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Rethinking NS and privileges for PRs

The cavalier attitude of some permanent residents (PRs) towards their National Service (NS) obligations has been an enduring thorny issue in the immigration debate. The strategies employed thus far, in the battle for hearts and minds of Singaporeans on this issue, have generally revolved around keeping the flame of NS alive in citizens’ hearts; sharpening the distinction in benefits between citizens and PRs; and ensuring that NS-liable PRs fulfil their conscription duties.

Rethinking NS and privileges for PRs

Can PRs be relied on to fulfil the fundamental purpose of National Service, which is to meet the critical need of national security and survival? TODAY FILE PHOTO

The cavalier attitude of some permanent residents (PRs) towards their National Service (NS) obligations has been an enduring thorny issue in the immigration debate. The strategies employed thus far, in the battle for hearts and minds of Singaporeans on this issue, have generally revolved around keeping the flame of NS alive in citizens’ hearts; sharpening the distinction in benefits between citizens and PRs; and ensuring that NS-liable PRs fulfil their conscription duties.

Interestingly, a point that has yet to be raised is whether PRs can be relied on to fulfil the fundamental purpose of NS, which is to meet the critical need of national security and survival.

After all, at a pragmatic level, we have no legal claims over PRs in an actual national security crisis, given that they are citizens of other sovereign states.

So, whether we should even continue with our policy of conscripting PRs merits consideration.

BALANCING RIGHTS AND RESPONSIBILITIES

Unlike today, the conscription of PRs was non-controversial when it was first introduced in the Enlistment Act of 1970.

There was no question then that citizens were better off than PRs; PRs were required to serve NS alongside citizens, even though state-sponsored benefits remained the exclusive preserve of citizens.

The readiness of these PRs to die for the defence of Singapore was due to the fact that they were stateless individuals displaced by Singapore’s separation from Malaysia, and they aspired for citizenship which few qualified for.

Since serving NS was a guaranteed route to citizenship, it was not surprising that the overwhelming majority of those who completed NS between 1973 and 1978 — 2,564 of 2,811, or about 90 per cent — clamoured to trade in their blue identity cards for the prized pink ones, neutralising any complications over their rights and responsibilities to Singapore.

By contrast, only about 54 per cent — an estimated 3,000 out of 5,600 — conscripts who served NS as PRs between 2006 and 2010 subsequently applied for Singapore citizenship, with 46 per cent remaining citizens of other countries. With current plans to further boost the PR population, we can expect the number of non-citizen NSmen to increase.

Unlike their predecessors, PRs today have no pragmatic incentive to take up Singapore citizenship since they are granted state-sponsored benefits even as they remain nationals of other countries. As this growing group of non-citizen NSmen cannot be legally compelled to fulfil the core mission of NS when the situation calls for it, their conscription seems superfluous.

Moreover, despite having been raised in Singapore and having enjoyed almost similar benefits as citizens, second-generation PRs who are liable for NS may still be relieved of their military obligations simply by renouncing their residency status. Official statistics show a perceptible number exercise this option.

This provides fodder for vitriolic allegations of PRs as freeloaders enjoying the privileges of citizenship but none of the responsibilities, stymieing overall efforts to integrate immigrants.

In this respect, the conscription of PRs today is not premised on NS’ incontrovertible raison d’etre of defence, but on its implicit transactional function as a settlement fee for state-sponsored benefits.

BACK TO A CLEAR DIVIDE?

All things considered, current strategies to address the conundrum of the rights and responsibilities of PRs amount to nothing more than kicking the can down the road. Calls for measures to enforce the NS obligations of PRs seem illogical from a defence perspective, especially if the conscripts are reluctant citizens of another country.

Yet, the ad hoc policies of enhancing the experience of NS and sharpening the distinction between citizens and PRs, while well-intentioned, are not likely to convince Singaporeans that they are better off than PRs. As long as Singaporeans feel, firstly, that NS is the only acceptable settlement for state-sponsored benefits accrued, and secondly, that there can never be a quid pro quo for NS, such policy tweaks will be futile.

A possible approach would be to make a clean-cut distinction in the responsibilities and privileges between citizens and PRs.

This entails going back to the basics of the original PR policy which grants PRs the right to work and live freely in Singapore, but without state-sponsored benefits which they will only be entitled to upon taking up citizenship.

Exceptions could be accommodated, for instance foreigners married to Singaporeans, in which case their benefits will be tied not to their PR status but sponsorship by their spouses.

Correspondingly, they will not be required to contribute directly to the security and defence of the nation —through NS or otherwise — until they take up citizenship.

TODAY’S NEW MIGRANT

A reversal of the policy at this juncture is timely in view of the justification for the extension of citizenship rights to PRs to begin with.

The rationale that citizenship perks are necessary bait to attract quality migrants to Singapore no longer holds true today. Unlike in the 1980s and 1990s, the current supply of qualified talents exceeds demand. This trend is unlikely to be reversed any time soon, given the bleak economic opportunities in other traditional migrant magnets such as the United States and Europe, coupled with the rise of Asia as an economic centre of gravity.

Moreover, the PR policy should be premised on the new kind of migrants we have today — those who want to stay here long term but do not necessarily want to take up citizenship.

Rather than to cling to the utopia of PRs as aspiring citizens-in-waiting, a pragmatic settlement would be to welcome them as international talents who are free to live and work in Singapore, without their stay precariously tied to their employment status, and without citizenship benefits.

To be fair, any changes to the PR policy should only apply to new applicants. In this way, we can keep our doors open to migrants while maintaining a Singaporean core whose unequivocal allegiance to Singapore is valued, and in whose hands the nation’s defence is exclusively entrusted with.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR:

Yolanda Chin is a research fellow 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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