Singapore's ambition of becoming a global city that attracts the world’s top talents is facing a setback in the face of a strong public backlash against immigration.
Whether the policy was poorly implemented or explained, the pursuit of this objective is now clouded by a fog of resentment against foreigners.
Transforming the republic into a flourishing cosmopolis has long been the dream of the ageing Lee Kuan Yew, who once said he would like to see it take place before he leaves this world.
With many Singaporeans feeling they have lost control of their own destiny, talk of global city and diverse imported talents has all but disappeared.
The dilemma is compounded by rising emotions.
The public is increasingly turning some of its anti-immigration resentment - rather unfairly - to foreign workers.
This is predictable since it has affected local jobs and families.
Singaporeans - once one of the world’s most obedient citizens – are both worried and angry despite recent government curbs and a cut-back on arrivals.
Two recent instances show the extent of the emotions.
In the first, a Tamil TV forum attended by Singaporean Indians as part of a national dialogue produced some heated comments seldom heard over any state-owned media.
Commendably, the programme was allowed to be aired as a result of a more tolerant attitude towards the immigration controversy, probably as an emotional release.
One by one, the speakers laid the blame of many things gone wrong on “foreign talents”, including taking jobs away from Singaporeans and causing the cost of living to rise.
A well-dressed woman said: “Even Singaporeans are not taken care of. So who is going to take care of the foreigners”.
Another said many of the new migrants “will run back to their respective countries if Singapore faces problems.”
A gentleman commented, “As such I think it is good to set a limit for this economic growth.”
(Activists are planning a second protest at Speakers Corner on Labour Day (May 1) with police approval and said some 10,000 people are expected to attend.)
The second case was the recent opening of a Philippine fast-food branch here.
It was marred by a boycott staged by Singaporeans who were incensed by the company hiring foreigners en masse in preference over Singaporeans.
Organisers said they wanted to let businesses know that hiring foreigners ahead of locals are not welcomed here.
On the opening day, however, there was a crowd of customers with many of them being Filipinos working here. Online both Singaporeans and Filipinos exchanged heated insults.
This event brought out a side of Singaporeans seldom seen before. Traditionally they had always welcomed foreigners and mixed freely with them.
With a modern history of less than 50 years this migrant society is made up of off-springs of people who came from diverse lands to make it their home.
Of late, however, the level of tolerance for foreigners has evidently declined. Tempers have grown shorter, at times provoked by some hot-headed foreigners.
This mood may slow down the government’s efforts to make it a global city capable of attracting top talents from the world to work and settle here.
On this rests the success or failure of another ambition - to create a skilled service hub and raise GDP growth.
Until the immigration problem is resolved, it will be a lot tougher to attract truly talented foreigners, since other countries are also competing for them.
Some analysts believe that they now understand better why the leaders here have described Singapore as – not a country – but a city.
For years, many were baffled why this pouring of cold water on the nation’s status and indirectly the people’s spirit of nationalism.
In 2009, Law Minister K. Shanmugam created waves when he told an audience of top lawyers in America:
“This is where most people make a mistake ... I have tried to explain that we are different. We are a city. We are not a country,”
He was replying a question from a US economist why Singapore had deviated from the democratic norm although it was seen primarily as a country.
He later explained: “I made it clear that we are a sovereign state (and) we are a country in the legal sense.”
The Law Minister was echoing what Lee had said on several occasions.
In 2011 the then Minister Mentor said: “We are a nation in the making. Will we make it?
“Am I certain we’ll get there? No, I cannot say that. Something can go wrong somewhere and we’ll fall apart.”
Assessing Singapore’s chances of becoming a true nation, Lee added: “If you believe it’s a reality, then I think you’re making a mistake.
“It’s an aspiration, it’s something we must make into reality probably in another 20, 30, 40, 50 years.”
Some analysts believe that the pragmatic, economic-minded leadership was preparing to change Singaporean mindsets to submerge their national feelings for a global city.
When they made these comments they probably already had in mind two things – a 6.9 million population, half of which being new migrants, the analysts said.
One pointed out that global values do often clash with a people’s national identity - which can explain the present immigration dilemma.
So with their long-term configuration of a hub economy, calling Singapore a city – not a country – actually spells pragmatism.
Trouble is too many Singaporeans may not be buying it.
Seah Chiang Nee
Business & Investment Opportunities
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