NMP calls for more data to clarify views on immigration

Treat immigrants as potential partners in building the nation, Associate Professor Walter Theseira says.
Treat immigrants as potential partners in building the nation, Associate Professor Walter Theseira says.

'Destructive narratives' will gain foothold without credible research, says economist

As an immigrant nation itself, Singapore should treat immigrants as potential partners in building the nation and not just a means to an end, Nominated MP Walter Theseira said on Thursday.

To do this, the Government needs to publish more data to support research that can help address misguided views on immigration, he told Parliament.

Without credible research and readily accessible data, "destructive narratives" about the quality and character of immigrants will gain a foothold, added Associate Professor Theseira, an economist with the Singapore University of Social Sciences.

For example, Prof Theseira noted that official labour statistics do not differentiate between citizens and permanent residents (PRs), but give data for citizens as well as for all residents - that is, citizens plus PRs.

In January, Workers' Party chief Pritam Singh and Trade and Industry Minister Chan Chun Sing had sparred in Parliament over the lack of such a breakdown.

Prof Theseira on Thursday provided estimates based on his calculations.

They show that among other things, compared with citizens, PRs earn roughly 35 per cent more, are more highly skilled and, being typically of prime working age, have a higher employment rate.

But PRs also face more economic risks and are about twice as likely as citizens to face retrenchment.

Commenting on this "mixed picture", Prof Theseira said most of the points should not be surprising as permanent residency is often granted based on economic criteria, so if the selection of PRs is good, they should logically do better. But the retrenchment issue needs further study, he said.

Researchers should not have to estimate such labour outcomes, Prof Theseira added, when publishing them outright would be easy.

"We must have the courage to accept the political risk of publishing facts on immigration that may be uncomfortable, but are nonetheless better than pleasant platitudes."

Responding to Prof Theseira, Manpower Minister Josephine Teo said she admired his "mental acrobatics".

Mrs Teo said the Government's immigration policy does not serve just economic objectives. "Rather, we want to build a strong and resilient Singapore with a distinct sense of national identity and common destiny. We therefore prioritise new immigrants with the ability to integrate well into our society and who have expressed their commitment to sinking roots here," she said. "Applicants who can make good economic contributions are certainly welcome, but that is not the sole criterion we consider."

PRs who can integrate well into society and have expressed longer-term commitment to Singapore are prioritised, she added.

Therefore, it "may be a rather narrow way" of thinking about PRs if it's only in terms of incomes and qualifications", she said, adding this was "really not at all what we set out to achieve".

Singapore also draws new citizens from the pool of PRs, and anyone might legitimately ask why PRs that do not do as well are being taken in, she added. "So this debate won't end no matter how much research we do, and no matter how much facts and data we put out."

The Government would certainly welcome and look "deeply" into good research and useful suggestions in its regular reviews of immigration policies, said Mrs Teo. The Republic can afford to remain selective about who it admits only if it remains an attractive and welcoming place for immigrants, she added.

Today, Singapore is in a good position as the number of applications for PR and citizenship far exceeds the number of places granted - but this may not always be the case, she said. "We must bear in mind this reality as we plan ahead to secure a better future for current and future generations of Singaporeans," she added.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 28, 2020, with the headline 'NMP calls for more data to clarify views on immigration'. Print Edition | Subscribe