Sunday, 17 March 2013

Hri Kumar: Foreigners can give back in other ways

Bishan-Toa Payoh GRC MP Hri Kumar Nair recently sparked a public debate when he proposed to levy a national defence tax on non-citizens to create sharper distinctions between Singaporeans and foreigners. In his Budget debate speech this week, he observed that Singapore has lost its way somewhat on its integration efforts. Here, he speaks to political correspondent Jessica Cheam about what can be done and why the status quo will not do.
The Straits Times, 16 Mar 2013

Can you elaborate on what you think is wrong with the status quo?

Through feedback from my residents, it has become clear that the relationship between Singaporeans and non-Singaporeans is not as it used to be.

There are two aspects to this: One is the sense that non-citizens are given too easy a ride in the system. For example, on jobs, because employers are favouring foreigners over Singaporeans. And also on national service, non-citizens do not have the two-year obligation or yearly reservist liabilities, which makes them more attractive to employers.

Second is whether the difference in benefits given to the two groups is sharp enough. That's why I raised this issue. It has confirmed my belief that something needs to be done, as there is a sense of inequity which people feel is not being addressed.

How it should be addressed is where the views differ.

So what do you think can be done to address this issue?

The starting point is that we need to keep Singapore open and acknowledge the contributions of non-Singaporeans. I think many Singaporeans do recognise this.

I don't think this is inconsistent with the Government making sharper distinctions between citizens and non-citizens.

Because NS is an obligation that Singaporeans have, it is not inconsistent or unfair that foreigners bear other obligations.

So I was approaching it from a practical point of view - if we can't expect foreigners to do national service, can they contribute in some other way?

The feedback was that we can have different approaches for different groups.

Most Singaporeans would rather new citizens and PRs do some form of service, instead of giving money.

It shows a greater commitment to the country. The volunteer special constabulary (VSC) is one example. There are 52 PRs in the VSC, which involves volunteers performing police duties with regular police officers.

There's no reason why we can't have something more structured with more such programmes. It's not about money, it's about the service, not just saying that you care but doing something to help people.

So why this proposal for a national defence tax?

There are a good number of children of PRs who are supposed to do NS, but leave the country when they reach a certain age.

It appears unfair that you can enjoy benefits of a PR, but leave when it comes to the crunch.

Many feel they are gaming the system, and I don't think the penalties are adequate. We cannot stop them from leaving, but we can deter them from doing so. How can we make it more costly for them to decide to leave?

You can't lock the guy up in Singapore, so a financial penalty is the only tool we have.

Some feedback I received even suggested that the parents lose their PR status, because it was the parents who decided to send them away. I'm not prepared to go so far. I would rather we encourage the children to stay here, so there has to be some disincentive for leaving.

Would Singapore become less competitive and unattractive with such punitive rules?

Well, for those who want to sink roots here, it must not be an economic proposition, but an emotional one as well.

These people are here to raise their families and be part of our social landscape. So part of the consideration must be that they put in time and contribute to the community in one form or another.

You would look at it as a discouraging move only if you regard PRs as economic entities. That's the wrong approach. We should attract them on the basis that they will come here and want to make Singapore their home.

You say Singapore has lost its way on its integration efforts. What can be done to get it back on track?

My sense is our efforts have fallen short. At a recent post-Budget dialogue I had with Singaporeans, most of the feedback given related to foreigners.

The mood is unhappy and we should not avoid this issue. There's a sense of disharmony between the two groups.

Many Singaporeans want to see that the new immigrants are not just economic opportunists.

Our integration efforts should be on new citizens and PRs - not just trying to have them mix with Singaporeans, but to have a system where they can contribute to the community.

It's a visible demonstration of their commitment to Singapore and it makes the job of integration much easier.

Under the VSC programme, for example, you might have a PR patrolling your neighbourhood.

If he is doing that, you will know him and that he is looking out for you. Immediately there is a connection there, so integration becomes simpler.

It will help dispel the notion that PRs are here just for the economic ride.

Some people charge that moves to sharpen the distinction between citizen and non-citizen could be seen as xenophobic.

That's unfair. To label any change as xenophobic assumes the current situation is already fair and you want to make it unfair. That's too sweeping. I'm not saying everything should be changed.

I'm saying, let's review it.

If the current distinction makes sense and is adequate, then leave it alone. But if it's not, then let's do something about it.

As long as it is fair, it is not xenophobic.

One area we can look at is jobs. There's a sense that Singaporeans are losing their jobs to foreigners.

We need to review the system of hiring foreigners. People have suggested that employers be made to prove that they have tried but cannot hire a local for the role, before employing a foreigner.

Sometimes, even where there already are distinctions made, Singaporeans don't know of it.

We need to approach it in a holistic way. When this is done collectively, it becomes clearer and you can work out where things can be improved.

You recently also called for regulation on hate speech on the Internet, which is feeding this xenophobia. This has led some to criticise that this is another form of government control.

It is not about government control, but having more accountability. There should be a right to express one's honest views, but there should also be a corresponding right of protection from harm.

Right now, on the Internet, it is one-sided. A person or group who is falsely and maliciously attacked has very little recourse. That is not right, and certainly not a feature of a just society.

There are today many who express their views robustly and honestly without any reprisal.

And it is also in their interests that those who abuse the privilege are held to account, as that would lend more credibility to the platform.

"These people are here to raise their families and be part of our social landscape. So part of the consideration must be that they put in time and contribute to the community in one form or another.
You would look at it as a discouraging move only if you regard PRs as economic entities. That's the wrong approach."

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