“Bribe” Singaporeans to train them to accept the incessant intake of foreigners? Yes, you read it right. And yes my jaw dropped too when I read a suggestion made along these lines in an academic commentary published online by the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), a graduate school of Nanyang Technological University. Ok, the three co-authors didn’t use the word “bribe” but I think most who read their incredulous proposal would get this idea.
In this commentary, the authors proposed introducing an “Immigration Bonus” (i.e. Cash payout) as a way of “Making Singaporeans Appreciate Foreigners” by showing us the tangible benefits of having more foreigners in Singapore and by teaching us to “appreciate the potential cost of a closed-door immigration policy”.
They even worked out a way to get this “Immigration Bonus” – from a revenue pool derived from the levies collected for the Work Permit and S Pass Holders as well as the possible introduction of a one-off entry levy for Employment Pass Holders. The three academics who work at RSIS said “this bonus may go some way in alleviating the unpleasant consequences of immigration by making the benefits of having a foreign presence in Singapore more tangible”. They added that this bonus would be akin to the GST Bonus doled out periodically to Singaporeans and could take the form of further subsidies – beyond those currently enjoyed by citizens – for education, medical services, housing or financial aid to the lower-income group.
The commentary also boldly asserts that the significance of the collection and disbursement of such a bonus lies in its symbolic value – to serve as an important signal to Singaporeans of how their fortunes are intertwined with foreigners as the “Immigration Bonus” will increase and decrease in tandem with the number of foreigners allowed into Singapore.
Has your jaw hit the floor yet? Mine did. When I first read this, I thought this might be a satire or a bad joke. But upon checking the source, I realised it wasn’t. I was utterly shocked as this suggestion is made on very shallow grounds and on the assumption that Singaporeans can be bought with money. It made me wonder if the authors are Singaporeans or foreigners since they don’t seem to understand why so many Singaporeans are unhappy and troubled by the foreigner and immigration issues. My fear is that if even such highly educated analytical scholars can fail to understand Singaporeans’ concerns, how much then will our Government officials understand us?
For the benefit of those who fail to understand the foreigner hot-button issue, let me explain why buying us over with an immigration cash bonus will not work:
1. Singaporeans have never been and are not against having foreigners here. In fact, we have welcomed them and have co-existed happily with them over the decades. Many of us have good friends and colleagues from various countries. We understand that we live in a globalised world and that we need some foreigners to fill jobs that are not being filled by locals. We also know that it is good to have new input of skills and talents.
But when we see more and more foreigners working in jobs that can be filled by locals, such as secretaries, and when we see the ease with which many foreigners including low-skilled blue-collar workers are getting Permanent Residence status, we begin to wonder if our warm welcome to foreigners is being stretched to the limit. And the frustration we feel increases when we have to constantly jostle for space these days in overcrowded buses and MRT trains and even in packed suburban malls on weekdays.
2. The key issue that Singaporeans have is with the sudden influx of foreigners and new immigrants in recent years, no thanks to the overly lax immigration policy. What we object to is that almost 40% of our total population now is made up of foreigners – double that in 1990! And that’s not including the surge in the number of foreigners turned citizens in recent years. This sort of high proportion is unseen in any other nation and is comparable only perhaps to Dubai which is made up largely of foreigners.
But as I said, Singaporeans welcome a good mix of foreigners. We are not asking for the door to be closed to foreigners. We are just questioning why the door is opened so wide?
3. The authors claim the immigration bonus will make us appreciate having foreigners more. They justify it by making a monetary equation. The more we have, the more “bonus” we get, the fewer foreigners, the less we get paid. They seem to think that by us having the ad-hoc payout (which will be very little if it ever happens), it will make us forget our larger worries over rising property prices, the sharp rise in cost of living, overcrowding and the difficulties in competing for jobs and even for shop space (just look at the large number of PRC-owned and run business enclaves that up sprung up in areas like Rochor, Chinatown and even in parts of Orchard.) All these problems are complex but are exacerbated to some extent by the high proportion of foreigners living and working here.
Will the recommended “immigration bonus” resolve all our worries and these socio-economic problems? Will receiving such money make us a happier people? The obvious answer to most Singaporeans I reckon would be a flat NO.
4. In the commentary’s conclusion, the authors said “the key objective here is to make the benefits of immigration far more perceptible for citizens – moving the benefits of having a foreign workforce in Singapore from being imperceptible to appreciable, and from being unintelligible to comprehensible”.
Are they implying that Singaporeans only understand $$$? That is downright insulting to all of us if so. Well, I have news for them, the last I looked, Singaporeans are not as materialistic nor mercenary as they or the Government may think. We are also living in an era where more and more people including Singaporeans are seeking a meaningful life beyond the 4Cs and beyond what the Government deems as “pragmatic” and best for economic growth. We want wrongs to be righted, we want a more democratic way of life, we want our space and happiness, we want to be treated fairly and we want a more balanced local:foreigner ratio within our little island.
It is disappointing to see established academics from RSIS making such a patronising bonus suggestion. Perhaps they did it because they do not really understand Singaporeans or because there is an unhealthy trend of using money and other perks as national incentives by our Government. Some inglorious examples include rewarding good character shown by students with hard cold cash (a new award launched by MOE this year); the high million-dollar payouts to athletes who win medals at the Olympics; and Singapore having the highest Ministerial pay in the world (justified by our leaders as the way to draw “talents” and prevent corruption in government).
The liberal use of taxpayers money in such ways is IMHO just not right. It reflects the objectionable way in which our Government views human nature (or is it Singaporeans?) and it promotes the wrong values. Using “carrots” like money and upgrading all the time to try and win Singaporeans over to the Government’s causes is plain shallow. Instead of studying ways to sweeten policies that we object to, the onus is on our Government to understand our concerns and figure out ways to create policies that are fair and in the genuine interest of the people.
On the immigration policy, yes they need to address the issue of job shortages in some industries but they must also address Singaporeans’ valid concerns and create a comfortable population balance and space for all of us. They should also relook at their vision for Singapore to address the never-ending cycle of growing the population to create jobs that we seem to have gotten stuck in as more investments and more jobs also means more foreigners, and on and on it goes.
Just how much annual growth is sufficient? Must we always be first and best in everything? Must we always strive for As and win medals at all costs? Is the 40% level of foreigners in Singapore way too much? Is the population target of 6.5 million realistic in view of our current infrastructure and citizens’ concerns? These are all difficult questions to be tackled and answered. And the answer certainly does not lie in throwing money in our faces or making inane suggestions.