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Singapore’s advantage lies in its ability to draw and attract the best talents to lay roots here

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By: Corbin Tan (Stanford University M.A. M.P.P. University of California, Berkeley B.A)

I’m a full-blooded 4th generation Singaporean. My great-grandfather sailed from Guangdong to Singapore with his parents and sibling when he was 10. I grew up in a HDB. I served in the army. I have done community work at least 100 hours a year since I was 12.

Let me just include the caveat that I do not think serving in the army, or growing up in a HDB, or the fact that I’m a 4th generation Singaporean makes me more of a Singaporean than the new immigrants who just got their citizenships. That’s an incredibly backward way of thinking in a world that’s only going to be more globalised.

Contrary to the belief of many Singaporeans, immigration is the hallmark of the Singaporean identity. All of us are immigrants. The ‘Singaporean Identity’ is a scathingly misunderstood concept in Singapore. Just because someone speaks Singlish doesn’t mean that he’s Singaporean. Everyone of us who holds our passport is Singaporean. The moment you start excluding people within our own community is the moment we lose sight of what this country really stands for, and that is inclusiveness regardless of race, language and religion.

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I grew up with a kid who lived on the same floor as me. Both of his parents were German, as white as you can get. He went to the same primary school I did, he spoke Mandarin, he taught me a little bit of German, and we still make a point to meet up at least once every month no matter where we are in the world. How many people in the world can say that they’ve grown up with 4–5 different races? Until Singaporeans start realising that the Singapore Identity isn’t about forming enclaves where some Singaporeans could be more Singaporean than others, we can never create a truly equal society.

This country was founded on the premise of a “Singaporean Singapore”. That’s exactly what got us kicked out from Malaysia in the first place. In fact, our advantage in the world lies in our ability to draw and attract the best talents to lay roots in Singapore. Their children will serve in the army just like me. I don’t care if you’re white, if you’re black, as long as you’re Singaporean, you’re Singaporean, that’s the end of it.

Now, the fact that immigration is making the job market more competitive is another issue altogether. We cannot simply pull the plug on attracting talent and compromise our comparative advantage just because some people aren’t getting the jobs they want. If Singapore loses this advantage, I can assure you that we’re going to price ourselves out of the market. The economic intuition to this is that if Singapore cannot get enough labour, wages will rise. Without an equivalent rise in the quality of workers, productivity will plummet and prices will skyrocket. When that happens, I don’t care if your nominal wages are higher, all Singaporeans will be poorer. Imagine earning a million dollars a month when a 3-room flat is a billion. Also, most people aren’t even going to be earning a million dollars because jobs will be expunged from the country for countries like Indonesia or Malaysia. If you think that the rhetoric that “Singapore will become domestic helpers in Malaysia” is a fear-mongering tactic, you’ll be in for a painful realisation.

It’s true that Singapore doesn’t have enough space to accommodate the economic requirements of immigration. Wealthy immigrants have been causing prices of private housing to increase. I think the government has to make a conscientious effort to balance economic need and political pressures. In light of the last few years after GE2011, the government has been more attentive of the discomforts of old citizens.

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Perhaps I’m in the minority who has benefitted from positive selection in a sense that I appreciate the fact that without which, I would not have been pressured by my parents, my peers and my teachers to work harder and smarter in order to be competitive – not only in Singapore but in labour markets across the globe. Perhaps I’m also one of the lucky ones whose opportunity cost to schooling isn’t as high as others. One thing’s for certain, Singapore is an extremely Darwinian society. Does competition work in raising the quality of our workforce? Clearly it does, in general. Whether it’s by design or circumstance, we have to live with the fact that if we are unable to adapt to the competition, we would be left behind. If not now, then in the near future. The inevitability of this is as depressing as it is true. For the unfortunate, all that I can do is try to contribute as much as I can. I think we cannot start asking the government to take a more socialist stance in their redistributive efforts. Our low taxes is a major selling point.

Perhaps we should start to look into Johore as our hinterland.


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