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Immigration, opportunity and the S’porean core

The Population White Paper has been robustly debated by its supporters and detractors in Parliament. While the discussion has focused largely on the intensity and extensity of immigration into Singapore — that is, how many and how soon — the debates have also revealed an existential malaise surrounding both what it means to be Singaporean as well as the ambiguity of our national values.

Immigration, opportunity and the S’porean core

The nativist’s presumption, that growing up in and with Singapore is enough to make someone feel Singaporean, is highly contestable. Photo: Bloomberg

The Population White Paper has been robustly debated by its supporters and detractors in Parliament. While the discussion has focused largely on the intensity and extensity of immigration into Singapore — that is, how many and how soon — the debates have also revealed an existential malaise surrounding both what it means to be Singaporean as well as the ambiguity of our national values.

As expressed by Member of Parliament Sylvia Lim: “(T)his debate … is not just about population. It is about nationhood, the meaning of being Singaporean”.

In effect, the debate has significantly been about, following Deputy Prime Minister Teo Chee Hean’s words, “what does it mean to be Singaporean, and how do we retain our Singapore identity” in the face of continued immigration?

WHO ARE WE?

Unpacking the debates on what would constitute a Singaporean core capable of preserving the essence of Singapore, it is possible to discern two positions on what it means to be a Singaporean.

The first position may be termed the nativist camp. This camp believes that to be Singaporean, one has to be born and bred here.

There is little disagreement across political lines that this is the ideal group who should anchor the Singaporean core. If anything, there is a fear that this core will continually shrink over time owing to Singapore’s less than sterling Total Fertility Rate (TFR).

The second position, perhaps best dubbed the constructivist camp, is of the belief that while Singapore awaits TFR boosting measures to take effect, Permanent Residents (PRs) and naturalised citizens may be used to augment the Singapore core.

Several holders of this position have employed S Rajaratnam’s oft-cited belief that being a Singaporean is “not a matter of ancestry” but based on “conviction and choice”, in order to highlight how inconsequential one’s birthplace is in defining identity.

IS THAT ALL WE ARE?

Arguably, both camps appear to have a rather hollow conception of being Singaporean.

The nativist’s presumption that growing up in and with Singapore is enough to make someone feel Singaporean is highly contestable.

If that were the case, global immigration patterns would not be at its current high rates; individuals who have been born and raised in their respective countries are comfortably on the move around the world, taking up and casting aside citizenship.

Moreover, it is a rather peculiar position to take since most of our forefathers were born and raised somewhere else.

In the constructivist camp, it is the criteria by which individuals are selected to become citizens and PRs that has been contested. Critics of the constructivist camp question whether new arrivals are truly committed to Singapore, as they are sometimes viewed as exploiting Singaporean residency as a stepping stone to something better.

Such critics then call for a more stringent criterion to weed out the opportunistic. In response, the Government has assured Singaporeans “better quality” immigrants have been sought over the years through a set of comprehensive criteria which includes the individual’s economic contribution, qualification, age and family ties.

Effectively, this may be read simply as to become Singaporean, one merely has to be Homo Economicus in excelsis — a well-functioning high value economic unit. Surely, most would agree that being Singaporean would entail far more than performing as a cog in an economic machine.

SO WHAT CAN WE BE?

If being born and raised in Singapore is an insufficient tool with which to create a national identity, and a high economic bar is a cold utilitarian measure few would think is a sufficient criteria by which to enter the fold, what then for Singaporean identity?

In addition, how can we best increase our pool of potentially committed individuals?

One potential manner to do so is to enable individuals to experience a clear and lived national narrative through a relaxation of immigration laws in Singapore. Rather than raising the economic bar for entry, the bar on income and educational qualifications can be lowered in our selection criteria on who gets to join the Singaporean core.

This means, the pool of PR and citizenship applicants can be selected with a more relaxed definition of “economic contribution” and “qualifications” for anyone who is able and willing to contribute to Singapore’s economic growth legally. This includes those on work passes but do not meet the income criteria, and those on work permits who are ineligible from the outset.

Rather than considering these individuals as “low hanging fruit” as has been described in the debates, these individuals are more likely to be more committed to Singapore long-term, having had their lives and those of their future generations bettered by living the Singaporean dream.

By being more open to who Singapore takes in, the Singapore Story becomes bolstered through a lived experience of Singapore as a meritocratic land of opportunity for both rich and poor to contribute and build a better life for themselves and their future generations.

As Singapore does not have the luxury of preserving identity and rootedness in the physical or cultural landscape, it is even more critical that rootedness and sense of identity is anchored through our lived national narrative.

It is worthwhile to consider that if current immigration laws had prevailed in the not-so-distant past, our pantheon of pioneers who would have been denied entry and membership would have included individuals such as Tan Tock Seng, Gan Eng Seng and Govindasamy Pillai — individuals who came with little, but contributed so much more.

As such, the immigration and population issue that is so hotly discussed may be seen as an opportunity and a cost. Done differently, immigration and the narrative of Singapore can be a very inspiring and compelling reference point to connect Singaporeans past, present and future.

Yolanda Chin is Research Fellow and Norman Vasu Assistant Professor at the Centre of Excellence for National Security, a constituent unit of the S Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technological University.

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