When I moved to Singapore, I was struck both by the ease with which I received my work pass, and how little was asked of me to get one.
The experience was frictionless in both senses. The Ministry of Manpower work pass division near Clarke Quay—with its clear signage, minimal wait times, and pleasant kids play area—was an enviable example of public service design. But, as I walked out, I realised I had learned nothing about, and been asked to contribute nothing to, the country in which I was about to live.
This thought stayed with me as I learned more about Singapore and its recent history. Normally, people told me this story starting with the 2011 election, when voters punished the ruling party for ignoring voters’ worries about a host of issues, from overcrowded public transport to excessive immigration. The government got the message, the story goes, boosting investment in public transport, and giving some limited preference to local workers over foreigners. At the last election in 2015, they did better.
For all that, Singapore still aims to be an Asian financial hub, an economic strategy which requires plenty of skilled migration, as well as foreign workers in lower skilled sectors, like construction and childcare. These various foreigners will help to add one million to the population by 2030—the kind of rapid demographic change that requires a social bargain of some sort to be struck.
Singaporeans are being asked to embrace globalisation, and so can reasonably expect the state to help them adapt to it, notably in areas like education. They are being asked to accept an economic model predicated on high levels of migration. In return, it seems to me, it is reasonable that they can expect those moving to Singapore to integrate to some minimal degree.
The argument for integration
One migration danger Singapore faces, in the case of skilled migrants (like myself), is that those coming here live pleasant lives set apart from the mainstream of Singaporean society, and thus remain ignorant of its history and social norms. This in turn risks breeding resentment from ordinary Singaporeans, and undercutting support for migration and globalisation itself.
There were few clearer examples of this than Anton Casey, the British lawyer who in 2014 caused a furore by describing MRT users as “poor people” on Facebook, and writing about the need to wash “the stench of public transport off me”.
Most foreigners in Singapore do not behave in this way, but the reaction to his comments spoke to a wider truth: namely, that many skilled migrants do treat Singapore as a kind of glorified country club or airport terminal, worthwhile mostly for its enviable facilities and good shopping.
Different nations welcome migrants differently. America is an extreme example, with a broad notion of citizenship that can be accessible to almost everyone. If I move to China, I cannot become Chinese, but if I emigrate to America, or indeed if a Chinese person emigrates to America, we can both become American.
Not every country will emulate this approach. But we should never forget the importance of the valuable kinds of social ‘glue’ that allow newcomers to feel a sense of belonging, while also allowing incumbents to recognise that new arrivals are also part of the social mainstream.
To give a further example, Britain toyed over the last decade with what was called “earned citizenship”. Under this system, citizenship for migrants would have been conditional on measures of social integration, from learning English to passing citizenship tests.
Some did not like the idea, seeing it as an anti-migrant policy in disguise. But at its best, the idea was to encourage integration, while convincing migration-averse British voters that newcomers shared their local “values”. It should also have made citizenship more valuable, by making it slightly harder to achieve, something psychologists call an “effort heuristic” – meaning that we value more the things for which we have to work.
In the case of Singapore, what might this entail? In a migrant society like Singapore, there is a strong case for a more accessible conception of citizenship, with clear pathways for newcomers to achieve it, along the lines of the US model. But most migrants to Singapore do not actually want to become full citizens, and are likely staying to work for only a relatively short period. For this group, it seems reasonable to ask that those seeking a work pass, like I did, go through a minor process of social integration—a basic civics test, for instance, involving the rudiments of life in Singapore, as well as its history, laws and system of government.
A new home
Newcomers could also be nudged to learn about their new home. Todd Buchholz, a former advisor to US President George HW Bush, recently wrote a book arguing that wealthy industrial nations face what he called a crisis of social “entropy”, born of factors including high migration. There is much to disagree with in his account, but Buchholz did have the intriguing idea of handing out US green cards conditional on their recipients visiting a handful of sites of civic interest in the year after their arrival—a national park, for instance, or a major museum or cultural institution.
Along the same lines, why not provide work pass applicants with a free ticket to the National Museum of Singapore? Or information about volunteering opportunities, or ways to contribute to charities?
Such measures will not create social glue on their own, but they can be a step in the right direction. The precise methods would need to be reasonably cheap, avoid perverse incentives, and not end up being off-putting to the migrants themselves. It would also be important to ensure the process is done in a way that avoids even a hint of boosterish state propaganda.
Done properly, demanding a little more of those who want to work in Singapore could make their experience better, while increasing local social acceptance for migration and globalisation as well.
James Crabtree is a Senior Visiting Fellow at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy and a Contributing Editor for the Financial Times. He moved to Singapore from India with his wife and family in 2016.
This essay was first published in The Birthday Book 2017: What should we never forget?, edited by Sheila Pakir and Malminderjit Singh. It is available for purchase via ethosbooks.com.sg.