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Seah Chiang Nee
A radio programme attracted a number of PR callers, especially Malaysians, criticising Goh’s suggestion. Asked whether they would choose Singapore citizenship over PR, many Malaysians said ‘no’.
Last December, I wrote in this column that rising anti-immigrants sentiments were stirring concern among Malaysians who have settled in Singapore for years. They feared being caught in the crossfire between an angry public and a government bent on taking in a large number of foreigners for economic growth.
Now nine months later, this worry may soon take shape as the government ponders over possible measures to control the number of permanent residents (PRs). Senior Minister Goh Chok Tong gave an inkling of government intention recently when he said that, “Moving forward, we are going to approach some (PRs) to take up Singapore citizenship. If they don’t, then their PR (status) will not be renewed.”
“We now have quite a few PRs, 500,000 in Singapore, so hopefully maybe, 50,000 can be selected to become Singapore citizens, the rest can be PRs, contributing to Singapore’s economy,” he added.
Goh gave no details of the precise number or the selection criteria but it caused unease among PRs who had been living here for years without becoming Singaporeans. One expat posted this alarming headline: “Singapore to expel 10 per cent of Permanent Residents”.
Many commentators in the ExpatSingapore website strongly criticised the idea of pressurised conversion, saying it would only drive people away. A few foreigners were more circumspective of the city’s realities.
Earthfriendly explained them this way: “The government understands that Singapore needs foreign talent but the citizenry does not. It allows huge influx, while Singaporeans feel squeezed and treated like second class citizens by their own government. To pacify the general public, they are coming up with such drastic measures.”
The most worried PRs are Malaysians, who formed the largest group and had links dating back to 1965, longer than most others, most of whom came only in the past five years.
Estimated at several hundred thousand, many Malaysians have families and properties or businesses here. They have permeated into almost every sphere of life in Singapore, having played a large role in the city’s development all these years.
Some 10,000 are believed to be holding top positions in government from ministers downwards and also in the private sector. An estimated 20% political grassroots are PRs.
In the face of strong expat reactions, the senior minister subsequently downplayed the severity of the move.
A statement by his press secretary explained that Goh was “making a general observation” and no one would be forced to take up citizenship here.
“The figure of 10 per cent which SM gave was only for illustrative purposes. It is not a target, nor is it the case that all PRs who turned down the offer of Singapore citizenship would not have their PR status renewed,” it said.
So how will it affect Malaysian and other PRs?
Observers believe that the authorities – in the face of an approaching general election – are serious about taking restrictive measures to placate widespread public unhappiness.
A government poll found that despite assurances, two out of three Singaporeans are concerned about impact of importing so many foreigners. However, some analysts believe that any controls will aim at discouraging capable foreigners from coming, let alone expelling them.
The fundamental is that this low-birth society continues to need imported manpower. The complaint is on excessive intake that threatens Singaporeans’ livelihood.
The vast majority of PRs will likely carry on unaffected, especially those who have families and business links.
The official Channel News Asia described it as a government initiative at assimilation. Quoting observers, it said the likely targets may be those who had been here for three to five years and had enjoyed the benefits of their PR status.
Goh’s move could follow another: A readier revocation of permanent residency, which exists on paper but exercised only in cases of criminals and “undesirables.”
His move may be aimed at the PR status mistakenly given to dubious characters like prostitutes, massage girls and thugs.
Some easier targets may be the young well-paid professionals who had bought public housing who may find it harder to say no. Losing PR status will not automatically mean loss of job here or expulsion. They could continue working with a professional visit pass or a work permit.
But the differences may be very stark. Being non-resident would mean losing the right to buy resale public flats and partial subsidies in health, education and other services that a PR and his family members are entitled to.
These are crucial factors living in the world’s 10th most expensive country. The benefit is their children need not serve national service.
A programme aired over the official Radio 958 recently attracted a large number of PR callers, especially Malaysians, criticising Goh’s suggestion. Asked whether they would choose Singapore citizenship over PR, many Malaysians answered no, saying their families were in Malaysia.
One caller said he had come for the money and for the higher living standards, but he would eventually return home. An agitated lady was worried about her assets here, while a Chinese PR complained he had been badly treated in Singapore.
An expatriate said few expatriates would make this small island, rich as it may be, their permanent home. “Besides Singapore is not self-sufficient but depends on the world for everything. Come on, who will give up their citizenship!” he added.