Singapore and immigration: A PR problem

The Economist

Immigration becomes the hot political issue in a model city-state.

At China’s 60th anniversary bash last month, Zhang Yuanyuan, a China-born, permanent resident of Singapore, was caught on camera professing her love for her native country. The clip caused a storm in the island state; it was the latest sign of resentment towards incomers and evidence that immigration is becoming the city-state’s dominant political issue.

Faced with an ageing population and low fertility, Singapore’s government has long courted foreigners to plug gaps in the workforce. In 1990, citizens made up 86% of Singapore’s 3m people. Today, the share is 64% of 5m-odd. More than one in three people are foreigners (permanent residents, known as PRs, and non-residents).

In the past, immigrants were concentrated at the top or bottom of the jobs ladder, performing work that Singaporeans could not or did not want to do. Today, foreigners compete on almost every rung. Some, like geneticists, bring in useful skills. Others—it is feared—displace local skills and depress wages at the bottom.

Such fears are especially sharp during a recession. Critics say PRs enjoy the benefits of citizenship without all the responsibilities, such as national service for men (first-generation PRs are generally exempt). Immigrants are said to mix less with Singaporeans than they used to. The rise in numbers means many foreign groups have reached critical mass, producing little ethnic enclaves—the government’s bête noire. “I am Singaporean and tired of service staff who can only speak Mandarin” is a group on Facebook, the social-networking site, with more than 10,000 members.

High immigration has coincided with a widening income gap. Singapore’s Gini coefficient, a measure of inequality, rose from 0.444 in 2000 to 0.481 in 2008—higher than in China and America. The contrast between the glitzy downtown and the “heartlands” is glaring, and more damaging in tiny, dense Singapore than it would be in a big country, says Paulin Straughan of the National University of Singapore.

To defuse the pressure, the prime minister, Lee Hsien Loong, says Singapore will slow down the intake of migrants while accentuating the privileges of citizenship. Meanwhile, the government has plonked S$10m ($7m) into the new National Integration Council (NIC), which will try to promote interactions between different groups. It will not be easy, as the government admits. “The NIC recognises that integration is a long-term effort, and may take years before success is apparent,” says Dr Vivian Balakrishnan, the head of the NIC and minister for community development, youth and sports.

But Singaporeans care less about fuzzy notions of integration than their own jobs, says Chung Wai-Keung of the Singapore Management University. He wants employment laws rewritten to favour locals. But this would contradict the government’s commitment to an open economy. And the dominance of the ruling People’s Action Party means that in Singapore—unlike many countries—anti-immigrant sentiment cannot easily gain a strong political voice. Expect no drastic policy changes.

These ripples are part of Singapore’s transformation from a micro-managed melting pot into a cosmopolitan city-state. Before the internet, it is hard to imagine the debate that raged around the hapless Ms Zhang. Now, many Singaporeans defend her. In the new Singapore, it is all right to love one’s country—even if it is China.

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