Singaporeans may be wrong in estimating the prevalence of Chinese and Indian nationals in their country, but the government definitely hasn’t missed a beat in its immigration philosophy over the past few decades.
The UN Department of Social and Economic Affairs, which tracks migration patterns across the world, recently unveiled interesting statistics about the city-state’s economic migrants.
These myths include the widely held belief that migrants of Chinese and Indian nationality compose the largest pool of foreign labour in Singapore.
The reality however, is that Malaysians are the silent majority, making up almost half of Singapore’s total migrant population.
In fact, this ratio has risen dramatically from a mere 27% in 1990 to 44% currently.
Sociologists suggest that the proximity is not just geographical but also cultural given a shared history and language between the two countries.
Hence, Malaysians are less likely to be considered ‘outsiders’ by fellow Singaporeans.
Given slow wage growth in Malaysia and a weak ringgit, this trend is hardly surprising.
After Malaysians, Chinese migrants are the second largest group of foreigners living and working in Singapore, constituting 18% of the migrant pool. Workers from the Indian subcontinent follow closely behind at 14%.
If anything though, the UN study demonstrates a careful and deliberate history of social planning engineered by the Singaporean government to maintain a more or less consistent demographic breakdown in the country.
After all, integral to Singapore’s economic development and success is the need to preserve a more or less consistent demographic ratio of ethnic Chinese, Malay, Indian, and other residents over the years.
As such, Malaysian labourers enjoy more relaxed immigration policies including an extended age cap of 58 to qualify for work permits. By contrast, application for foreigners of other nationalities is capped at 50.
Furthermore, employers in Singapore are required to purchase a SGD$5,000 security bond for every foreign worker they employ, unless these are Malaysians.
More worrying however is the prevalent xenophobia that Singaporeans feel towards their foreign counterparts.
A recent ILO and UN study revealed that Singaporeans on the whole agree that the country needs foreign labour.
But they also believe these migrants are a threat to the country’s cultural heritage, a drain on the economy, and lead to higher crime rates.
As of mid-2019, the Ministry of Manpower (MOM) estimated that the total foreign workforce in Singapore numbers 1.4 million, or about 24% of the total population in Singapore.
Out of these 1.4 million, a mere 189,000 are employment pass (EP) holders, with the rest being blue-collared workers in construction and domestic labour.
To qualify for an EP, one must obtain a job paying more than SGD$3,300.
Growing concerns among locals about stiff competition for jobs in more EP-salient industries or companies have in fact prompted the government to heighten scrutiny into EP applications.
For the tiny island-state to grow in a sustainable manner in the long-term, it needs foreign labour, both blue and white-collared, to underpin this growth.
In fact, this truth is particularly compelling in the face of a consistently declining birth rate and a graying population.
Finance Minister Heng Swee Keat concurs.
During a ministerial dialogue at Nanyang Technological University (NTU) a few months ago, Mr Heng commented that Singapore risk losing its place in the world if it builds walls, both real and mental, around itself.