Immigration and Integration in Singapore
Immigration Trends and Tensions in Singapore
From 2000 to 2010, Singapore’s permanently resident and non-resident immigrant population nearly doubled in size (see Fig. 5.1) (Department of
Fig. 5.1 Singapore population composition, 1990-2015 (Source: Authors’ own graph based on data derived from the Department of Statistics Singapore 2015)
Statistics Singapore 2015). At the population’s peak in 2008, 79,167 permanent residency applications were approved (NPTD et al. 2014). Cumulatively this means that the overall permanently resident immigrant population in Singapore increased by more than 0.25 million in less than a decade (2008-2013). Immigration regulations were tightened in late 2009 in response to growing unease among Singaporean citizens who found it difficult to adapt to the pace of change and the changing cultural dynamics. Foreigners are thought to drive up the cost of housing, and are seen as competitors in schools and workplaces. The city-state’s capacity to accommodate a rapidly growing population (e.g. in terms of transportation) has been questioned.
Cultural tensions between Singaporeans and pockets of foreigners have been manifested in both physical space and cyberspace. Prominent social media incidents include racist remarks made by some mainland Chinese students towards Singaporeans, or the “cook a pot of curry” Facebook campaign that galvanized Singaporeans to participate in a day of curry cooking after a reported case of neighborhood conflict between an Indian-Singaporean family and their neighbors from China who disliked the smell of curry (Teo 2015). The latter episode, mobilizing non-Indian Singaporeans to demonstrate solidarity with Indian-Singaporeans, signaled the multicultural or interethnic identifications that Singaporeans allegedly prioritize in their understanding of national identity and nationhood. However, it also underscored the cultural tensions between locally born Singaporeans and new immigrants to the country. In 2013 the government announcement of a projected population increase to 6.9 million by 2030, primarily through immigration, triggered a debate about its feasibility relative to space constraints, infrastructural capacity, and whether immigration is a quick but in effect merely temporary means ofdriving forward economic growth (i.e., one that does not address issues of economic productivity and fertility decline adequately). Singaporeans, including those of Chinese ethnicity, reacted defensively to the import of more immigrants, even if they were coethnics. The government announcement sparked an outcry and resulted in a protest by more than 4000 people in Hong Lim Park, the only space where protests are allowed in Singapore (BBC News 16 February 2013).
The Singaporean government responded by tightening immigration criteria, publicizing its efforts in this regard, and accentuating the benefits that citizens have over foreigners and permanent residents. According to a population report released in 2014, since immigration regulations were tightened in 2009, only about 30,000 new permanent residency applications had been approved each year so as to retain the permanent resident population at 0.5 million to 0.6 million in the hope that its members would progress toward citizenship. Of these about 20,000 became new citizens each year. The policy goal is to accept between 15,000 and 25,000 new citizens each year to keep the citizen population from shrinking (NPTD et al. 2014). Demands for foreigners to integrate into Singaporean society and policies in this direction have increased concomitantly. The unprecedented increase in the immigrant population year on year has resulted in growing resentment among Singaporeans toward what they see as foreigners encroaching on their living space, workplaces, recreational sites and educational landscapes. This was reflected in the debates about immigration during the general election in 2011 and again in 2015. The ruling People’s Action Party (PAP) won a majority in the 2011 general election but its share ofthe winning votes was smaller than in previous years. Political pundits suggested that this reflected a dissatisfaction with key policies, including its pro-immigration policy. As a result, a new agency known as the National Population and Talent Division was established that same year. Under the Prime Minister’s Office, its mandate is to consolidate and coordinate population planning, including the talent-recruitment strategy for Singapore. Visa processing still falls under the remit of the Ministry of
Manpower, while permanent residency and citizenship applications are decided by the Immigration and Checkpoints Authority.
Since the general election of 2011, the Singaporean government has distinguished more clearly between the benefits of citizenship and those of permanent residence by foreigners (known as non-residents in population reports). Recent policies include increasing the monthly school fees paid by permanent residents (SGD110-SGD220) and foreigners (SGD550- SGD1150), whereas citizens enjoy subsidized rates (MOE 2015). Permanent residents now have to wait three years after applying successfully for public housing (known as HDB flats) in Singapore. Previously there was no such waiting period (HDB 2015). There are restrictions on the foreign ownership of landed housing (SLA 2015). Permanent residents and foreigners pay higher stamp duty for private-property purchases than do Singaporean citizens. This is in contrast to the liberal policy in 2005, when foreign investors could count property as part of their investment portfolio to apply for permanent residency status in Singapore. The restrictive policies of recent years suggest that the Singaporean government is clawing back on immigration and signaling the benefits of citizenship more purposefully, not only to assure Singaporean citizens but also to nudge foreigners toward applying for permanent residency and subsequently citizenship.