As Singapore’s economy gears up for the new normal, the government may need to relook at how it attracts foreign talent, and how it values those committed to setting up home here for the long haul.
My friend P was born near Vladivostok, in what was then USSR. When he was 12, his shipping executive father uprooted the family and moved to Singapore on a two-year contract, which was then renewed over and over. Before P knew it, he was serving national service here as a permanent resident.
He was a rare Caucasian – and likely the only Russian – in the Singapore army at the time. He should have been issued an AK-47 rifle instead of a SAR-21, we joked. Later, he went to Australia for his university studies, but came back to Singapore to live and work as a citizen, and has been here ever since.
Three years ago, he groused about inefficiencies he encountered during his visit to Russia to watch the World Cup. When I expressed surprise at this seeming disdain for the Motherland, he responded pithily: “What do you mean? I’m Singaporean!”
The case of Maria “Masha” Isaeva, which was covered in the online media recently, is somewhat sadder though.
Like P, Masha came to Singapore at the age of 12, also from Vladivostok. The Singlish speaker lived here for 17 years, attending neighbourhood schools such as Loyang Primary and Greenview Secondary – both near her heartland Pasir Ris home – before becoming an art director. During her time here, she applied for permanent residency nine times. She failed every time.
Now on her 10th try, she has left Singapore meanwhile – the place she called home for the majority of her life – after most of the foreigners in her company were let go. In total, almost 200,000 foreigners nationwide left in 2020 amid the Covid-19 pandemic.
Like Masha, P has assimilated with locals and very much belongs here, but was never put in the same difficult position on his residency. What is the difference between the two? We will never know for sure, since the authorities do not provide reasons when rejecting permanent residency applications. While discouraging to applicants, the opacity does give the authorities flexibility and discretion in setting and assessing the factors they want to consider in granting such applications.
It may well simply be a matter of timing, as P’s case preceded Masha’s by more than a decade. Back then, it was much easier for foreigners to get Singapore permanent residency or citizenship than it is today.
Schemes and policies
As a land-scarce country that cannot rely on cheap manufacturing, high domestic demand or natural resources, Singapore positions itself as a professional, financial and innovation hub. The government has structured many cross-ministry policies to support this direction.
To attract top talent, the Ministry of Education (MOE) has scholarship schemes that pay the school and university fees for some of the brightest students from countries like China to study here. Although no figures are publicly available, anecdotally, these scholars obtain permanent residency and citizenship quite easily. Two such friends of mine from China recently succeeded in getting their permanent residencies, and then their citizenships, on their first tries for each. The scheme worked well in their case: they are still here five years on from their graduations, with no plans to leave. And loving durians and Indian food too.
Some MOE scholars, though, have moved on to other countries such as the US or UK after studying here – spurring debate two years ago in Parliament as to whether Singapore has been spending too much money on non-committed scholars at the expense of locals.
Another well-known scheme is the Global Investor Programme (GIP), which essentially allows qualifying “established business owners”, “next-generation business owners”, “founders of fast growth companies” or family office principals to obtain Singapore permanent residency with a S$2.5 million investment into a business, fund or family office here.
To renew the GIP permanent residency, these individuals and their dependants simply need to fulfil certain investment criteria, and/or spend at least half their time in Singapore – depending on whether they are going for a three- or five-year renewal. The GIP’s aim is to attract talented and wealthy business owners and family office principals to our shores, and from an economic standpoint this is once again laudable.
But many of these are world citizens. Pre-pandemic and likely again soon, they might well spend three months of the year in their London home and another three in their Hamptons estate, with Singapore perhaps just a longer pit-stop in their annual rotation of residence. Should Singapore be proud that it is ranked amongst these top global destinations for the elite, or worried about their degree of social cohesion and integration into local society, when they only have to spend half their time here - in their penthouses and bungalows?
And where should Singapore’s labour policy sit in all this? In the ensuing economic fallout from the pandemic, it has had to protect Singaporeans at the expense of foreign talent, but the actions and conversation surrounding this have made foreign talents feel, rightly or wrongly, that they are not welcome here. This is a concern.
According to the 2020 census, out of its 5.7 million population, Singapore has approximately 3.5 million citizens, half a million permanent residents, and 1.7 million foreign work (or dependant’s) pass foreigners.
With its greying population and falling birth rates, Singapore is heavily and necessarily dependent on foreigners at all levels of society – from construction workers and domestic helpers, to hedge fund managers and CEOs.
Singapore is blessed to have become such a popular place internationally to live and work, that it can afford to pick and choose which foreigners it wants here. But as it begins to open its borders again with worldwide vaccination hopefully turning Covid-19 from a pandemic to the endemic, what kind of foreigners should it give permanent residency and citizenship to?
This might have been less of an issue before, when professionals could and often did work in Singapore for decades under a succession of employment passes, but it has become more of a live issue since last year. With the need to protect local jobs, work passes are not being as readily granted to or renewed for foreigners, with many having had to return home already – and others not being allowed back into the country.
But not all of these foreigners even truly have a “home” to go back to anymore. What about deeply rooted heartland foreigners like Masha, who celebrate Chinese New Year, Hari Raya and Deepavali with their local friends, and call Singapore home? Should we not save some space for them even as we grant permanent residencies to the high-powered and well-heeled?
Many of the fault lines and much of the hateful xenophobic talk surround the foreigners who do not assimilate and hence stick out. In that respect, is Singapore pursuing absolute economic growth at the expense of community? Do its immigration policies need to change to strike a better balance between these two very important considerations? We need to remember that building economic value does not necessarily equate to building a cohesive society. Amidst the ongoing national conversations on race and racism, ensuring social integration between locals and foreigners is more important than ever.
The elusive question
The Immigration and Checkpoints Authority (ICA) states on its website that in considering permanent residency applications, it “assess[es] the applicant’s ability to contribute to Singapore and integrate into our society, as well as his or her commitment to sinking roots”.
If we accept that this is an important consideration, then perhaps the application assessment process should include an interview – at present it generally does not. This would help to more meaningfully and qualitatively assess integration into society. For example, the ability to understand Singlish and appreciate local culture ought to be definite plus points.
In terms of pure quantitative factors, Hong Kong requires its permanent resident applicants to have lived, worked or studied there for seven years prior to their applications – with applicants meeting that criterion quite likely to then be granted permanent residency.
Given the importance of social integration though, measuring quantitative benchmarks in a vacuum – like the length of stay – is probably unhelpful. The quantitative can, but does not necessarily have a bearing on the qualitative. After all, it is possible for foreigners to stay here for years and years, while keeping within their small expatriate social circles and never making much attempt to get to know Singaporeans or assimilate with local culture. If we are looking for benchmarks to help assess integration, it might actually be worth looking at which foreigners (or which foreigners have kids who) have attended local schools – now that is an excellent way to get immersed into Singapore culture.
All this is, of course, chasing the elusive question of what it means, and how important it is, to identify as Singaporean. It is not so much about where you were born, since most of us here are second, third or fourth generation immigrants anyway, but rather where it is you truly call home.