I had a strong sense of trouble lurking beneath the surface when a Singaporean colleague recently wrote me about the growing numbers of Chinese from the People’s Republic who are coming to Singapore. The reason: to fill jobs left vacant as native born Singaporeans continue to emigrate at what is perhaps the second highest rate in the world (an estimated 26.11 per thousand, second only to East Timor.)
Singapore is a small but strategically situated country of great prosperity (per capita income is over $20,000). It’s surrounded by perhaps 300 million mostly Muslim Malays and Indonesians. The Chinese and the Muslim peoples have never gotten on very well. The danger for Singapore is that the Malaysians and Indonesians could come to perceive Singapore as a cat’s paw for China. That would lead to disaster for the island state–yet it appears to be the direction in which Singapore is moving.
Instead of permitting immigration from Malaysia and Indonesia, Singapore appears to be seeking guest workers from China. This is already causing ill-feeling inside Singapore, as the Singaporeans have only the remotest connections with China. A colleague recently emailed me:
…[a close friend] told me that the number of PRC’s/ex-PRC’s in Singapore is quite large and is still on the rise. This is creating tension and resentment among the native-born Singaporeans because the PRC’s cannot speak English, are taking away jobs, and are behaving arrogantly towards native Singaporeans.
For example, my friend and his wife had trouble ordering food in a [food court] coffee-shop because none of the PRC stall-owners understood English or even Singaporean-accented Mandarin. One might assume that my friend’s wife wouldn’t have any inherent bias against PRC’s because she is [educated in the Singapore Chinese-language stream]. Additionally, while my friend was having dinner at a restaurant with his PRC neighbours, one of them stood up in the restaurant and started haranguing a waiter. This PRC gentleman then went on to sneer at the waiter (in front of everyone at the restaurant) for being a native-born Singaporean…
If PRC Chinese become a significant presence in Singapore, then that country’s ties with its immediate neighbors, always delicate, will be inflamed. Furthermore, friends such as the United States will have to think twice about sharing intelligence and technology.
Most Singaporean émigrés leave because of the stifling atmosphere of the country and the political and intellectual lock-step enforced by the government. A looming internal problem would be solved, and a potential external disaster avoided, if that government would begin to democratize, and to allow its people to develop their talents–in Singapore, not abroad.
Dr Arthur Waldron is the Lauder Professor of International Relations in the Department of History at the University of Pennsylvania. He is also the Vice President of International Assessment and Strategy Center.