Saturday, September 8, 2012

Resolve unfairness felt by Singaporeans first before integrating foreigners

It has been almost 2 years ago since I last posted on the sensitive foreigner issue in Singapore. Sensitive topics are best to be avoided. However, when they pose great risks to the nation's future, we have to talk about it openly, freely but fairly. Singapore will be finished if 60% of the population cannot get along with the remaining 40%. This is really a serious problem.

I try my best to give my thoughts on this issue without giving offense by making unfair remarks. Unfortunately, some people will be unhappy if a proposed solution ends up making them losers. If this group of people are displeased as they surely will be, it should be for fair and rational reasons.

Credit should be given to the post-2011GE government. The government now is not only more open to direct feedback from Singaporeans but they actually actively seek out our feedback as can be seen from Ministers using social media to reach out to the people directly. On this count, they have earned many Singaporeans' respect, including mine.

No rational Singaporean can argue with the policy of bringing in foreigners. As a magnet of talented minds from all over the world, the United States remains the global technology leader despite lagging behind in math and science education. Unfortunately, good and sound policies can be badly executed leading to extreme damage to our country. No policy illustrate this point better than our foreign immigration policy.

Although our government is right in calling upon Singaporeans to be more big-hearted and less narrow-minded in accepting foreigners, this sensible message is not going to go down well with Singaporeans unless the government accepts its fair share of blame for its terrible execution of the immigration policy. My subsequent paragraphs will sound critical to the government but I am not criticizing for the sake of letting off steam. I sincerely feel Singaporeans' support for the government's sensible messages is vital to solve the foreigner problem. However, the government has to earn back our trust and the admission of their own mistakes is a first step to doing that.

The massive excessive influx of foreigners in a short time has created serious social divides within the Chinese and Indian segments of the population. The Malays feel alienated or even threatened as their numbers become fewer due to the influx. The Chinese segment is now divided between native Chinese Singaporeans and PRC foreigners/new citizens/PRs. The Indian segment is now divided between native Tamil Singaporeans and the non-Tamil non-native Indians. The problem may be worse for the Indians as some fair-skinned Indian foreigners may not have totally shed ancient notions of the Caste system and still carry a sense of superiority over our darker-skinned fellow Tamil Singaporeans. I am not an Indian. Can a fellow Indian Singaporean comment on my worry?

The infrastructure is bursting at the seams with the massive influx. This is obvious to people who take public transport. These are technical problems which can be more easily solved. Given the competitive remuneration commanded by our civil service, we should have no lack of competent staff in the government to solve technical problems. I have full confidence in their technical ability. I think it is the social human aspect that pose the greatest risk to our country. We cannot solve this problem without talking what angers Singaporeans and resolving the unfairness between Singaporeans and foreigners that prevails today.

Behind the anger that affects even the more reasonable fair-minded Singaporeans are government policies that gives foreigners an unfair advantage over Singaporeans. Nobody doubts that all the policies are well-intentioned but if the unintended consequences are not, I think our government should reconsider tweaking the policies. Notable policies are National Service and scholarships to foreigners (which this article is not going to talk about).

In an earlier article, I talked about native Singaporeans being discriminated in the job market due to their military duties while foreigners gain an edge from the very sacrifice we make to the defense of our country. Singaporeans should not begrudge foreigners for coming here to take advantage of  Singapore's good economic conditions or even loopholes in policies to make a living because we would have done the same thing if we were in their shoes. However, it is not fair to expect Singaporeans to sacrifice ourselves to defend the nation and increasingly the foreigners as they buy up our properties while at the same time, we are penalized for our very act of sacrifice.

During my time, no matter how much we dislike National Service, none of us including the least educated Pai-Kia ever questioned the need for NS. It is a different case today. With foreigners taking up close to 40% of the population and buying up our properties, our youngsters are beginning to question the whole purpose of NS - "Why should I do NS to defend the interests of foreigners?" This can even be verified by foreigners themselves. If you are a Malaysian PR with a son going to or doing NS, please check out the sentiment with your own son. If your own flesh and blood is questioning the need to defend the interests of foreigners (a group which includes their own father), you can see how serious this problem has become. Indeed, a NTU student told former PM Goh Chok Tong that with the excessive influx of foreigners, he does not know what he is defending anymore.

It is a pure waste of taxpayers' money to allocate vast sums of money on our Defense budget when our greatest weakness are demoralized soldiers and citizens who have lost their sense of belonging and loyalty caused by massive influx of foreigners and unfair treatment. When soldiers and citizens do not feel like fighting for the country, every war becomes a potential Vietnam war. What do I mean by that? It means that even though Singapore spends incredible sums of money to buy superior weaponry, we will still lose the war to technologically inferior countries just like the way United States lost the war to the poorly equipped VietCong in the Vietnam War because the US soldiers/citizens lacked the will to fight. Suppose we win the war despite the Vietnam-War effect. Our country will still be finished when body bags of native Singaporeans start flooding our shores. The grieving orphans, widows, old mothers and fathers from broken families created by the war will belong to native Singaporean males. Those with intact families are the foreigners(if still around) and new citizens who have no NS duties. This will surely split our nation asunder. It will take a very long time to heal the resentment of mourning over a dead family member while seeing new citizens/PRs enjoying time with their own families because they benefited from the sacrifice made by our native Singaporean men and boys(sons of PRs included) who died for the country. If war happens, whatever the outcome, win or lose, Singapore risks being torn apart. The unfairness as of today cannot stand because of the huge risks it pose to losing a war or national unity(if we win) when the casualties come in.

Few things infuriates me more when Singaporeans are told we are getting xenophobic because we are losing out to foreigners who are taking jobs away and that we are whiners because we are losers. Firstly, it is rubbish to say we cannot stand up to foreign competition. Secondly, there is no level playing field in the job market between Singaporeans with NS duties and the rest who don't. My friend toyed with the idea of starting up a business of his own. Patriotic as he is, he reached the unpatriotic but rational conclusion that it does not make economic sense to hire a Singaporean over a foreigner (assuming the foreigner is equally good) because Singaporeans have to go missing in action for weeks sometimes regularly every year to meet his NS obligations, cannot work overtime or have to knock off early to go for remedial training if he fails his fitness test, higher CPF contributions etc. For SMEs with a staff strength of 5-10 people, 1 person missing for weeks is 10%-20% of its human resources gone which inevitably will affect company operations. It is small wonder why SMEs prefer to hire foreigners. People who make customer or vendor visits to SMEs in the course of their work can verify this observation with their own eyes.

10 years ago, job discrimination caused by NS was at a tolerable level because employers did not have much of a choice as the number of foreigners were much fewer then. Today, with the massive influx of foreigners (close to 40% of the total population) with many Singaporeans complaining about being minorities in their workplace, employers have an abundance of foreigners without NS liabilities to choose over native Singaporeans. When livelihoods are threatened, it is impossible to expect one group to cooperate with the competing group. 

Our financially prudent government is preparing the ground to accept higher taxes to pay for higher social spending to build an inclusive society. This is a sensible but hard-to-swallow message. The bitter pill can be more palatable if the bitterness is spread fairly. It is not unfair to suggest that higher taxes be imposed on newcomers/foreigners who made lesser sacrifice than the native Singaporeans in nation-building but expect near equal privileges because they also pay taxes (Singapore tax rates are probably lower than their home countries). Indeed, as pointed out by former PAP MP Maidin Packer (please read his letter. He won my respect), the ancestors of the natives also made huge sacrifices for the country when the Government acquired their land at around $1 psf for economic purposes. I think it is fair to expect newcomers/PRs to pay higher taxes to compensate the natives for their sacrifice in order to deserve similar privileges. "你出钱,我出力" 胜于 “我出力,你收益”.

Going forward, particularly with higher social spending and taxes, granting of citizenship and PRs should be much more selective than the past to avoid rising social spending and taxes. More new citizens/PRs means more people to share the pie of social services. Those who consume social services must be deserving ones so that those who pay are willing to pay. Otherwise, this becomes another source of divisiveness.

Social problems created by unfair policies can be solved by new policies. Given that the civil service takes in the finest minds in Singapore because of the good pay, I am confident they will come up with the solutions as long as they have the courage to admit that problems exist, particularly if the problems are in part caused by past policies of their own doing.

Regrettably, there are problems created by the massive foreigner influx which I doubt even 10 more brilliant senior wranglers like Lee Hsien Loong can solve. The most difficult problems are those that involve changing people's behavior, in a climate when trust has been eroded. 10 years ago, it was easier to integrate foreigners into Singaporean society because they came in small numbers. In the workplace, they had no choice but to integrate. Otherwise, they will have to eat lunch alone everyday. Today, foreigners come in such large numbers that there is absolutely no need for them to integrate. It is human nature to mix around with people of their own kind. All of us are more comfortable to work with people who share the same background, culture or skin color. This by itself is not a serious problem. The worst happens in the workplace where political factions are formed dividing the office between Singaporeans and foreigners. The nature of politics is divisive and politics in the office will whip up anti-foreigner sentiment among Singaporeans. With the workforce population split near the middle between locals and foreigners, the potential for divisive office politics between different nationalities is certainly a concern. People can be nice outside the workplace but once in the workplace where office politics becomes a matter of survival, it is naive to expect cooperation and unity.

Increasingly, there are warning signs that this is happening. One common complaint among Singaporeans is that foreign supervisors prefer to hire candidates from their own country. Just as the electorate vote along racial lines, hiring managers tend to hire along nationalistic lines. This behavior of wanting to work with our own kind is so ingrained in us that it can even happen at a subconscious level. There is no need to collect statistics or conduct surveys to prove or disprove this problem. It is part of our human nature. Even though Tan Chuan Jin and Chan Chun Sing looks like smart people with good hearts, I doubt they can solve this kind of problem even if they work super hard at it. If our government can change people's behavior, we would be having enough babies today. Fellow Singaporeans unfortunate to be on the receiving end of discrimination should take it upon themselves and not rely on government's help by setting up their own companies. Having successful companies of our own is the best way to show to people that they are talking nonsense when they say Singaporean are whiners who cannot beat the foreign competition. Hopefully, by that time, policies that cause Singaporean employers to discriminate against hiring their fellow countrymen will be removed by our government.

I have personally benefited from really talented immigrants in the workplace. They were engineers of substance, doers and not talkers, shared and transferred knowledge of useful technologies to fellow Singaporeans like me. A successful immigration policy should be one that attracts and retains such talented individuals. For the past 5 years before GE2011, it degraded into one that attracts cheap replacement to displace fellow Singaporeans. Instead of them transferring knowledge to us, some of us were expected to dig our own graves by training them up to replace ourselves. I am grateful to the immigrants who taught and guided me. This group of people, most of whom came to Singapore more than 10 year ago, have since become Singapore citizens and I welcome them as fellow Singaporeans. Even as of now, there are a number of such desirable new citizens in my workplace. In a way, I think they are even bigger victims than native Singaporeans as a result of the massive foreigner influx in recent years. Had the influx of foreigners been more calibrated, there would be lesser discrimination in the job market against Singaporeans. We would have felt less unfairly threatened and can even put up with the unfair NS status quo. Singaporeans would not have unwittingly taken out their anger on innocent, desirable real foreign talent or new citizens.

If siblings cannot get along with each other because one of them felt indignant over unfair treatment from the parents, then parents have to share the blame when the family breaks up. It is not effective when parents exhort their flesh and blood to be more big-hearted in accepting their adopted brother for the sake of family unity. It is not fair to expect the flesh-and-blood child to make more sacrifices for the family while the parents grant the same share of the inheritance to the adopted child.

In other words, issues of unfairness between native Singaporeans and foreigners/new citizens must be resolved before social integration efforts can hold any hope of being effective.

PS: I am a native Singaporean. I am naturally biased towards my own kind. I welcome opposing views from other groups because sensitive problems can only be solved through frank exchange. Just be civil. Thank you.