By Acmad Toquero Macarimbang

Imagine Singapore without immigrants. This is the perceived message from the recent consultation paper on population issues produced by the National Population and Talent Division. Though the paper reflects on population challenges faced by local citizens relating to the growing number of new immigrants and foreigners, it ultimately discusses the need to have them so as to make Singapore globally competitive and economically alive.

By examining possible scenarios presented in the paper, it does seem that the nation has arrived at a critical juncture for the Government to seek proposals for an effective policy on population control. For example, if the Republic refuses to  take in new citizens from this year onwards, an estimate 900,000 of the current 3.27 million citizens will retire in 2030, an amount which  is more than a quarter of today’s citizen population (pp6, 8, 14). In fact, the twin phenomenon of a low birth rate and higher life expectancy in Singapore will result in increased taxes and greater economic burden due to lesser working individuals supporting an increasing number of ageing citizens (pp15, 16).  The budget allocated for elderly care will become massive. This in turn will erode consumer spending which then translates into negative impacts on investments. (p16).

The paper attempts to rationalize that new immigrants will mitigate such a phenomenon by supplementing the shrinking and ageing population. This is in line with the current policy of granting citizenship and permanent resident status to mostly educated and young professionals, ideally below 30 years old, and who are most likely to settle in Singapore(p9). From 2007 to 2011, an average 18,500 foreigners were granted new citizenships per year (p9). This is an increase from the 8,200 per year during the period  1987 to 2006(p6)However, the granting of permanent residency status had been  tightened from an average of 58,000 per year from 2004 to 2008, to 28,500 per year from 2010 onwards (p6). As a consequence, the bulk of the new residents from 2007 to 2011 are actually dependents of the 38% who are new citizens and the 48% who are PRs working on the country (p9).

As further explained, aside from anchoring investment opportunities, the presence of foreign workers/talents in the nation-state will supplement the dwindling resident workforce(pp27, 29). As of December 2011, out of the total Singapore workforce of 3.02 million individuals, 6% are EP holders (i.e., managers, executives and other middle to high-skilled professionals), 4% are S-pass holders (i.e., technicians and other semi-skilled workers), and 23% Working Permit holders (i.e., construction workers and other low-skilled workers, excluding foreign domestic workers)(p30). The foreign workers/talents comprised 33% of the Singapore workforce (excluding foreign domestic workers), of which 21% are foreign PMET (professionals, managers, executives, technicians), and 43% foreign non-PMET (cleaners and other low-wage workers) (pp 30, 31). As a further breakdown, 43% of the foreign workforce are employed in the service industry, 30% in construction, 27% in manufacturing and 0.4% in other industries (p28).

The paper also reiterated that foreign workers/talents will not add to Singapore’s elderly population and may even improve the old-age support ratio (p29). Without immigrants and foreign talents/workers, the old-age support ratio in 2030 will be 2.1 or 2 working age citizen adults to each elderly citizen (p15). However, if supplemented by foreign employees, it will improve to about 4 working age citizens to each elderly citizen. This will be comparable to the statistics of the US, UK, Sweden and Germany (p29).

In recent years, the number of new immigrants and foreign workers/talents were lessened by the Government due to the rising concern among the citizens over losing their jobs to foreigners, congestion in public transport and sky-rocketing housing costs. These population challenges are reflected in the paper though presented in a preemptory way and mitigated by the mention of  follow-up measures such as the construction of  more infrastructures, private and public housing , parks and recreation areas, health facilities, and incentives in the areas of  family, education, work and business from this year onwards.

However, there are relevant issues and questions that are noticeably missing in the paper. For example, how does the policy define the family as a unit where single parenthood is an on-going trend in a global community? And what precautionary policies have been taken to arrest the decline of the Malay population so as to increase and/or to maintain the status quo?

The paper might need to consider looking at the huge number of dependents, who make up more than half of the working new citizens and PRs, and perhaps revisit the requirements in obtaining citizenship and permanent residency status. Perhaps, the criteria for consideration should not be based on economic contribution, but on how adaptable the applicants are to the local culture. When it comes to social cohesiveness, the paper might want to introduce  compulsory orientation programs for those who seek PR status, and make it mandatory for them to serve the community from time to time, before and after their applications have been processed and approved. In the workforce, a change in mindset is needed so that a cleaner, a construction worker and other low-skilled jobs are seen as important contributors to our local society, and that they should not be earning less than a thousand dollars a month. Citizens must be given the first priority in applying for all job openings, and it must be mandatory to only hire foreigners as a last resort. After all, this is Singapore. There should be a policy for the well-being of it citizens – a policy imbued with sympathy, a policy with the well-being of its citizens above the needs of multinational companies, a policy which prioritises the welfare of its  citizens above non-residents and a policy for citizens above the whims of any ruling party.

The paper is consciously imposing as fact that Singapore needs new immigrants and foreigners. The forecasted future of Singapore minus immigrants and foreigners is subjective and biased. This gives the impression that when immigration fails; this nation-state is going to disintegrate. However, the paper is a good opportunity for the community to be proactive, in responding to this public consultation paper. It is time to be heard and to be counted for what each and every citizen think is the best for this nation-state.

Acmad Toquero Macarimbang is a Research Associate with the Centre for Research on Islamic and Malay Affairs (RIMA). The opinions expressed in this article are his own.

This commentary was also published in A Review of the National Population and Talent Division Consultation Paper on Singapore Population Policies – Our Population Our Future, National Population and Talent Division, July 2012.

Photo Source: NPTD