asian foreign workers in Little India in early 2014. Reports of concern about the hardships and insecurities endured by foreign workers have only slightly softened the pattern of escalating hostility.

Yet there is clearly a new xenophobic mood taking hold that is threatening to become a full-blown crisis of national identity: does Singapore see itself through the prism of an ugly self-righteous and self-defensive nationalism, or is its natural pride in national achievements to be expressed as a positive, cosmopolitan form of nationalism?

Such questions of national identity have historically been in the hands of the government, and Singaporeans are fortunate that its government is clearly dedicated to taking Singapore down the path of benign cosmopolitanism.

Unfortunately that is where the good news ends, because most of the policy options that would deal with this problem appear to be out of bounds to policy makers.

The heart of the immediate problem is the high number of foreign workers. The influx has been of such proportions that even if the government had taken basic steps to provide infrastructure and had given some thought to the social integration of this population of outsiders, a negative reaction from locals was almost certain. Singaporeans were used to giving little thought to the presence of foreign workers on a day-to-day basis. Beyond purely transactional or incidental interactions — noticing construction workers, or dealing with your foreign maid, a waiter, or your boss — they were largely invisible to Singaporeans except the few Singaporeans who frequented one of the preferred haunts of foreign workers at particular times of the week, such as Little India and Golden Mile Complex.

But this ‘invisibility’ is no longer the case — and has not been for almost a decade.

Singaporeans are not exceptionally xenophobic by nature, but by the same token they are just as prone to being defensive about differences as any other national peoples. Given stimuli, they react like anyone else — and there are presently over a million sources of ‘stimuli’ on the island.

The obvious solution for the Singaporean government, which has at its fingertips many levers of social, economic and political power, would be to drastically decrease the number of foreign workers. But here there is a problem: its development model relies on the exploitation of these foreign workers. This is precisely why former Deputy Prime Minister Wong Kan Seng increased the foreign worker intake in the first place.

The government is desperately trying to modify its development model to reduce reliance on foreign workers — for example increasing the level of prefabrication in construction processes — but there is no sign that it is willing to seek out a radically new development model that will solve the problem.

If we go beyond the immediate problem to more remote causes, we come to matters of national identity. Singapore’s state-constructed national identity rests on a firm foundation of racial stereotypes and smug confidence in the superiority of Singapore as a ‘success’ that ‘punches above its weight’ and is a ‘model’ to the world. The smug confidence may be slipping a bit in the wake of a litany of government failures, but it still has life in it; and the racial stereotyping is stronger than ever.

This is a heady cocktail on which to build a national identity — and not one that is conducive to level-headedly responding to an influx of very different foreigners who seem to be everywhere. Given this background, it is a credit to Singaporeans that their reactions to foreigners have not been more uniformly hostile: there does at least appear to be an emerging level of sympathy both at the elite and grassroots levels for the plight of temporary low-paid foreign workers.

The government is reluctant to do more than fiddle at the edges of its model of economic development and its model of community-based social construction. But without one or both of these models being radically transformed, it is difficult to see how it is going to be able to realise its goal of reducing tensions between foreigners and Singaporeans — no matter how seriously it seeks such an end.

Michael D. Barr is Senior Lecturer in International Relations at Flinders University in Australia and Editor-in-Chief of Asian Studies Review. This first appeared in East Asia Forum.