Sunday, January 31, 2010

We, the old citizens of Singapore

It's a great time to be a Singaporean, going by the flurry of articles in the Singaporean media this past week that underlined various benefits the Lion City's citizens enjoy.

The newspaper articles made clear that while there will be no back peddling on officialdom's stance on "new Singaporeans", introducing an unspecified number of foreign talents to the island republic has come at a price.

New Singaporeans have started to form enclaves rather than settling in as kindered spirits alongside the old Singaporeans. The enclaves have evolved despite officialdom's efforts to introduce new Singaporeans of the same racial stock as the old birds.

The way I look at the issue, the reluctance of new Singaporeans to integrate with Singapore's social fabric represents a social fault line that hostile entities may exploit.

Singapore's elder statesman, Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew, said in a dialogue session on Wednesday 25 Jan 2010: "We're not allowing new Singaporeans whether from China, India, Malaysia or whatever to congregate in the same (residential) tower blocks which they're already beginning to do so. They buy second-hand flats and they congregate.

"So, we say 'no, no'. We have a record of how many new citizens are living where, and we keep their numbers dispersed. It's a very valuable instrument for communal harmony."

It's worth remembering that social enclaves can form in the physical environment such as housing estates as well as the mental constructs people harbour of one another.

How many of you can say, hand on heart, that you know thy neighbour? I know a few members of my neighbour's family by their first name, but can't tell you their family name even at gunpoint.

Add new Singaporeans to the community of apathetic Singaporeans who tolerate but barely mix with one another - except for the stage managed community events beloved of politicians - and one has the makings of a somewhat volatile cocktail of social issues.

Even without new Singaporeans, fault lines have existed for decades in Singapore. There have been occasional flare ups between the have's and have nots, the English educated elite and Chinese/Malay speaking heartlanders, as well as the hodge podge of diverse races of old Singaporeans.

During a recent visit to the Internal Security Department's Heritage Centre, I learnt that the job of monitoring these fault lines helps justify the pay of the ISD wallahs. Which is good to know, since Singapore paid a price in blood in the 1960s when racial and religious intolerance flared into street riots.

And just as we old Singaporeans have slowly learnt to tolerate one another after 44 years of independence, an unknown number of foreign talents have come to live amongst us.

There's little to fear, going by the tone of the articles in the Singaporean press this week that advanced the official line for new Singaporeans.

Just look at these Page 1 and Home cover stories in The 90 cents newspaper:

Tuesday 26 January 2010, The Straits Times: "Fewer babies for the first time in five years" Pg 1, "Immigrants a buffer for falling birth rate (page A8)

Thursday 28 Jan 2010, The Straits Times: "Fewer foreign workers in five years, says MM" Pg 1.(To my foreign readers, MM refers to Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew)

Thursday 28 Jan 2010, The Straits Times: "PRs, new citizens chalking up huge card debts", Home section cover story

Friday 29 Jan 2010, The Straits Times: "Wider gap in health subsidy for citizens, PRs" Pg 1

Friday 29 Jan 2010, The Straits Times: "HDB quota for PRs may not avoid enclaves", Home section cover story (HDB: Housing and Development Board, the Singaporean government agency in charge of public housing)

Saturday 30 Jan 2010, The Straits Times: "Big gains in jobs, mostly for locals" Pg 1.

The above articles are a blend of feel good stories targeted at old Singaporeans, with some that take the shine off PRs and new Singaporeans. As immigrant-related issues, especially those of the bread and butter kind, hit the hearts of most Singaporeans, defence planners in charge of strengthening hearts and minds may one day face a perfect storm.

That perfect storm would consist of unhappy Singaporeans who wonder why they must bear the defence burden when new Singaporeans do not serve National Service (NS). On the other side of the coin, new Singaporeans and Permanent Residents (PRs) may feel ostracised or unnecessarily traumatised by all the official attention at their failure to integrate quickly enough. Indeed, the moniker "new Singaporean" brands them as a distinct social group.(So much for the first line of the Singaporean national pledge that begins "We, the citizens of Singapore.")

If the new citizens have ring fenced themselves into clusters of their own kind, I wonder how responsive these folks are, or will be, to the national campaigns on defence issues.

If they are reluctant to mix with the old Singaporeans, then I suspect they can hardly be depended upon when the balloon goes up and Singapore's interests are threatened.

Will they fly the coop at the first whiff of danger?

And if the old Singaporeans are the ones who will man the frontline, how would old Singaporean families feel when their sons are the ones who have to protect the apathetic arrivals?

It will be interesting to see how many sons of these new Singaporean families eventually choose to serve the compulsory two years of full-time National Service when the time comes. For those that do serve NS, it is only a matter of time before statistics, probability and fate claim the first new Singaporean NS death. When that day comes, will the attitude of new Singaporeans towards NS plummet?

The Lion City had a dress rehearsal to the new Singaporeans issue more than a decade ago. In the mid 1990s, thousands of Hong Kongers settled here before the former British colony was handed back to the People's Republic of China in July 1997. The immigrants were mainly of Chinese stock. On paper at least, they made up for the shortfall in Chinese babies.

Since then, there has been almost no word on the number of HK families who were granted Permanent Resident (PR) status, how many eventually became Singaporeans and, most important of all, how many stayed long enough to see their sons serve NS.

Lacking hard data from officialdom, the neighbourhood gossips and Internet chatterboxes are speculating the worst: That the effort to integrate HKs was an expensive waste of tax payers' money.

The Hong Kongers are said to have used Singapore as a stepping stone for their jump to greener pastures in Australia, Canada and the United States.

Going by the anecdoctal evidence that indicates huge numbers of new Singaporeans have settled amongst us, one hopes the latest social experiment will spell more good years.

1 comment:

genghis said...

thought provoking piece. considering spore's history, and the fact tt we have apparently yet to gell as a nation, it is frustrating that the social dangers posed by the sudden and extremely large influx of foreigners do not appear to have been considered, and if they have, deemed less imp than 5% growth.