By Abhijit Nag
Some time ago I met a Sri Lankan graduate of a Singapore university on the day he became a PR. He looked so happy. I could understand the feeling, being a PR myself.
Foreigners are believed to come to Singapore for the money. But then they fall in love with the place. I missed Singapore when I was in India last year. I missed the greenery, the public libraries, the temples and churches – and the food.
I was so happy I could watch the National Day Parade again after missing it last year. One of my favourite moments was a glimpse of Mr Lee Kuan Yew. Frail, rheumy-eyed, wispy-haired, but recognizably, reassuringly present.
It’s not as if I have no idea of his strict regime or his mixed views on India. I remember reading in The Straits Times that he was more keen on getting Indians from the West than Indians from India. “Contentious”, was one of the words he used for Indians from the subcontinent. But when you see Singapore, you have to admire the people who created it; and when you read Mr Lee — his books, his statements — you are impressed by the authority with which he speaks, his knowledge of the world.
In the run-up to the 2011 elections, it was said the government was freely creating new citizens who were more likely to support the PAP.
Well, if you come from India, you are likely to appreciate peaceful, prosperous Singapore and its freedom from corruption.
Singaporeans, young ones especially who have enjoyed prosperity all their lives, take this Singapore for granted and criticize any shortcomings they see.
But Singapore still allures others. Last month I went to the ICA Building – and saw so many people applying for permanent residency (PR) or to have their PR extended. Yes, foreigners still want to settle in Singapore despite growing restrictions.
The government announced last month that the PRs would have to wait for three years before they could buy a resale HDB flat. “Gap between citizen and PR widens,” said The Sunday Times in a headline. It noted the growing gap in housing, health care and education between citizens and PRs.
Maybe the government was too generous to PRs, said a friend. Maybe.
But there might have been economic factors too. Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said at the National Day Rally in 2010: “You want higher growth which will benefit our workers, that also means accepting more foreign workers to come and work in Singapore. You choke off the foreign workers, the economy is stifled, growth is not there, our workers will suffer.”
You don’t hear that any more after the government won the 2011 election with the lowest share of votes since independence. “Sustainable growth” is the new mantra, higher productivity – requiring less manpower, fewer foreign workers – the holy grail.
There will be a price to pay. About the new HDB rule for PRs, National Development Minister Khaw Boon Wan said: “There will be some impact on the market, but eventually things will catch up again after three years.”
Singaporeans have been signalling their desire for a better work-life balance, more affordable housing and fewer foreigners for some time.
There had to be a backlash against “foreign talent”. I found the phrase embarrassing, working with far more talented Singaporeans. The reason I was hired 25 years ago to work as a journalist was, my employer could not find enough workers in Singapore. Now every fourth Singaporean of a certain age is a university graduate.
Abhijit Nag came to Singapore to work for The New Paper when it was launched in 1988.
By Abhijit Nag