In the heart of the population debate lies the issue of immigration. Immigrants provide essential support for Singapore’s economy to lean on. With a growing population, residents in the country are feeling the squeeze and it is not just space. Competition for spots in preferred schools and jobs are just a few of the growing list of areas in which immigrants are seen with furrowed brows. When resources become scarce, we look at those who we think are less deserving like unwanted guests to a crowded dinner table.
Yet, this very feature of human nature is one that goes against global flows of labor and the very characteristics of this island state. For a country that is sometimes smaller than the lakes formed on the peaks of volcanoes, there is a need for complete optimization of human resources. We want to be a leading city on the global stage while adopting policies that will ensure that no Singaporean is left behind. It is in this irony that policy teeters between a rock and a hard place. How do you get the best of both worlds?
It is in this irony that policy teeters between a rock and a hard place.
As much as it is very enticing for any political party in Singapore to harness the emotions of the electorate, no party will echo anti immigrant policies that have been so effective for winning elections in other countries. The fact of the matter is that we need immigrants to continue economic growth. Even if that very space in the MRT train is filled up by one that has not the slightest idea of what Singlish means, that person may very well be partially responsible for the positive things you look forward to in this country.
If it is clear that we need immigrants, then the question moves from ‘if’ to ‘how’. The answer is proper integration.
Solving the integration problem is like attempting to hit a moving target consistently every single time. What works today will not work the next. Because immigration opens the problem to a much wider scale, it is almost impossible to stay on top of the dynamics of global human flows at all times. However, there are things that we can do to ensure that the country is well positioned to cope independently.
The key to ensure that integration works is to establish it as a norm and not an event. If there is need for policy to champion a welcoming arm for guests and new citizens, then it will not last. The right strategies are ones that sink into the population, in a manner that changes natural behaviour without anyone noticing it. In order to understand how integration can be a natural ongoing process, we need to understand how citizens respond to different rates of immigration.
Rate of Immigration
Unlike popular belief, humans do not hate change. Yes, there is inertia but inertia only kicks in when the rate of change exceeds a certain threshold that we are comfortable with. A life without change is boring. As we grow up, our tastes and preferences evolve and so do the ways in which we view the world. This is the natural rate of change. A constant slow moving process that finely toes between inertia and boredom.
I believe a good proportion of this bias and ‘anti immigrant’ feelings stem from having something new injected far too quickly into our country.
In the mid 2000s, many Singaporeans including myself faced a barrage of new immigrants. It felt as if the rate of immigration was intentionally increased. Anecdotal evidences are poor measures of actual trends but such observations were made by such a large number that many in this country will point to the 2000s as the decade in which Singapore opened its doors wider than ever to immigrants. Many of these were from China. Fast forward to the current decade, we are now trying to reduce this very rate of immigration.
This is not the first time we have toyed with modifying the rate of change. While it is definitely easier for policy to reduce immigration rates, damage has been done. I often discussed with friends and family on why Singaporean Chinese had such a distaste for those who came from arguably where we all came from. It is funny to see some use stereotypical comments on these people when their grandparents were themselves born and raised in China.
I believe a good proportion of this bias and ‘anti immigrant’ feelings stem from having something new injected far too quickly into our country. If introduction was made at the same rate as many other immigrants we have welcomed and grown with over the past decades, Singaporeans would not have reacted so violently. People would generally be happy to welcome a guest every other week at the dinner table. Try changing that to ten every week.
The speed of delivery is important. The rate of immigration affects the success of integration.
The speed of delivery is important. The rate of immigration affects the success of integration. I think we made a major policy misstep in our efforts to grow quickly. Because we meddled with the natural rate of change in the 2000s, we now face the scary prospect for slower growth in the next decade. This slower growth, readjustment and recalibration has to be introduced to remedy mistakes of flooring the economic accelerator too quickly.
As the rate of change is returned to its natural state, we can look towards finding ways to integrate new people into our society. It is akin to welcoming a neighbour who has recently moved into your block of flats. Do Singaporeans do that? Do we even welcome fellow Singaporeans when they shift into a flat on the same floor as us? If a society is unable to welcome its own and to build ties within, then there remains little hope of such ties being extended to a different set of people.
There are many efforts to drive integration. There is a whole council set up for this purpose. There is a Citizenship Journey for immigrants who have fulfilled criteria to become one of us. In this Citizenship Journey, I read with interest of this ‘Community Sharing Session’.
“Community Sharing Sessions will provide an opportunity for new Singapore citizens to mingle and interact with grassroots leaders and volunteers from their local community…”
New citizens, grassroots leaders and volunteers. This is problematic. How does ‘community’ not contain neighbours, the very people staying next to you? Maybe that’s because these neighbours may have their doors closed and such responsibilities are pushed to a dedicated set of grassroots volunteers.
I wrote fondly of my neighbours previously. I have been fortunate to experience the warmth and familiarity of interacting with neighbours living on my floor and also from other levels. This ‘kampong spirit’ was carried over from our old flats where doors were open and neighbours chatted outside their homes as their kids played in open spaces. While a lot of that have changed, homemakers in my current neighbourhood still make it a point to meet up at seats along walkways to chat and gossip. This is a daily affair and the groups have grown larger.
Families have met, chit chatted and have turned from cohabitors to friends. This is real integration.
What is most interesting in this case is the change in behaviour I noted in the response of my neighbours when three new immigrant families moved into my block at around the same period. Stereotypical anti immigrant comments were made. However, it was inevitable that these new immigrants soon came across the groups of neighbours that were having their chit chat sessions daily. A smile, a few words and before I knew it, the same people who made snide remarks were saying ‘hey these new folks are ok really’. Now, two of these new immigrants have joined the group and families have met, chit chatted and have turned from cohabitors to friends. This is real integration.
The point that I am driving here is that having a citizen base that exhibits strong social bonds is a prerequisite for successful integration. Integration cannot be carried by policymakers and the vast array of different schemes and mechanisms. The initiative for successful integration lies squarely on the shoulders of each and every citizen. And this is only possible if a spirit of community and neighbourliness is present in our towns and neighbourhoods.
The road ahead is rocky. We are paying the price for accelerated growth. People have less time to speak to their families much less their neighbours. With lower social interaction, the very fabric that keeps a society bound becomes susceptible to strains such as the arrival of immigrants.
We cannot shun immigrants but neither can we sincerely welcome them if the rate of immigration is unnatural. Solutions must remain guided by natural humanistic factors. When this balance is achieved, you won’t need to build councils and form task forces. The people will do the rest.
After all, we are all social beings.
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