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What do we talk about when we talk about immigration?

Kirsten Han
Kirsten Han
8 min read
What do we talk about when we talk about immigration?

The images popped up in a WhatsApp chat group; they’d likely already been forwarded numerous times before arriving on my phone. They were collages, laying out an array of men of South Asian descent, holding impressive-sounding positions in banks in Singapore.

As far as I could tell, none of these individuals had committed any particular offence. Actually, it wasn’t really about them, per se — it was about why they were here, in Singapore, holding these positions. The question: was there really no Singaporean who could do this job?

Singapore’s immigration policy needs scrutiny and likely reform. I don’t think that’s a controversial statement to make. But talking about immigration can be tricky; one doesn’t want to veer into perpetuating or encouraging anti-immigrant sentiment, especially when there’s an existing environment where such rhetoric is common. It’s not always easy to raise the issue without enabling those spouting xenophobic rhetoric (by letting them think that you’re agreeing with or encouraging them), or the find the line between letting people vent about genuine frustrations and shutting down racism.

Who are the companies hiring and who are we focusing on?

Temasek has since hit out at online chatter about the number of foreigners — particularly those from India — on its payroll, slamming it as part of a “racist, divisive campaign”. Apart from Temasek, banks like DBS and Standard Chartered have also been on the receiving end of criticism for the number of foreigners they hire; the hiring policies of these companies have now been placed under the public eye.

I understand the question that’s being asked, and the point that people are trying to make, with the sharing of these LinkedIn collages of South Asian corporate high-flyers. And I agree that it’s worthwhile taking a look at the hiring practices of, not just banks, but other corporations and companies, too. It wouldn’t surprise me if, even with the government’s Fair Consideration Framework in place, we found all sorts of biases and discriminatory practices in various industries and sectors. (Differentiated treatment by nationality isn’t the only thing that we should be worried about: there’s also sexism, racism, ableism, ageism, etc.)

What makes me uncomfortable about these LinkedIn “line-ups”, though, is the focus on foreigners of South Asian descent, who may or may not be Indian citizens. From the photos, names, and titles alone, one can’t discern with any certainty if they’re citizens and Permanent Residents, or if they’re Employment Pass-holding expatriates.

What we seem to be doing, then, is assuming foreignness based on faces and names, and in this case, with a particular focus on people of South Asian descent. Whether the originator of these collages, or those who share it, are intentionally doing so or not, it’s essentially an act of racial profiling, and perpetuating racist assumptions. And this comes back to affect other Singaporeans too: the more we support the idea that we can judge whether someone is ‘local’ from their appearance and name alone, the more we subject ethnic minority Singaporeans to questions over their nationality and belonging to Singapore.

This is also related to my discomfort over the outcry against the India-Singapore Comprehensive Economic Cooperation Agreement, more popularly known as CECA. I remember hearing it brought up at one of the Progress Singapore Party’s launch events, when Dr Tan Cheng Bock called for a review of the free-trade agreement so that Singaporeans could get an accounting of how much it’s benefitted us over the years. It was a reasonable request; it makes sense that bilateral or regional agreements are evaluated periodically, with the results made public. But I also remember Dr Tan, when talking about CECA and immigration policy (since part of CECA has to do with movement of workers between India and Singapore), quipping that the government should justify how we’ve benefited from the agreement by telling us how many Indians have come to Singapore, compared to the number of Singaporeans who have moved to India.

Again, it wasn’t an unreasonable question: data about the movement of persons between one country and another could be useful. But his wry tone and the snickers that ran through the audience also suggested a far more problematic sentiment: that people were assuming, even if we didn’t have clear data at that moment, that more Indians were benefitting and moving to Singapore under CECA than Singaporeans going to India, because we’re clearly superior and who would want to go to India anyway?

It’s fine to be opposed to CECA and its terms; all free-trade or bilateral agreements should be open to public scrutiny and criticism. But we also need to be aware of why we are opposed to specific FTAs, how we communicate our objections, and the motivations that might underlie such reactions. I’ve seen multiple examples on social media of “CECA” being used as a dog-whistle for racism against Indians — this is something that we should be aware of, call out, and guard against in our own critiques of the agreement.

(Photo by sayhitobel on Unsplash)

Who is ‘local’?

In defending themselves, banks have said that they maintain a “strong local core” in their workforce, referring to both Singaporean and Permanent Residents as “locals”. This has received pushback from Singaporeans who don’t see PRs as locals, and say that the inclusion of PRs is used by the government and employers as a way to muddy the waters and cover themselves when under fire about foreigners squeezing Singaporeans out of jobs. This isn’t helped by the government’s refusal to provide disaggregated data giving us a breakdown that separates Singaporeans from PRs; when WP’s Pritam Singh asked in Parliament, all we got was Chan Chun Sing going, “What is the point behind the question?”

Disaggregated data is important, but the argument over who is or isn’t ‘local’ can also quickly become toxic. I was taken aback, for example, by Lim Tean’s declaration that “[to] be a local, you have to be born in Singapore!” — a declaration that discounts not just PRs, but also naturalised citizens.

This nativist line of argument does us no good. Nobody gets to decide where they are born, and it doesn’t necessarily have bearing on how immersed or invested we are in any particular country, society, or community. Just as there are people born in Singapore who would choose to leave the moment an opportunity presents itself, there are people who move to Singapore and sink their roots here.

Who is a ‘local’? As a friend once said, some of the best Singaporeans don’t have pink ICs. I’ve met people who have devoted time and energy — and sometimes much of their careers — to Singapore, its politics, its people, its environment, its ecology, its arts, and its culture, even though they weren’t born here, and don’t have citizenship. Sometimes this lack of citizenship (or even PR status, for that matter) isn’t from a lack of trying, but precisely because their immersion in local civil society might have crossed ambiguous boundaries.

In terms of legal definition, these people aren’t Singaporeans, because they don’t have the citizenship status that would grant them a Singaporean passport, identity documents, and the rights and privileges that come with being a Singaporean. But we don’t just live our lives by legal definitions, and who we include and exclude in daily conversation and political discourse is important because the things we say and do become the norms and standards by which we judge and treat others.

What’s really the problem?

There are very valid concerns, anxieties, and frustrations related to immigration policy and hiring practices. Not all criticism of Singapore’s immigration policy is xenophobic or racist. But it takes work to be on our guard against the discourse derailing into sideshows that not only distract from the crux of the problem, but end up creating more divisions in society.

I don’t think it’s particularly useful for us to get bogged down by efforts to determine exactly who is or isn’t ‘local’. I don’t have a problem with PRs being counted as locals, either — as I mentioned in the section above, many PRs are immersed in Singaporean life and communities and it doesn’t make sense to exclude them solely because of administrative documents — what I’m much more interested in is how one becomes a PR.

If people think that lumping in PRs with citizens as locals is a way of fudging the numbers, then, instead of arguing over the deservedness of certain people, it would be much more useful to scrutinise the process by which immigration applications are handled. What is the criteria for getting PR? What are the guidelines that immigration officers follow; does it have to do with wealth/income, ethnicity, nationality, education status, etc.? Why is it that some people appear to have been able to get it with little fuss, while others — including spouses of Singaporeans — have been rejected again and again?

The thing is, we don’t actually know: how immigration applications are judged and considered is just one more item on a huge mountain of things in Singapore that aren’t  very transparent. Even people whose applications are rejected don’t get explanations as to why that’s the case. Some other countries have a points system that would allow you to get an idea about your chances of success; in Singapore, you basically just submit an application and wait it out. This lack of clarity is an obstacle to any independent oversight or other checks and balances, and can lead to further erosion of public trust (particularly if the people feel that the government isn’t being forthcoming with information because they’re hiding something).

Instead of focusing attention on individuals who have come to Singapore, we should instead focus on whether existing measures are working or sufficient. Is the Fair Consideration Framework enough when it comes to stamping out discrimination during the hiring process — what does it cover, and what doesn’t it? Does it negate the need for anti-discrimination legislation, or is that something that we should be looking at instead, or on top of, what currently exists?

Another thing we can ask ourselves: why are things so zero sum in Singapore? Are there things that we can do, policies that we can amend or introduce, to better support people who are between jobs, or who might have fallen on hard times? If there were more safety nets and more support, if there was less shaming and invocations of “self-reliance”, would people feel less stressed or less squeezed by others, and therefore less likely to take it out on foreigners and see them as usurpers?

Is there something about our education system that needs to change? Are we not equipping Singaporeans with skills and competencies that MNCs and other large employers want? If that’s the case, why is this so?

Then there are even wider discussions about immigration and growth that we aren’t even having; apart from employment figures, immigration and development also has an impact on the environment and the climate. Is planning for continued population and economic growth viable, or should we be having conversations about de-growth and what that might/would look like?

Over the years, it’s been scary to see the populist and nativist turn that other countries and societies have gone down, and disheartening to hear immigrant friends say they feel like hostility against foreigners has increased in Singapore.

These are really stressful, difficult times, and there is real pain and anger, built on real anxieties and fears, out there. But we shouldn’t start to turn on one another (regardless of ethnicity or nationality) and end up taking our eyes off the structural and institutional factors that affect us all.

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