Sunday, 14 April 2013

Little red dot, with a big soul

That's what will keep citizens rooted and others coming
By Robin Chan, The Straits Times, 13 Apr 2013

I SPENT a few days in New York last week and was reminded again of the incredible diversity of that city, as I met an Indian cab driver, a Mexican waiter and a Korean hotel receptionist.

Walking down the streets of Broadway, I felt a sense of youthful dynamism and energy. For all the problems plaguing America, and there are many - high unemployment, deep government debt, guns, slow growth and dangerous income inequality - this was still very much a place where people want to be.

In that same week, American politicians appeared to make progress on a longstanding, contentious debate over immigration reform. They moved a step closer to a proposal to start documenting some 11 million illegal immigrants, and to have more structure over how many foreign workers to let into the country - more during times of economic growth and fewer during leaner times.

The proposal will also keep the United States open to high-skilled foreign talent and make it easier for the foreign students in their universities to get a work visa and therefore, a job, after graduation.

It was a relief for me, a Singaporean who went to university in the US, to hear that the immigration debate is making progress. A relief because it reminded me of how difficult it had become for some of my friends to get good jobs in the US since the start of the financial crisis in 2008, when many from my graduating class then had their visas taken back, or were told to indefinitely postpone their start of work.

It was a relief too because of the experience of another university friend, whose mother moved to the US from the Philippines to be a nurse, won a green card through the lottery, and put her son through high school.

My friend then worked hard through college supported by generous financial aid, and is now a successful Goldman Sachs banker in New York.

Social mobility in one generation - I am glad more will enjoy the same opportunity he did to share in the American dream.

But the debate over immigration is as highly contentious in the US as it is in Singapore.

There are many problems with their immigration policy, and pockets of anti-foreigner sentiments in many parts of the country. My one and only brush with racism occurred in the US, as I was travelling through Myrtle Beach, South Carolina in 2007, when I was told by a young Caucasian man to go back to China.

But even as difficult and myriad as the problems are in the US, I believe what will ultimately make immigration reform successful there is the belief among the majority of Americans that immigration is a fundamental right for all.

It comes from a deep-rooted sense of idealism and generosity that makes them want to share their values and country with others, to make others' lives better.

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said in an interview with the Washington Post last month: "One of the reasons America is welcome in Asia is because with America... there is a certain idealism and a certain bigness of soul.

"You want the region to prosper, you want countries to do well, and you are prepared to help them."

He was referring to how Americans believe deeply in their values, and want others to enjoy the benefits those values bring.

That bigness of soul he describes, I believe, also makes a crucial difference between the immigration debates in America and in Singapore.

In the US, the overriding belief is that others deserve a chance to make the US their home and to help build the country.

But in Singapore, the immigration debate appears more narrowly defined in transactional and economic terms. We want immigrants, but only those of a measurable value - whether they can create jobs, reproduce, or are of the right racial make-up.

We fear that an influx of immigrants will dilute the Singaporean core. But what is that Singaporean core in the first place, if not one made of immigrants too, who came here with hopes for a better future for their families and children's families?

Critics will argue that Singapore cannot afford to take in so many, like the US does. We are just a tiny city-state, not even 50 years in the making. We are vulnerable, and must be realistic.

The US is a superpower of more than 300 million people. It is a vast continent of land, energy and resources. Indeed, those are undeniable facts.

The angst in Singapore is understandable, too. The influx of new bodies, faces, languages and accents poses a real and present danger to our still emerging sense of national identity.

They also take up physical space in our densely populated island. There is no hinterland to move away to.

But the wrong way to deal with our immigration concerns is to simply put up barriers and wait till, say, we are more confident in ourselves, or when we have more space. The rest of the world will just pass us by.

What can then be done? How do we stay open to immigrants and yet assured of a confident, Singaporean identity?

We may toggle the numbers, and tweak the percentages, but what will ultimately define our attitude towards immigration is whether or not we have that bigness of soul.

To make progress in our debate, we need to stop simply measuring people by their economic value, and look at them as individuals, potential Singaporeans with whom we want to share our future. People whom we want to help prosper and to see succeed in this country together, because then they too will have a stake in seeing the country do better.

We need to show to the world that a small country can have a big soul.

There are at least three things we can do to improve our immigration and integration processes.

We need to improve our citizenship journey so that new citizens feel more strongly about what makes Singapore Singapore.

We need to make it easier for foreign spouses with children born here to take up citizenship because they have a strong emotional attachment to the country even though they may not have any measurable economic value.

We need to make it a requirement for new citizens to serve in the community for the first five years of becoming Singaporean, to emphasise that being Singaporean also means giving back.

But above all, a big-minded and big-souled Singapore is what will keep this country exceptional, keep immigrants coming and citizens rooted here - Singaporeans sharing their success and values with others.

Then our citizenship will stand for something.

Former prime minister Lee Kuan Yew said: "My definition of a Singaporean, which will make us different from others, is that we accept that whoever joins us is part of us... that must be our defining attribute."

Being Singaporean is not defined by blood or birth, to paraphrase the words of the current US president, but by a desire to share in the values and principles of our society.

It is about the belief in the idea that anyone from anywhere can help write the next chapter of the Singapore story.

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