Lest we become strangers in our own land

Source: The Straits Times  24 Sep 2009  BY NGIAM TONG DOW

A CASE could be made that Singapore’s transition from a British colony to an independent state was shaped by the Cold War. After all, Singapore achieved independence by first merging with Malaya because of fears it might succumb to communism if it were left alone.

The end of the Cold War brought about seismic geopolitical changes. For Singapore and other Asian countries, the most critical was China’s decision to stop exporting revolution. Instead, Deng Xiaoping, in the words of Chinese President Hu Jintao, adopted the strategy of the ‘peaceful rise of China’.

China opened its centrally planned economy to international trade in 1978. China today is well on its way to becoming one of the world’s three largest economies.

Singapore’s economic relations with China are growing by the day. Yet barely 40 years ago, states like Singapore with sizeable ethnic Chinese populations were wary if not fearful of trading with China lest cheap Chinese products were used to seduce our people politically. Singapore’s national trading arm, Intraco, was instructed by the Finance Ministry to diversify the country’s sources of rice imports. In the late 1960s, China was the most competitive supplier of rice. But the Singapore authorities were afraid that Chinese rice could be used to subsidise revolution.

Singapore and China were mutually suspicious of each other then, as the following story indicates:

In the late 1970s, China placed an order with a shipbuilder here for two oil drilling rigs. Six Chinese engineers led by a political commissar were dispatched to Singapore to supervise the building of the rigs. As standard operating procedure, the Chinese were placed under surveillance. Singapore’s intelligence officers followed them everywhere they went. One day, the leader of the Chinese team, in exasperation, told our liaison officer that there was no need to tail his people. He was in fact more worried that his people would defect to Singapore.

In the 1960s, the world was divided into political blocs. National economies produced behind tariff walls. The term ‘global economy’ was not yet coined. But by necessity, the ‘little red dot’, Singapore, had to be open. Though the world has changed since then, the fundamentals of Singapore’s economic and trade policies remain the same. Singapore has to be useful to its trading partners, as it has been since the 15th century, in order to survive.

So long as we add to our knowledge and remain nimble, we can earn a living. Our fundamental challenge is political. How do we become one people despite our diversity?

As we are unlikely to ever restore our natural birth rates to replacement levels, we have no choice but to add to our population through immigration. But how do we assimilate the newcomers? With a small population, will we ever be in a position to assimilate anyone? Or will we instead be absorbed by them as they come from stronger cultures? At what pace should we bring in new immigrants?

I do not want to sound alarmist but a recurring nightmare of mine is that someday we will find ourselves strangers in our own land.

The East India Company, and later the British colonial office, essentially followed a policy of laissez-faire: they let people come and go. Our forefathers who migrated to Malaya and Singapore in the late 1800s and early 1900s fended for themselves. They built their own businesses and social organisations; they established schools.

Some of them went back to their ancestral homelands to die. Most stayed in their adopted country. We are their children and grandchildren. Today, migration is economics driven. The best and the brightest move around the world searching for higher paying jobs. We risk having them use us as a stepping stone. Foreign fathers may advise their sons born in Singapore to leave when they reach the national service age of 18. Singapore will be left with the second tier of average people.

Educationally, they would hardly measure up to the Singapore average. When they are given citizenship and the right to vote, they will use their new-found electoral power to demand equal access to social services as other Singaporeans. The difference is existing citizens would have paid for those social services over a lifetime of tax payments; the new citizens would not.

The population planners need to remember that international economic competitiveness is now knowledge-based. It is no longer a numbers game. Why the haste in adding to the population? Do we have the absorptive capacity to accommodate a million new people within a decade?

I believe we should make haste slowly. We should avoid repeating the 1960s mistake of ‘stopping at two’ – but this time in reverse.

The writer, a former senior civil servant, is currently an adjunct professor at Nanyang Technological University. The above is an excerpt from a ‘fireside chat’ he delivered to the Singapore chapter of the World Presidents’ Organisation.