Let’s have an Honest Conversation about Immigration

by singaporearmchaircritic

Second Trade and Industry Minister S Iswaran recently urged Singaporeans to “have an honest discussion about the country’s immigration policy, no matter how unpalatable it may be.”

I am all for it.

But first things first, the government and key employers of foreign workers must disclose “honest” statistics about the foreign workforce, no matter how unpalatable it may be.

This is imperative so that Singaporeans can make informed judgments on the immigration issue before the “honest” conversation can get going.

The numbers of foreign workers by pass type made public by MOM last week is a good start, but is far from sufficient.

Honestly, many statements that the government made have perplexed rather than enlightened me (and perhaps many other Singaporeans as well), so I’ll be very forthcoming and list some questions here.

(1) What does the government mean by “managing” or “calibrating” the foreigner influx?

The two words utterly confound me, given the varied contexts under which they had been used.

As early as in July 2010, PM Lee assured us that foreign worker levies have been “calibrated” to moderate the inflow, but even with that, “there will be more than 100,000 extra foreign workers this year [in 2010]… But we have to accept that.”

Subsequently, before this May’s Hougang by-election, PM Lee said we have to rely less on foreign workers and “manage” the influx. He seemed to imply that an influx of 150,000 foreign workers annually over the last five years is too much by saying that “we can squeeze a bit closer together but there is a limit to how much you can squeeze.”

Last week, just two days after MTI warned of slower growth without a “calibrated” inflow of foreigners, it was reported that 100,000 more foreign workers had entered Singapore over the past year. Tan Chuan-Jin called this a “happy problem.”

Pray tell me, if the inflow of another 100,000 foreign workers in a year is a “happy problem”, what is an “unhappy problem”?

Given that employers are given 1-2 years to adjust to the tightening measures and MOM’s discretion in reviewing applicants who fall short of the new qualifying criteria on a “case-by-case” basis, how many more foreign workers are expected to enter Singapore from now till next year?

PM Lee said here in May 2012 that “We can’t just keep on bringing in 80,000 more foreign workers a year. There’s just not (enough) space and it’s not sustainable to keep on going up and up.”

So does that mean we will see an inflow of less than 80,000 next year?

(And please, dear PM, unless we are so lucky to be on this train that the SMRT CEO rode, I truly don’t think there is any more space on crowded trains for us to “squeeze a bit closer together.”)

Which brings me to my second question.

(2) What is Singapore’s “ideal” population? (Ideal for whom?)

In September this year, PM Lee said that “6 million or so should not be a problem” when asked about Singapore’s ideal population target.

Singapore’s population now stands at 5.31 million, growing by 2.5% or 128,700 from last year. Even if we take the annual growth rate to be a lower 2%, Singapore’s population will hit 6.1 million by 2019 (see my projection below).

That belies what the PM said earlier in February this year:

… Singapore has to rely less on foreign workers. In the last five years, about 150,000 foreign workers came into Singapore annually… If this continues every 10 years, there would be one million more people here … With a population of about five million now, the population could grow to six million 10 years later and seven million 20 years from today.

So if by this the PM meant that hitting a 6 million population in ten years is not a good idea, can Singaporeans then heave a sigh of relief and expect slower population growth in the near future?

Since our Total Fertility Rate (TFR) is consistently low, how fast our population will grow hinges almost entirely on the influx of foreigners (see Figure 3). And that is up to the government to control.

We also have to ask: for whom is the target population “ideal”? The government that can collect levies and taxes from the additional influx? The SMEs (here and here) that have been whining about difficulties in hiring locals even at a monthly salary of up to $3,000? The property developers that are laughing all the way to the bank because of rocketing housing prices?

(And by the way, has Sakae Sushi made good its promise of hiring Singaporean dishwashers at $3,000 per month?)

(3) What exactly are the “trade-offs” for less foreign workers?

The buzzword now, so I heard from MTI, is “trade-off.”

If we want less foreigners, be prepared for slower growth. If we want less foreigners, be prepared to pay more for services. If we want less foreigners, be prepared for limited real increases in wages.

But hey, hang on a second. Haven’t we already been paying more for services and other things? Haven’t the wages of our middle and lower classes been stagnant for quite some time?

So tell us honestly, in what ways has the high growth in the past few years benefited ordinary Singaporeans? Or has the government succumbed to GDPism? Has high economic growth become an end in itself?

As to the frequent refrain that foreigners help create “good jobs” for Singaporeans, even ESM Goh wasn’t too sure if this is true.

Responding to queries about the foreigners depressing wages and taking away jobs from locals, Trade and Industry Minister Lim Hng Kiang said:

it depends which sector you are talking about … instead of this generality that I am unhappy with foreign workers, well, talk about your sector. Which sector are you in, are you in the healthcare sector? Are you receiving services from the healthcare sector? Well, if you’ve got no foreign workers, be prepared to pay higher cost (emphasis mine).

Great, Mr Lim! Now we’re talking.

Yes, we definitely need a detailed breakdown of the foreign labor data by sector and by occupation. Please provide these statistics to the public.

Right now we only have rather skimpy information for a comparison to the resident workforce (Fig 1). It shows that the health & social services sector is in fact dominated by Singaporeans and PRs, most of whom are associate professionals and technicians (see Fig 2).

Figure 1

(Sources: Singapore Yearbook of Manpower Statistics 2012 and MTI paper p.17)

In Figure 2, we see how our resident (citizens and PRs) workforce is distributed by occupation across industries. The chart shows that the percentages of our resident workers in professional, managerial and administrative jobs are not very high, at about 13-16% or lower.

If we also have data on the distribution of the foreign workforce by occupation across industries, we can then take a good hard look at how the PMET percentages of foreign workers compare to those of our resident workers and have a frank discussion on whether foreigners have been competing with Singaporeans for the PMET jobs.

Figure 2

(Click to enlarge)

Another humble request: before you make public these statistics and before ordinary Singaporeans can make informed choices based on these published data, please do not extrapolate from a selected group on a TV forum and generalize that Singaporeans are “accepting of foreigners”.

It is, honestly, quite annoying to be “represented” by a small sample of Singaporeans not randomly chosen.