Saturday 16 April 2016

A Singaporean's journey West, and back home

A sojourn through Europe, which is grappling with a migrant problem, led me to rethink my views on the role of government
By Charles Tan Meah Yang, Published The Straits Times, 15 Apr 2016

As a Singaporean who has lived and worked in London for nearly 10 years now, making the decision to finally move back home was not an easy one. After all the deliberation, one thing was abundantly clear - Singapore is my home.

It is where friends, family and fond memories reside. It is where I come from, it is where I must return, and considering my age - 31 - it was better to do so sooner rather than later.

With my resignation tendered last month, my fiancee and I found ourselves with quite a bit of spare time on our hands, and thus we set out to travel around Europe for as much as our backpacks and budgets would allow before returning to Singapore for good.

Friends will remember me as a diehard free-market libertarian with a strong anti-government bent and a fondness for tau hway (soya bean curd) and bak chor mee (minced pork noodles).

The second trait hasn't changed; but the first has swung considerably. I now believe in the need for strong government oversight alongside a largely free-market framework.

The primary reason for that change is the time I have spent in Europe; the experiences here have led me to rethink the role of government and the onerous task of policymaking which we too easily criticise or take for granted in Singapore.

A recent trip to the Scandinavian countries of Norway, Sweden and Denmark, just as the refugee crisis was reaching fever pitch in Europe, brought to life an issue that was, until then, just something you saw happen to other people on TV.

I saw some questioning of the so-called Scandinavian or Nordic model, a socio-economic system characterised by big government, and a generous welfare state - public spending accounts for 40 to over 50 per cent of gross domestic product in the Scandinavian nations of Norway, Sweden and Denmark, as compared with the less than 20 per cent in Singapore and Hong Kong.

This system has historically been lauded for its egalitarian attitudes and high moral ambitions, including an open-door immigration and asylum policy; generous unemployment benefits and maternity-related incentives, as well as the provision of high-quality, universal public services and infrastructure.

The past two years, however, have been testing for Scandinavian generosity as an eruption of geopolitical unrest and economic malaise have sent millions fleeing their homes in Africa and the Middle East in search of a better life in Europe.

Some of these refugees have ended up in the Scandinavian countries, travelling from the warm Mediterranean countries they first landed in, Greece and Italy, and travelling north, presumably seeking the countries with the most generous welfare entitlements, like any rational economic actor would do.

Last year alone, Sweden took in more than 160,000 asylum seekers, with another 160,000 expected to arrive this year (up threefold from about 50,000 in 2013).

The migration agency expects this influx could cost it around 60 billion kronor (S$10 billion) annually, or 1.5 per cent of GDP, and to put this figure into perspective, that is almost how much Sweden spent on healthcare (70 billion kronor) and education (70 billion kronor) respectively last year.

But apart from the financial cost incurred, the crisis has exacted a toll on society as a whole. In many cases, new migrants had difficulty picking up the local language and are physically isolated from the rest of society.

In October, a bus carrying 60 refugees reached Limedsforsen, a Swedish village that the refugees considered "too cold" and too remote. They refused to disembark. The village is 400km north-west of Stockholm and had a population of just over 400 inhabitants.

Understandably, some citizens are asking why valuable taxpayer dollars are spent housing, clothing and feeding a large population of people to whom they feel little ethnic or ideological connection, whose majority religion they associate most closely with unspeakable acts of terror and who seem unwilling or unable to integrate with the broader community in their adoptive country.

Indeed, the rules in effect today were written in a different time, for a different world - before the Syrian conflict created the biggest migration push into Europe since World War II - and the Scandinavians, in a dramatic policy U-turn earlier this year, have begun to toughen their stance.

Norway has begun to deport some 5,000 refugees to Russia, Sweden has outlined plans to expel about 80,000 from last year's cohort, while Denmark has enacted controversial laws to allow the seizure of cash and valuables from migrants to help pay for their stay .

Yet, while we were walking the streets of central Stockholm, we saw a number of young activists holding a "refugees welcome" banner. Such public displays of support belie a smouldering resentment: The latest poll in Sweden now indicates that roughly 55 per cent of the population believe the country should not take in any more refugees (up from only about 30 per cent in September).

While international observers have criticised the policy moves as inhumane and local politicians have invoked the moral imperative to help those in need, I find myself on the side of those favouring a tougher stance.

In my opinion, a government should always place the interests of its people first (that is, those who directly contribute and/or are indigenous to that community) before aspiring to nobler goals further afield .

That is not to say that we shouldn't be donating money and offering help to victims of natural and man-made disasters abroad - after all, charity begins at home but it doesn't end there. Rather, it is to acknowledge that in the absence of a utopian world of limitless resources, promising relatively generous benefits and then throwing the barn door wide open is not charity; it is folly.

There is a lesson to be learnt here about sustainability and how our policymakers need to take tail risks and long-term effects into consideration when introducing new laws. Policies which are popular and/or that appear feasible in the short term often spiral out of control over time, and repealing them at some later date can prove not just difficult or impossible, but also deeply unfair - case in point: Is a refugee arriving today any less deserving of asylum than one that arrived two years ago?

Ten years ago, I started my "Journey to the West", believing, perhaps naively, that free markets and open borders were unquestionably desirable, and society could be relied upon to take care of itself and uphold the basic tenets of a civilised democracy. Examples from across the world, past and present, have convinced me that is evidently untrue.

Instead, I believe we need a strong government with an equally strong moral compass because we rely on our politicians to make important decisions on our behalf - decisions that will affect not just our lives, but those of generations after us.

These decisions will be imperfect and, in some cases, unpopular. But if they are made honestly, transparently and with the long-term interests of Singapore at heart, they should be made regardless.

With Singapore's Jubilee year SG50 just passed, I look forward to celebrating SG100. And if the situations in Europe and the United States are any guide, we will not get there by having a weak and indecisive government, prone to having its policymaking process corrupted by corporate lobbying and myopic populism.

The writer was until recently director of Investment Companies Research at Cantor Fitzgerald in London. He is co-founder of, a start-up that aims to tackle waste, corruption and inefficiency in the property sector.

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