Testing the migrant policy

December 5, 2009
Singapore Democrats

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The Star

A proposed pre-citizenship test has stirred controversy, and the intense debate has divided Singaporeans over the future direction of the republic’s immigration policy.

A Malaysian friend last week asked me what I made of the proposed pre-citizenship test, the first such idea mooted here, and he wonders how it will affect his family.

A retired teacher in Kuala Lumpur, he has a wife and a daughter living here as permanent residents, with the latter in college and hoping to settle in Singapore after graduation.

What was the test all about, my friend wanted to know. Was it a prelude to an immigration tightening-up in the republic because of growing public unhappiness over it?

He was referring to a proposed study to make foreigners take a general knowledge test on Singapore before granting them citizenship.

My Malaysian friend’s concern is natural enough.

It probably reflects the feelings of many foreigners in the region who look upon Singapore as a good relocation place with fair-paying jobs when things get tough back home.

However, Malaysians – who once shared a country with Singaporeans – have occupied a special place here. They are not really regarded as “foreigners’ in the real sense of the word.

I have been blessed with having many Malaysian friends, and some have been affected by the city’s demographic transformation probably more than anybody except Singaporeans.

A mere citizenship test will, of course, not stir unease, not as much as the simmering ill-feelings here against immigrants.

The broader concern is that these emotions may lead to a change in the easy access that Malaysians have to live or settle here.

“We can understand Singaporean resentment, we’d probably feel the same, too, if many foreigners were allowed to work in Malaysia,” my friend said. “As potential beneficiaries, however, we’re worried.”

The vehemence of the anti-immigrant sentiments has come as a surprise to many Malaysians (especially Internet visitors). They had always admired the city’s traditional acceptance of foreigners.

I told my Malaysian friend what I thought of the pre-citizenship test and the future of immigration here.

Under the plan, foreigners may have to pass a test on Singapore – its history, culture and general knowledge – before they are allowed to become citizens.

The idea is to promote the newcomers’ integration and bonding here and reducing potential friction with Singaporeans.

Singaporeans complain that in its rush to offer citizenship and PR to “foreign talents”, the government has failed to ensure they have a sense of belonging and some loyalty.

This test applies mostly to permanent residents (PRs), who come largely from Malaysia, China, India and the region. It follows similar practices in the United States, Britain and Australia.

Last year, 20,513 foreigners were given Singapore citizenship and 79,167 others offered PR status – both record numbers. Fewer than 40,000 Singaporean babies are born annually.

The open door policy will likely remain unchanged. However, public furore has grown much recently, resulting in the government to announce a reduced intake in future.

Officials also said that future expansion might be limited to the society’s ability and willingness to absorb them.

Due to history, Malaysians still make up the largest number of permanent residents in Singapore, many of them having been here for decades without becoming citizens.

They live in resale Housing Development Board (HDB) flats. Many of their children have served national service and raised families.

If they do not become citizens, their status will remain unchanged, but if they wish to they will have to take the test.

(Citizenship generally follows 3-5 years of residency with proven resources and skill to be able to contribute. Two out of every three applicants are approved.)

To Malaysian residents who have lived a long time here, the test should pose little difficulty.

“There are very few social differences between Singaporeans and Malaysians,” said a long-time resident. “They know each other’s history and culture well, so the test will be a lot easier than for the Chinese and Indians.”

The problem of integration of foreigners, however, has become a major preoccupation for senior leaders.

Citizenship-award ceremonies are frequently held all over the island and attended by top leaders who watch the new citizens being sworn in.

In one such function, Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew urged the new citizens to work together with Singaporeans to solve problems.

He reminded them that in this economic downturn, some developed countries were restricting immigration – but not Singapore.

Some analysts are doubtful whether the policy of mass immigration to fuel growth and population can go when Lee is not around – in the face of its unpopularity.

So far, the controversy has been kept low-keyed in the mainstream media. The debate on the Internet, however, has been intense and Singaporeans are divided over its future direction.

Some believe that this migrant city will always remain what it was since Sir Stamford Raffles’ days, especially when its birth-rate remains dismally inadequate.

“The faster Singapore prospers, the more foreigners will be needed,” said one economist.

Others feel that economic expansion should be tailored – if necessary, curtailed – to fit the island’s ability to absorb them, socially and politically.

The consistency of a changing demographics is the only agreeable point. Critics worry the “open door” policy may make it hard for Singapore to have a lasting, loyally-bonded population.

Using current statistics, an informed blogger estimates that in six years’ time – by 2015 – this city will be populated by 6.59 million people, of just only half (or 3.91 million) will be true-blue Singaporeans.

Take away the naturalised citizens (estimated: 181,000) – according to him – born and bred Singaporeans may be the minority in their country. Well, give and take some years, anyway!