|What it takes for foreigners to integrate in S'pore |
|By Radha Basu, Senior Correspondent |
At an in-house course a couple of months ago, a colleague voiced her deep apprehension about being crowded out of her 'own backyard'.
At MRT stations and offices, parks and pubs, she bumped into people whose accents and attire advertised their foreignness.
Almost overnight, 'they' had overrun her tiny nation, she said. She rationalised that she knew the nation needed foreigners to sustain its economic growth. But her heart, alas, sang a different tune. She felt upset, isolated. A stranger in her own home.
Her predicament was not unique. In recent months, coffee shops and living rooms across the nation and even the pages of this newspaper have reverberated with discontent over what some viewed as an assault of the aliens.
Cosmopolitan Singapore was overnight being threatened by passions that bordered on xenophobia.
Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong acted to salve the wounds last week, signalling that Singapore would slow its intake of immigrants.
He added that the Government would also act to sharpen the differences in benefits given to citizens and permanent residents (PRs), to attract more PRs to take up citizenship.
But with birth rates at historic lows and a society ageing faster than most in the world, there is no shutting the door on migration.
Speaking at a forum at the Nanyang Technological University last Tuesday, PM Lee cited the case of an elderly Malaysian - a PR here - who came to his Meet-the-People session to seek citizenship. When asked why she wanted it, she replied in Chinese: 'Citizens get more benefits.'
But will more perks and privileges guarantee that new citizens stay with the country - and in the country - through thick and thin? I think not.
Sadly, some PRs may opt to trade in their old passports for bright red ones for the sake of convenience, not commitment. I have spoken to several Asian immigrants who admit privately that visa-free access to the Western world is a key reason they take up citizenship here. Yet others, who work in prominent positions in Singaporean companies, do so to climb the corporate ladder.
Taking up Singapore citizenship should not merely be about making use of benefits this country has to offer. It should be about love, loyalty and responsibility; about believing in the values of this country. Of knowing and taking pride in its history, culture, ethos and people. And of being ready to cut the umbilical cord that binds foreign-born to their native lands.
This does not happen overnight. I fear that a zeal to mint as many 'instant citizens' as it can may lull Singapore into a false sense of security that most new citizens are here for the long haul.
This need not be the case. Whether Singaporean or PR, we live in an increasingly borderless world where drive, passion and - above all - talent are the true passports to success.
Besides, some immigrants have the option of returning permanently to the land of their birth even if they become Singapore citizens.
Indian nationals who have relinquished citizenship, for instance, can still live, work, own property and retire in their native homeland under a special scheme that offers pretty much all the perks of citizenship, barring the right to vote and hold political office.
Australia too has recently made it easier for those who have relinquished the Australian passport to regain citizenship.
So, in many senses, the only way to keep people rooted to this country - irrespective of the colour of their identity cards - is to make them believe in Singapore and its people. To believe in a country, you must first get to know and understand it. That takes time.
In Singapore, a foreigner can apply for permanent residence within weeks or months of setting foot here and for citizenship two years after becoming a PR.
In fact, under a special scheme, even foreigners who do not live in Singapore can get in-principle approval for permanent residence.
In the United States and the United Kingdom, you generally need to wait at least six years before applying for citizenship; in Australia, at least four years.
In addition to the substantial time foreigners must wait before they can embark on the citizenship process, countries like the US - and more recently the UK and Australia - also require citizenship applicants to take tests to prove their knowledge of their adopted country's history, culture and ethos.
Singapore too should consider instituting similar procedures and timelines before foreigners can become permanent residents or citizens, to ensure that they have at least a rudimentary knowledge of the country they want to call home.
As of now, that knowledge may not always be there. I once met a Caucasian PR, who had lived here for three years, but had never visited any place 'where the MRT was above the ground'. His little world revolved around Raffles Place and Orchard Road.
Another individual, an India-born, Oxford-educated new citizen, had lived in the Bukit Timah area for over five years. I asked him if he had ever been to a hawker centre or knew what Housing Board void decks were. He gave me a blank look.
But tests and time alone will not bridge the widening chasm between old and new settlers in this immigrant nation.
Five months ago, a National Integration Council was set up to devise ways to get both groups to learn to live in harmony.
Last Wednesday, its chairman, Community Development, Youth and Sports Minister Vivian Balakrishnan, announced a slew of initiatives to help immigrants and citizens forge stronger bonds.
These include holding more cultural gatherings and social outings to help the two groups to mix, getting new arrivals to attend English courses and an orientation programme for new citizens to learn more about Singapore's history, heritage and institutions.
But government-led efforts, while worthwhile, cannot achieve much if individual attitudes are mired in distrust or apathy.
Both sides can learn much from each other. Foreigners and PRs need to learn to treasure the values of meritocracy, honesty, hard work, civility and plurality that form the bedrock of this nation.
Singaporeans, on their part, need to overcome deep-seated suspicion that immigrants are ruthless - and sometimes worthless - gold-diggers.
While doing an article on new citizens recently, I met a Bangladesh-born businessman who arrived here practically penniless, but through hard work built up a multimillion-dollar travel and trading business in less than 15 years.