Does immigration make sense for Singapore?
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Does immigration make sense for Singapore?


Financial Times columnist Martin Wolf’s article on the pros and cons of immigration generated some buzz, especially after PM Lee shared it via Facebook. Immigration can be a complex and thorny issue that many countries – including Singapore – are now facing head-on.

We’ve done a quick breakdown of some of Wolf’s key arguments. Since he’s writing in the general context of the countries that are part of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), we’ve also added on how the considerations could translate in Singapore’s case.

Wolf's main argument: Depending on context, there are both advantages and disadvantages of immigration. Hence, the pros and cons of immigration must be weighed.

Demographic Destiny - Can immigration help us avoid this?

Many developed societies are ageing rapidly, and this is commonly monitored via old-age dependency or support ratios. Wolf argues that dependency ratios in OECD countries can only be improved substantially with enormous numbers of immigrants, and at the price of changing the character of their populations.

Old-age support ratio – beyond the numbers

Singapore is ageing too. However, immigration in Singapore isn’t targeted at improving dependency or support ratios alone. Read more.

Maintaining the size of our citizen population

chart size of our citizen population Immigration does help to age-balance our population, with a good base of younger citizen families. But it is impossible to keep our dependency ratios constant through immigration alone, as Singapore is ageing too rapidly. Instead, our immigration levels are set to keep the citizen population from shrinking due to a low birthrate.  Read more.

Economics – high returns but also high risk

On economic impacts of immigration, Wolf notes that immigrants should have the skills and abilities to complement the local workforce.

For Singapore, our foreign workforce policies are geared towards precisely this – bringing in manpower based on the needs of our businesses, economy and society.  Foreign manpower bring specialised skills to kick-start emerging industries, and over time we can build local talent in these areas (e.g. biomedical sciences, digital media animation, aerospace). They also help spark new ideas and innovation, and their presence fuels a vibrant economy with job creation. The contributions of our foreign workforce are also evident in everyday life – they tend to the sick and help in caregiving for our family members; they build our houses and roads, and maintain our estates and green spaces.

A snapshot of immigration in Singapore

chart-total-population-June-2015 Find out more about immigration, and the people who come to Singapore’s shores. Read more.

On the flipside, Singapore has not always had a smooth-sailing relationship with immigration. We felt this not too long ago, when population grew too quickly, and infrastructure was not able to catch up. There have been noticeable improvements, now that foreign manpower policy has been tightened, and rapid infrastructure development (e.g. BTO flats, expansion of rail networks) has been underway and are coming on-stream.  Going forward, we remain committed to invest, plan and build infrastructure ahead of demand. Concerns about job competition remain, and it is our top priority to develop local capability and skills, and ensure a level playing field for Singaporeans, even as we stay open. Measures like the Fair Consideration Framework are just the beginning, and we’re looking closely at what more can be done. 

So, does immigration make sense for Singapore? 

Immigrants will continue to be a part of Singapore society. With diversity and new points of view emerging, both within our citizen population and with newcomers to our shores, the day-to-day look and feel of Singapore will continue to evolve. Amidst differences, we’ve long been bound together as a nation by the values of multiculturalism, respect, and opportunities for success regardless of background. The task ahead is to continue cherishing and defending these values, and affirming the common things that unite us.

Immigration has its benefits and costs. Doing away with it also has serious implications. Together, we must continue to have open discussions on what immigration means for Singapore. Ultimately, the collective end result must be to build an even better home for Singaporeans and our children. 

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