By: Donovan Choy
There is a saying that Singaporeans are particularly fond of touting: “The government doesn’t owe you a living.”
In a country where welfare programmes are generally shunned upon by the government, what they mean by this, I think, is that Singaporeans should not expect to be taken care of and coddled by the state. The government does not owe us a living or a job – we must fend for ourselves. We should be prepared to work hard and forge our own career paths in life in order to provide for our families and ourselves.
This message on the surface seems to be rejecting self-entitlement. After all, only a truly self-entitled person would claim to have a right to a job. But a closer look at Singapore’s political discourse on immigration will unveil how Singaporeans still by and large strongly subscribe to forms of self-entitlement.
Do Citizens Come First Ahead of Foreigners?
Immigration has been for the longest time dominated Singapore’s political dialogue. The PAP is often levied with the criticism of its lax immigration laws, seen as the root cause of Singapore’s domestic jobs being “stolen” by the influx of skilled foreign expatriates and blue-collared workers, minimising our rice bowl and leaving Singaporeans with lesser opportunities and/or lower wages.
This criticism stems from the view that the government should take care of its citizens first, foreigners second. The popular belief is that Singaporeans have a more significant stake in their home countries; they invest in this country’s economy and will be here for the long haul. Therefore citizens should enjoy special privileges and a higher priority.
Let us not be mistaken by the intentions of this argument. What it is saying is, “Because I’m Singaporean, I deserve a priority over foreigners”. So what is being asserted here is essentially that citizens have a “larger stake” simply by virtue of the fact that they were born in a specific place at a specific time, not by personal achievement, not through the sweat of their brow.
The problem with this reasoning is that it justifies itself based on random and accidental factors. That Singaporeans possess a larger stake rests on a shaky premise: The construct of a “nation”. Since “nations” are essentially artificial borders drawn by men, one’s societal rights and economic privileges in life are determined solely by the physical position where we’re born – a completely arbitrary circumstance in life.
Therefore, on what moral grounds can we deter individuals from more poverty-stricken nations to seek a better living in Singapore? Because we were “here first”? But we were “here first” purely out of chance – why does this justify the supposed privilege that Singaporeans should be entitled to? The purely arbitrary element of this argument that seeks to buttress its point by asserting national or geographic borders makes it hard to give it considerable worth or merit.
Furthermore, foreigners who join the workforce too will contribute to the revenues of the state insofar as they continue to work, through various forms of taxation such as the income and property tax, CPF payments and GST (Goods and Services tax). Just like Singaporeans, they too will contribute to the economy.
Consider the fact that a hardworking high school teacher in Indonesia can make no more than $5000 a year. In Singapore, this same teacher would be making easily 8-10 times of that. For such reasons, I believe that immigration is an urgent moral imperative of today.
We see foreigners as competitors but this is a grievous mistake. Foreign workers are fellow human beings too; blue-collared workers (maids, construction workers, cleaners, nightlife call girls) flock to Singapore in search of a better living because of the lack of opportunities back home or due to political instability.
It is true that white-collared workers crowd out PMET jobs in Singapore, making the competition stiffer for the our professional workforce and university graduates. But as I have asked earlier, why should a Singaporean be more entitled to a job than an equally-qualified foreigner? We certainly don’t see it the same way when a job opportunity we are interviewing for is being competed with fellow Singaporeans. This sounds like an enormous claim of self-entitlement, that you should be taken care of first, ahead of a fellow human being whether they be Malaysian, Filipino or Indonesian.
A Basic Right to Freedom of Movement
Whether you’re a political philosopher or a primitive Amazonian jungle tribesman, freedom of movement is recognised as a fundamental liberty and human right, only justly restricted in cases for criminals.
Picture an alternate Singapore in which citizens living in the west – neighbourhoods like Jurong, Bukit Batok, Chua Chu Kang – are restricted from travelling out of their neighbourhoods freely, subject to stringent regulations and checks should they wish to travel to other regions of Singapore.
Imagine how their lives would be extraordinarily inconvenienced and would have to undergo a major upheaval. They’d have to settle for jobs only within their neighbourhoods. Meeting their loved ones and friends for a meal would be severely restricted to a handful of dining options. We would immediately recognise this law as an outrageous transgression of their rights to travel freely within the country.
Yet Is there really a difference between this scenario and one with migrant workers, but an extension of the principle of freedom of movement to a larger scale of open borders and immigration?
In the case of the Orwellian Singapore, residents in the west did not choose to be born in these neighbourhoods. They were simply unlucky to be born into a family who lives there. Similarly, citizens of third-world nations did not choose to be born there, and it’s easy to see how the denial of the freedom of movement for foreign workers (blue or white-collared) is morally unjustifiable.
If we see it as wrong (morally) to prevent a Singaporean born in Jurong from traveling around Singapore, then it is also wrong to prevent an Indonesian from relocating to Singapore for work. Even the subjecting of the worker to criterias like work visas and employment passes approvals are equally indefensible (does a Singaporean need a visa to travel from home to your place of work?). The artificially-drawn map lines separating Jurong and the rest of Singapore bears no difference from the map lines separating Indonesia and Singapore.
But ask the average Singaporean if they’d like immigration restrictions to be loosened for foreigners to find work and chances are it’d be a resounding no. Daresay you even mention open borders, and it’ll trigger the unpleasant all-too-familiar rhetoric of “there are already too many foreigners in Singapore”. In their minds, the visions and images conjured are that of noisy, uncouth Bangladeshi men in “our” trains. Instead of viewing them in a hostile light, we should respect their right to freedom of movement from their third-world homes into Singapore – exactly what we would hope for too if the tables were turned.
What About Security?
Opponents of immigration at this point will often seek to bring home the argument by asserting a hypothetical extreme. It goes like this: “Does this mean that if 100,000 immigrants wants to come into Singapore, we should automatically allow them to? What about security?”
Firstly, let us bear in mind that if opponents of open borders desire immigration control for reasons of security, then such standards should be observed across the board for tourists, businesspersons and international students. To be consistent, the tourism sector, one of the major industries of the Singaporean economy, should then be strictly minimised and destructured, perhaps even completely. Yet, this line of thought is practically non-existent.
Secondly, there needs to be strong evidence linking the effectiveness of immigration control to the improvements in security. Limiting immigration legally is easy, but whether borders are officially open or closed are unlikely to deter smugglers, criminals or terrorists who are determined to get into the country.
Lastly, security measures comes at its own costs. Constant and painstaking surveillance of both foreigners and locals moving in and out and within the nation puts a tremendous burden on the taxpayer, not to mention the risks it poses to citizen privacy for any democracy.
That’s not to say that security is not important. But immigration restrictions should be sensibly drawn. If a significant amount of radical Muslim fundamentalists inextricably linked to a terrorist organisation that has no problem using violent means to achieve their ends were to try and cross the borders of Singapore, any reasonable person would see the threat that looms over Singapore’s secular society.
Singapore being a small city-state, a question that merits serious consideration is whether the existing infrastructure can withstand a huge population growth. But we must bear in mind that this concern is centred around structuring the ease of immigration flow in order to keep jobs intact and the economy from toppling. Denying immigration could perhaps then be justified on these grounds, but not to preserve jobs for citizens or existing job-holders.
Unfortunately, the motivations behind denying immigration to foreigners are vastly different for Singaporeans. As seen with opposition politicians like Chee Soon Juan, the discussion is often focused on how many jobs are being lost to foreigners or how we should structure it so that these jobs are retained for locals. Self-entitlement is the ugly underbelly of these claims.
The principle behind restricting immigration to save jobs or wages for locals is nothing more than a self-entitled declaration. There is no right to a job or a wage rate, only the right of freedom of mobility from one place to another in search of better economic opportunities or political freedoms. Singaporeans who continue to howl for job or wage protection from foreigners are deeply misguided. Never have they been entitled to such a “birthright”, and no amount of wailing will mask the blatant self-entitlement behind these claims.
If there indeed is such a notion as a right to a job, then there will be no need to send our youth to higher education, and no need to better ourselves through work training programs and courses. Just have the government rig the job market further in the favour of Singaporeans. After all, we’re owed the job, so there’s no need to work hard for it.
We live in a precarious time where presidents are getting elected on platforms of nationalism and courting anything perceived as anti-nationalist would be political suicide. As the volume of flag-waving jingoism intensifies in an increasingly-globalised world, it is now more than ever that Singaporeans need to take caution.
To take pride in being Singaporean is one thing, but to assert privilege for Singaporeans over foreigners lingers dangerously close to xenophobia. If a foreigner wishes to carve himself a future on the shores of Singapore, make an honest living and send a portion of his wages back to his family, then we as Singaporeans who have been privileged to be born in a first-world nation have no moral right to prevent this from happening.
This article was first published in Libertarian Society Singapore. Republished with permission.