Seah Chiang Nee
Singapore has always been dependent on migrants for its economic prosperity and making up for a low birth-rate, but there are fears that this is just pushing it too far and too fast.
What may have been a new, modern-day wave of migration into Singapore has pushed the population pass a historic five-million mark.
It is reminiscent of the previous waves of migrants who had been arriving on this island at various periods of history since its founding by Sir Stamford Raffles in 1819. The difference lies in the scale and profile of the arrivals.
Half a century ago, they fled from wars or famine in desperate numbers to establish roots here. The migrants today are not the peasant or coolie type who sailed in on refugee ships. Most are richer, better-educated people who fly in – on economy class – to seek better jobs. The majority are transients who leave eventually.
In the last 20 years, the population doubled. The five-million mark came five years after Mr Lee Hsien Loong, 57, became Prime Minister, and will probably be recorded to his credit or blame depending on who you talk to.
Lee recently said Singapore is well-placed to be a home for talent and is creating programmes of value to companies and the talented.
On the positive side, it has produced a more vibrant, exciting – albeit over-crowded – city and higher collective capabilities.
The bulk of Singaporeans, however, do not see much merit or pride to be part of a larger-size country.
Instead, they resent the longer queues, increased job competition, depressed wages and the higher costs of almost every thing, especially in public housing.
A recent report revealed that 40% of the buyers of public housing (HDB) resale flats are PRs, resulting in skyrocketing prices.
Even the promise of an eventual 6 to 7 million population, which will make Singapore comparable in size to London (7.5million), isn’t alluring to most people.
According to new statistics, Singapore’s population reached 4.99 million last year and it is likely to have passed 5million by now.
Freer immigration raised the total number of foreigners to 1.8million – or 36% of the figure. Or one in three people here is now non-Singaporean.
Local natives total 3.2million, or 64%, about what it was 15 years ago. “Will we, one day, be like the aborigines in Australia?” one cynic wondered.
Singapore’s top civil servant, now retired, Mr Ngiam Tong Dow also appealed for a slowdown. “I do not want to sound alarmist but a recurring nightmare of mine is that someday we will find ourselves strangers in our own land,” he wrote.
Historically, Singapore has always been dependent on migrants to prosper – more so since 2004 when Lee became the Prime Minister.
“We had thought the recession would put a brake on manpower demand, but the opposite has happened,” one official said. More than 100,000 foreigners have been flocking here every year since 2004.
Of the total, 1.25million are foreign workers on contracts with PRs totalling 533,000, comprising mostly of Malaysians and mainland Chinese.
Having a larger population has been the expressed wish of Asian leaders who want greater political or economic leverage for their countries.
When he was Prime Minister, Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad wanted Malaysia to aim for an 80-million population, four times what it was then.
And one of Thailand’s ruling generals in the 1970s had called on Thais to procreate more so that the kingdom could triple its population.
“In this way, foreigners will have more respect for us,” he added.
But for Singapore – which hankers for 6-7 million people – immigration has different objectives: Making up for a low birth-rate and feeding the economy.
“It is based on the development of a highly skilled human resource base as the key success factor in mapping a global future,” an economist said.
There are two macro-fears, however, in pushing it too far and too fast.
Firstly, it could result in an unintended hollowing of its own born-and-bred population, a dangerous phenomenon as increased pressures continue to push out its own educated citizens to settle elsewhere.
Secondly, it about security. How much will the foreign residents, who are not bonded to the nation, be depended upon to fight for it?
Singapore is defended by a 300,000-strong reservist army, made up of citizens who have undergone two years of military training. The concern is that it can be weakened as more foreigners take over.
Singaporeans who draw from Kuwait’s experience are concerned about the impact of the high foreign ratio – 36% – on the city’s defence capabilities. When Saddam Hussein invaded in 1990, Kuwait had a population of 1.2million and only half of which were Kuwaitis. The development of the oil industry had made it dependent on foreign workers, mostly Arabs, South Asians and Iranians.
Saddam probably knew the fundamentals well. It took only two days for his army to conquer the sheikdom – and its oilfields.
Its size had made it indefensible but the large foreign presence had made even a token resistance impossible. There was no deterrence whatsoever against an attack.
“It is useless to allow economic reasons, however compelling, to undermine our security needs,” said an academician.
With rising public unhappiness, the Government looks set to slow down the inflow, at least for now.
Mr Lee Kuan Yew wants to the “foreigner” presence be capped at one-third, while PM Lee Hsien Loong promises a slower intake.
Long-term, however, immigration remains very much a part of Singapore.