Singapore woos immigrants to boost population

Koh Gui Qing
26 Mar 07

Millionaire entrepreneur Robert V. Chandran is just the kind of man Singapore wants.

The India-born entrepreneur listed his marine fuel company Chemoil Energy Ltd. in Singapore in 2006, created about 60 jobs in the city-state, and swapped his American passport for a Singaporean one.

Singapore’s government is so worried about the low birth rate and greying population that it is turning to immigrants like Chandran to add another two million people to the island of 4.5 million over the next 40 to 50 years.

For “new” Singaporeans such as Chandran, who can afford to pick and choose where they live, the city-state has a lot to offer: clean air, affordable housing, good schools, reliable phone and internet connections, and an income tax rate of up to 20 percent that is one of the lowest in the region.

“Singapore has a great quality of life,” Chandran, 57, told Reuters. “Not to mention the taxes.”

Many countries – such as Spain, Ireland and United Arab Emirates – rely on immigration to boost a shrinking labor force. But Singapore’s immigration plan is unique because it would boost the population by nearly 50 percent, to the point where those born in Singapore would barely form a majority in their own country.

Such a huge influx of people is worrying many Singaporeans, who fear that they will lose their jobs to foreign immigrants. They also worry about over-crowding and strained race relations.

Most of Singapore’s 3.6 million citizens are themselves descendants of earlier waves of immigrants who fled civil war in China or followed the British in colonial times.

Ethnic Chinese make up 75 percent of the population, ethnic Malays 14 percent, Indians 9 percent and others 2 percent.

But the island already has nearly one million foreigners, mostly low-skilled maids and construction workers from countries such as the Philippines, India and Thailand.

There are also some 110,000 professional expatriates, according to the Manpower Ministry, from Europe, North America, Australia, China and India – and those are the ones that some Singaporeans see as a threat to local jobs.

Those hoping to become Singapore residents or citizens are judged on their qualifications, work experience and income, according to a checklist provided by the immigration authorities.

Given the kind of affluent foreigners the government wants to woo, Singaporeans worry they will become “second-class citizens” in their own country, at a time when many poorer Singaporeans already feel left behind because of a widening income gap.

Harmonious mix

Singapore stresses racial and social harmony – anyone caught “promoting” racial hostility or disrupting public order can be jailed – but some fear that immigration may cause problems.

Non-Singaporean Indians “don’t mix with the local Indians and then they stay apart, and in some cases, consider themselves superior to the local Indians,” said Indranee Rajah, a member of parliament, the Straits Times newspaper reported this month.

Another MP said some Singaporeans now shun a particular Chinese temple used by mainland Chinese.

And, in a country where all Singaporean men have to do National Service, foreigners who are not residents are sometimes resented because they take advantage of Singapore’s comfortable lifestyle and good education while avoiding military service.

A Straits Times poll of 448 people in January showed that 52 percent of those surveyed felt Singapore should halt immigration, with most citing the fear of losing their jobs to foreigners.

And while the economy grew 7.9 percent last year, creating a record 176,000 new jobs, about half of those went to foreigners, Manpower Minister Ng Eng Hen told parliament earlier this month.

“If Singaporeans only care about the growth bottom line, then go right ahead. But that is clearly not the case,” said Gillian Koh, a senior research fellow at the Institute of Policy Studies, a local think-tank. “We are also dealing with the politics of identity, and the politics of envy.”

In search of youth

Like governments in developed nations such as Germany and Japan, Singapore’s leaders worry about the long-term implications of an aging population – higher pension costs, a shrinking workforce, and slower economic growth – unless Singapore can boost the number of younger workers through immigration.

The country’s growth rate could decline by as much as two percentage points if the government reverses its current liberal immigration policy, said Chua Hak Bin, a Citigroup economist.

But the population increase could also put a strain on infrastructure and housing. Singapore is already the fourth most-densely populated country in the world – packing more than 6,208 people into each square km.

By 2050, that is expected to rise to 6,497 people per square km, leaving the island 176 times more crowded than the United States, and nearly as crowded as Hong Kong, according to the United Nations.

“Who wants to live like Hong Kong? I don’t. I don’t like the intensity of the bodies around me,” said Chua Beng Huat, a sociology professor at the National University of Singapore.