Wednesday 23 May 2012

What makes someone Singaporean?

Local and foreign-born citizens differ over whether NS is a key marker
By Rachel Chang, The Straits Times, 22 May 2012

BOTH local and foreign-born citizens view respect for multiracial and religious practices as the top marker of what makes someone Singaporean.

But another homegrown institution threw up a stark difference between the two groups: national service (NS).

When the Institute of Policy Studies (IPS) asked 2,000 citizens - half local-born, half foreign-born - if having a male child who has completed NS is an important characteristic of being 'Singaporean', 69 per cent of locals said yes. Only 43 per cent of foreign-born citizens did so.

That was the one aspect of Singaporeanness that the two groups differed on the most. The participants were given 30 characteristics to mull over in face-to-face interviews that took place in 2010.

The list included markers like 'gets on well with colleagues', 'able to speak conversational English', 'owns residential property in Singapore', and 'belongs to one of Singapore's main ethnic groups'.

Besides respect for multiracial and multi-religious practices, both local and foreign-born citizens also saw 'getting on well with neighbours' and 'being gainfully employed' as top characteristics of the Singaporean identity.

IPS senior research fellow Leong Chan Hoong, who spearheaded the study, said the results showed common ground, but that locals feel strongly about NS as a symbol of citizenship.

He was speaking at an IPS seminar yesterday on integration.

Last November, the Ministry of Defence revealed that one-third of NS-liable 18-year-old permanent residents (PRs) chose not to fulfil their obligations and gave up their residency, noted Dr Leong.

This is an enduring source of resentment for locals, he said.

Referring to the ability of these 18-year-old PRs to avoid NS, he said that 'we must examine if this policy is fair'.

One way he suggested to close the gap would be for PRs to post a security bond for their male children, which would be forfeited if they do not enlist.

In a lively dialogue that followed his presentation, National University of Singapore (NUS) associate professor of medicine Paul Tambyah pointed out that NS is the first time that Singaporean boys of different socio-economic profiles are thrown together. Few Singaporeans see it as a 'waste of time'.

Besides NS, local-born Singaporeans also found it more important than their foreign-born counterparts that immigrants work in a field where there is a shortfall of talent in Singapore, and can speak conversational English.

They also were more likely to view tertiary education as a prerequisite for Singaporeanness - evincing a 'functional and utilitarian' view of integration, said Dr Leong.

In discussing the strain caused by a rapid influx of foreigners, Behavioural Sciences Institute director David Chan said that studies like Dr Leong's were important in shedding light on how citizens 'think and feel' about foreigners.

'It is dangerous to say that we should see immigration in the context of solving Singapore's long- term challenges, and that emotions are a nuisance. They are part of the long-term challenge,' he said.

In the day-long seminar at Orchard Hotel, researchers also presented studies on integration in the HDB heartlands, and among international and local students in schools.

Acting Minister for Community Development, Youth and Sports Chan Chun Sing closed out the event with a dialogue. He also chairs the National Integration Council.

The Singaporean identity, he told the 250 seminar participants, is not yet fully formed as there has been only four decades of history behind it.

Referring to how immigration keeps the economy growing, he said that 'economic success buys us time to define the Singapore identity'.

Tough 'social choices' ahead
By Jessica Cheam, The Straits Times, 22 May 2012

IF IT wants to solve problems such as a low fertility rate and low wages, Singapore will have to make some difficult 'social choices', said Acting Minister for Community Development, Youth and Sports Chan Chun Sing.

For example, the country could turn its dismal total fertility rate (TFR) of 1.2 around, as Nordic countries managed to do - if it accepts women having children out of wedlock.

And it could raise the wages of cleaners - if people were willing to pay higher service and conservancy (S&C) charges.

Spelling out these trade-offs at a dialogue that wrapped up the Institute of Policy Studies conference on integration, Mr Chan then said: 'Are we prepared to do that? These are social choices that we have to make for ourselves.'

His question came during the discussion that the minister had yesterday with academics, students and government officials over issues such as immigration, productivity and population.

When someone asked why Singapore could not achieve the TFR of 1.9 that Nordic nations with similar populations had, Mr Chan noted that the TFR of married couples in Singapore and these countries were in fact about the same.

The difference in the overall TFR came from the children that many Scandinavian women had out of wedlock, he said, adding: 'It's a social choice that our society has to grapple with - whether that is acceptable to us.'

Asked why cleaners' wages were $800 in Singapore but above $2,000 in Nordic countries, he replied that raising wages was possible, if S&C charges were also raised to pay cleaners more.

But he also stressed that the Government had not given up on boosting Singapore's TFR, and that it would keep looking at how to encourage families to have babies, such as by making childcare more accessible and affordable.

And he said that the Government was not suggesting that immigration was the only way to keep Singapore's population - and labour force - from shrinking.

'It has never been true that we've only got one track, immigrants,' he said. 'This government has always tried at least three things together.'

These were boosting TFR, increasing productivity and immigration, he said of the Government's strategy that aimed to ensure that Singapore maintained its vibrant economy with spaces and opportunities for its people.

Mr Chan also tried to frame the debate over whether Singapore should cut down the influx of foreign workers and new migrants in another way.

Instead, he said the question was, what do Singaporeans need to sustain their current standard of living? The number of working adults supporting each elderly person will drop from about 7.5 today to about 2.5 in 2030, he noted. This means that every working adult will have to be three times as productive in future.

'That's something tremendous that we have to achieve,' said Mr Chan. 'We will try, but there are sectors that will not make such tremendous gains as there's only so much productivity you can achieve.'

Integration must follow immigration
Editorial, The Straits Times, 28 May 2012

IMMIGRANT societies generally work best when local and foreign-born citizens see eye to eye on key issues like national identity. However, an Institute of Policy Studies (IPS) survey on the top markers of citizenship showed up some differences in perception here. Almost 70 per cent of locals saw national service as an important attribute of being Singaporean, while only about 40 per cent of foreign-born citizens felt the same way.

Social integration during training and the defence of home and hearth, ingrained into the national psyche after 45 years of NS, are valued so highly that Singaporeans implicitly expect similar acceptance by naturalised citizens. With two in three Singaporeans concerned about the impact of foreigners on national unity, such local sentiments should be heeded. Resentment was evident when it was learnt one-third of NS-liable 18-year-old permanent residents opted to give up their residency to avoid their NS obligations.

While the majority of Singaporeans acknowledge the economic imperative of welcoming skilled foreigners, aspiring PRs ought to be sensitive to core values here like the commitments of NS and multiracialism. Being a Singapore PR comes with an indivisible bundle of rights, benefits and obligations that must be embraced as a whole or not at all. Some have called for measures to deter NS dodging among PRs, in the same way locals are subject to strict rules relating to NS deferment and enlistment. One proposal is for NS security bonds to be posted by foreigners applying for PR, similar to the forfeitable bonds once posted by locals sending their sons for an overseas university education before enlistment.

Any steps taken, of course, should not be overly burdensome for new immigrants. To avoid throwing the baby out with the bath water, weight should also be given to the commonality of responses in the IPS survey. Respect for multiracial and religious practices was rated tops by both locals and foreigners. Getting on well with neighbours was also deemed important by both groups. Such intermingling can lead to more mixed communities rather than enclaves of expats in condos. Over time, a common sense of identity can develop based on shared interests and passions, as well as everyday experiences and collective memories. Organised activities like the Community Engagement Programme, National Day celebrations, Racial Harmony Day and the Community Games can help build social ties too. While short on long traditions, relatively young nations are doing somewhat better in fostering a national spirit than some more established nations. On this, as on many other scores, Singapore is very much a work in progress.

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