Saturday 21 April 2012

Mind the local-foreign gap

Editorial, The Straits Times, 20 Apr 2012

AS IN most societies, the ebb and flow of sentiments towards foreigners can hinge on the relative number of newcomers, the competition for jobs, the common use of public resources, and claims to a share of the economic pie. A tipping point here was brought into focus during the last general election and a number of changes have been introduced since then to distinguish between the perks of citizenship and permanent residency. For instance, it was announced last week that health-care subsidy rates for permanent residents would be brought down to half of what Singaporeans receive. While it is natural for all countries to make a distinction between citizens and foreigners, this can be counterproductive if pressed to a point where nations with ageing populations fail to attract younger foreigners with the skills and business acumen to give the economy a boost. The stark reality is that Singapore is set to become the world's fourth-oldest nation by mid-century.

An us-versus-them debate over foreigners might sharpen the sense of being Singaporean across all communities, but it does no good in encouraging new migrants to sink roots and commit to Singapore. With an eye on what's at stake for Singapore's future, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong drew attention recently to the need for balance in considering issues related to newcomers.

Interestingly, the Taiwanese did not react negatively when Deputy Prime Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam commented on how that island's resistance to foreign talent has resulted in a loss of its competitive edge globally, a brain drain, and a decade-long flattening of the nominal income of the average Taiwanese. Some disagreed over the root cause of the brain drain but the observation largely prompted introspection among Taiwanese leaders. Hopefully, it will spark some reflection here too.

The impact of recent moves to curb the flow of foreigners is already being felt by some local firms, which have been crying out for relief. This is a symptom of the demographic challenges and trade-offs ahead. These issues will get a good airing at the end of the year when a White Paper is presented in Parliament on the nation's population goals and policies. It should help make clear just what is at stake. Just as society needs to pay heed to the widening wage gap, it should also be mindful of the dangers of allowing simmering anti-foreign sentiments to deepen into a local-foreign divide. What an irony that would be for this society of immigrants.

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