Managing immigration: What S’pore can learn from others

This article was contributed and first published in TODAY on 2 February 2013.

At the announcement of the White Paper on population, Deputy Prime Minister Teo Chee Hean said the Government hopes to strike the “appropriate balance”. This balance is key.

The Government’s marriage and parenthood package may set the brakes on the falling total fertility rate and help build the core of citizens, but there is a limit to how much impact it will have in the long run. This is because of changing social trends and norms which have had a negative impact on global fertility rates.

A “closed-door” approach to immigrants in the long run will therefore not work. Immigrants are needed to complement the resident workforce by taking on lower-skilled jobs, as well as to provide access to highly-skilled workers who facilitate economic upgrading and productivity increases.

On the other hand, a fully “open-door” approach is also not the way to go, as it will put tremendous pressure on Singapore’s scarce resources and on social integration issues.

Finding a balanced approach to immigrants — “smart and managed growth” — will be key to the success of the population strategy, and Singapore could look to the experience of other leading cities that have sought to increase immigration levels. Their experiences provide a useful reference, even if they may not be fully applicable to Singapore’s unique context.

Some cohesion policy

What is particularly important is that Singapore actively manages the type of immigrants it brings in.

A targeted policy to attract immigrants based on particular skill and resource needs, in areas where there is a shortage of locals, will have positive impact on growth; but these resource gaps must be carefully defined and continually updated as Singapore’s economy develops over time, global demands change and demographics alter.

The social and political impacts should also be managed. Suitable immigrants should be willing to sink roots and grow their families here. It will be important to create a national consensus around the need for integration and to encourage greater acceptance of immigrants.

While Singapore already works hard to ensure that ethnic diversity is valued and social cohesion encouraged, it should consider developing a multicultural social cohesion policy which is fully integrated with the city’s strategic planning processes. There would be well-defined objectives and initiatives, with periodic monitoring of their implementation.

Toronto: Easing in newcomers

Toronto is a useful reference point. It has a very big immigrant population but has managed to build a strong sense of national identity based on civic commonalities and values.

Every year, roughly half of Toronto’s new residents are born outside Canada and many more immigrate from all areas of the country. Specifically, 60,000 or more newcomers settle in Toronto each year, adding to the number of languages spoken and cultures mixing in the city.

Programmes introduced by the city of Toronto to help the integration process of newcomers include services like reception, orientation, translation and referral to community services — all of which can go a long way in helping them adjust.

Language can also become a significant barrier to inclusion and participation for many new immigrants, which is why basic instruction in French and English is provided.

Another way Toronto addresses the needs of young immigrants is by providing settlement workers in schools to help their families adapt to a new country. Its main approach to addressing the needs of young newcomers is by working with the family as a whole.

South Korea: Tackling prejudice

Closer to home, South Korea is an interesting example of where the government has sought to ease the integration of immigrants through encouraging transition to a multicultural society and reducing race-based discrimination.

In April 2006, the government granted legal status to people having mixed-race backgrounds and their families, “as part of measures to eradicate prejudices and discrimination against them”.

Universities were required to admit a certain number of “mixed-heritage” students; and special programmes were proposed to provide educational assistance, legal and financial aid and employment counselling to poor families. The law barring “mixed race” Koreans from serving in the military was also revised in 2006.

In June 2009, the Korea Immigration Service released a report, The First Basic Plan for Immigration Policy, 2008-2012. This 120-page report provides a basic blueprint for a transition to a multicultural society in South Korea and acknowledges the inexorability of global immigration to South Korea (for non-skilled workers, high-skilled workers, foreign spouses, the Korean “Diaspora” and others).

The report addresses key issues including social integration, citizenship and naturalisation laws or procedures, civic education on multiculturalism, educational policies and so on. The plan signified a dramatic, even fundamental, shift in South Korea’s official perspective on immigration: Multiculturalism, inclusivity and integration are key themes.

Netherlands' woes

On the other hand, the Netherlands is one country whose immigration integration policies did not succeed in the 1980s, resulting in negative impacts.

Population measures had included capping the number of schooling years immigrants could have to ensure they would not compete with locals for higher-value jobs. That approach backfired. Immigrants struggled to learn the local language and integrate into Dutch society.

Last but not least, from our experience studying global cities and population issues, it is important to note that advances in technology mean that cities of the future can accommodate greater population numbers, and various strategic policies can be implemented to ease the infrastructural constraints.

The Government’s plan on land use, released on Thursday, is a key ingredient in the White Paper’s aim to strike the appropriate balance. An early positive sign are the plans to greatly expand the rail network.

Singapore’s strong tradition in urban planning and its cutting-edge position in urban technology and solutions also put it in a good position to meet these challenges.
Ling Tok Hong is Partner and Singapore Strategy Leader of PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC). Since 2006, PwC has been analysing leading cities to understand what challenges they have in common, published as Cities of the Future, Cities of Opportunity.