In Parliament on Tuesday (Sep. 14), Workers' Party Member of Parliament He Ting Ru advocated for more bridges to be built between Singaporeans and immigrants, and called for the government to be more transparent and less top-down about its immigration policy.
She was speaking during the combined debate on two separate motions — one by Minister for Finance Lawrence Wong on securing Singaporeans' jobs and livelihoods, and the other on Singapore's foreign talent policy by Progress Singapore Party Non-Constituency Member of Parliament (NCMP) Leong Mun Wai.
Polarising conversation is neither healthy nor productive
He recognised that immigration is a "complex" and "sensitive" topic, and said that society and the government must "learn to have difficult conversations with each other without vilifying those who may have a different opinion to ours".
She highlighted how polarising the conversation can often be:
"Too often do we hear cries of xenophobia and racism being thrown at those of us who may raise often legitimate concerns about the changing nature of our social fabric or the strain on our labor markets.
And on the other hand, those who try to speak up in defence of greater international movement of labor and trade are labelled as sellouts and as opening the floodgates, at the expense of hardworking Singaporeans."
She said that this approach is "neither healthy, nor productive", and called for a more nuanced and open-minded approach.
Possible disparity between policies and experiences on the ground
She pointed out the disparity between what the average individual in Singapore may see in their everyday life — "who we see in our communities every day, the languages we hear around us, and the sheer numbers of others we have to share our already-crowded public spaces with" — and the benefits they are told that immigrants bring, such as skills and diversity of experiences.
These benefits, however, are felt more generally in society, and are less directly experienced by individuals, He said:
"The argument that more trade, more foreign workers, and more enterprise equals better and more jobs for Singaporeans is less visible and is not always immediately evident."
For individuals, they may see the situation through a personal lens that may include biases, which could also lack "the required nuance or balance that academics or policymakers have the luxury to adopt", she said:
"Our citizens are, after all, still feeling our way through how to respectfully debate such sensitive topics. It is hardly right then that we dismiss all these views and concerns as narrow-minded and xenophobia."
He Ting Ru warned against "dangerous sentiments" seen overseas in nativist policies and viewing immigration and migrants as the "bogeyman", which she said CECA and FTAs appear to have caused in Singapore. She called on Singapore's leaders to address these fears through more sensitive policies and engaging with the people:
"Now, more than ever, there needs to be humility in the approach taken by our leaders on such matters, and the listening ear of the government needs to be attuned to, and prod at, the genuine concerns behind why some of us feel the way we do so strongly, sometimes in the face of endless explanations that are assumptions or understanding of these policies and FTAs are flawed."
She encouraged the government to "understand that live realities on the ground could be very different to ours", and to pay attention to if people's views and experiences could possibly reveal potential blind spots in the implementation of policies.
How can the tensions described above be addressed?
One way, He suggested, would be to build more, stronger, and meaningful bridges between citizens and immigrants. Both citizens and immigrants would need to put in effort and do their part.
"There needs to be mutual understanding, tolerance, and finally, meaningful relationships between these two groups to minimise the pitfalls associated with the other, and also make real the benefits and increase richness to community life that our migrants can bring to our country."
Drawing from the European Programme for Integration and Migration's practices, she called for Singapore to explore how to work with both citizens and immigrants — both short-term and long-term — to come up with a common core set of values for everyone to respect.
This would bind the communities together and reduce mistrust and negative feelings between the two.
However, He said that this integration should not be something that the government and associated bodies such as the People's Association (PA) "ram down the throats of a sceptical populace".
He said that it would require buy-in from both sides and suggested how foreigners can also play their part to integrate:
"Efforts need to be made to learn the norms within Singaporean society, whether it is how we chope our tables, or the inclination to queue wherever we go."
He Ting Ru also spoke about the importance of a "no-excuses approach" toward discriminatory and prejudicial behaviour, both when dealing with offensive gestures against foreigners, as well as ensuring that Singaporeans are not discriminated against in the workplace.
Need for transparent, data-driven approach to immigration
Finally, He spoke of the need to "embrac[e] a strong, transparent, and data-driven culture" when it comes immigration and foreign manpower policies.
She pointed to the lack of transparency in decisions made by government agencies such as the Immigration & Checkpoints Authority (ICA) and the Ministry of Manpower (MOM) on whether to grant citizenship, permanent residency, and various other passes, with no explanation given.
In addition, data about Singapore's resident labour force often puts citizens and permanent residents together.
"While the government may have reasons for doing so, the best medicine against misinformation, cynicism, and resentment is cold hard data, and to build a transparent culture around the data relating to our policies."
He Ting Ru also said that residents whose foreign spouses' or family members' applications for Long Term Visit Passes, permanent residency, or citizenship are repeatedly rejected without explanation — sometimes for decades — may "naturally compare" their experience with the immigrants moving into the neighbourhood who are successful in their applications.
"Is it any wonder that resentment would build up?", He asked.
Thus, she called on the government to be proactive about the type of data that is shared with the public, such as by breaking down workforce data into Singaporeans and permanent residents, and providing clear pathways to citizenship for individuals who are already part of Singaporean families and communities.
"Data on these hot button topics should be published and shared regularly, to allow citizens to understand the impact of government-led policies on the shape of our economy and society, and to allow academics and commentators a fact base to start with."
Need a less top-down approach
She acknowledged that adopting this "proactive, transparent, and data-driven approach" may not convince everyone, but it would greatly help to dispel unfounded claims, lessen the room for conspiracy theories, and clamp down on people hoping to sow discord by creating bogeymen.
"We must, therefore, create a strong ecosystem for conversation, interaction and disagreement on the topics at hand. We must say no to a continued top-down approach to immigration, where we are told what is good for us."
The danger of not doing so, He said, would be the continued buildup of resentment, and the spillover of anti-immigrant sentiment manifesting as racist and xenophobic incidents, as have occurred recently.
"I hope the government will take this as an opportunity to rethink the way these topics have been managed and discussed so far and instead, lean more into enabling conversations on the ground, to change hearts and minds, rather than continue to debate what is best for Singaporeans and dictate our story for us."
He's proposed amendments to motion not accepted
The motion by Leong read:
"That this Parliament calls upon the Government to take urgent and concrete action to address the widespread anxiety among Singaporeans on jobs and livelihoods caused by the foreign talent policy and the provisions on Movement of Natural Persons in some free trade agreements like the Comprehensive Economic Cooperation Agreement."
He proposed that the motion be amended by deleting the words "and the provisions on Movement of Natural Persons in some free trade agreements, like the Comprehensive Economic Cooperation Agreement", and instead replacing it with the following:
"...by proactively releasing information on jobs and employment prospects of Singaporeans and the costs and benefits of free trade agreements and foreign worker policies with a view to formulating better policies to ensure Singaporeans secure, good jobs in Singapore and are not disadvantaged when seeking employment."
However, Speaker of Parliament Tan Chuan-Jin was of the opinion that He's proposed addition was similar to what was proposed for another motion by Leader of the Opposition Pritam Singh, and should be confined to that motion.
Tan also said that her proposed deletion "substantively changes the tone of what that motion was about in the first place".
Thus, Tan found He's proposed amendments to "not be relevant", and hence did not admit them.
Top photo via CNA.
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