A history of the world in motion

This story was first published in The Straits Times on April 5, 2013

PERIODS of large-scale immigration are not easy for anyone. Not for immigrants, certainly.

Uprooting oneself from familiar patterns and from kith and kin – even in hopes of a better life – is at best disorienting, at worse terrifying. Nor are things much easier for those populations on the receiving end of immigration waves. Adjusting to the “strange” customs and traditions of newcomers is bad enough, but more galling still, such waves may lead, initially at least, to overcrowding, overtaxed infrastructure and increased job competition, as Singaporeans well know.

In fact, the negative externalities tied to large-scale immigration have often been so great as to induce upsurges in nativist rhetoric and anti-immigration political movements and groups. Such oppositional responses have been occasioned historically by different types of population movements, sometimes even rural-to-urban migration within a given country.

If we limit our discussion to transnational flows, today we find flare-ups occurring in response to immigration flows both within less-developed countries – from one poor country to another – and when such flows largely involve movements from less-developed countries (or middle-income countries) to developed countries.

In the last of these cases, think of recent anti-immigration contretemps in Europe, the United States, Hong Kong, and, yes, in Singapore.

Woodrow Wilson’s depiction, in his comments on the US census of 1890, which showed a spike of nearly 12.5 million newcomers within a decade, is a case in point. He referred to “an alteration of stock” in which the inflow of “men of the sturdy stocks”, such as the north of Europe, was being outpaced by “multitudes of men of the lowest class from the south of Italy and men of the meaner sort out of Hungary and Poland”.

Wilson, writing in the midst of America’s great 1870-1920 immigration wave, was then an eminent Princeton professor. He became president of that institution in the year his five-volume History appeared and was later twice elected President of the US.

US: a nation of migrants

THAT wave was rivalled only by the wave that Americans have been living through since the 1980s. In 2010, 12.9 per cent of the US population was foreign-born, the highest figure since 1920, when 13.2 per cent was foreign-born.

America has always seen itself – for the most part correctly – as a nation of immigrants. Estimates of the pre-Columbian Native American population in the area that later became the continental United States vary widely – between about two million and 18 million – but even accepting the latter figure, the immense area was lightly populated at the time of European-African colonisation.

Moreover, Native American numbers dropped precipitously in the centuries after contact as they came into contact with many “Old World” pathogens for the first time, clearing much of the continent for other groups.

Given these circumstances, the land-labour ratio was extremely favourable in America. Land owners, capitalists and governmental entities in America, desirous of labour, generally welcomed and often actively encouraged immigration through a variety of policy means until well into the 20th century. As a result, newcomers (whether free or brought under compulsion) began pouring in since the 17th century.

Anti-immigrant pressures

INDEED, not for nothing does one sometimes still see anti-newcomer bumper stickers in the US reading “American Indians needed better immigration laws”.

The foreign-born percentage of the US population never fell below 13.2 between 1860 and 1920, reaching a high of nearly 15 per cent in 1890, extremely high for a country as large as the US. Anti-migrant pressures, World War I, the economic difficulties of the 1920s and 1930s, and World War II combined to reduce immigration flows into the US significantly between the 1920s and the 1960s. The foreign-born percentage of the US population reached an all-time low of 4.7 in 1970 before numbers began rising again after a major law reform in 1965. Numbers and percentages have risen steadily ever since.

It is hardly intuitive that the histories of tiny city-state Singapore and the US, the world’s third-largest country in population and the fourth-largest in area, share common features when it comes to immigration.

Magnets for migrants

BUT both have been magnets of immigration, Singapore even more so than the US. Although the island, then known as Temasek, was an important trading site at earlier points in time, in 1819, when Raffles claimed it for Britain, it was uninhabited but for a small Malay settlement of a few hundred. Because of its location, the island assumed strategic and commercial importance quickly, signalled and demonstrated by rapid immigration.

Immigrants from Malaya and other parts of South-east Asia, from India, from Britain and other parts of Europe, and especially from southern China poured into Singapore in the 19th century and early 20th century. Largely due to this inflow (although other factors such as the uneven sex ratio, the low fertility rate among native-born Singaporeans, and high mortality rates on the island also played roles), the foreign-born population dwarfed native-born Singaporeans throughout this period.

In 1921, for example, 301,913 (72.2 per cent) of the island’s 418,358 inhabitants were foreign-born.

As Singapore matured during the 20th century and its economy became more sophisticated, its sex ratios evened out, fertility levels rose and mortality rates fell. Population growth was less dependent on immigration, and, not surprisingly, the foreign-born proportion of the population, while still high, dropped.

Still over 64 per cent in 1931, the foreign-born percentage of the population fell to about 44 per cent in 1947 – the Great Depression and World War II also help to explain this drop, of course – and to about 36 per cent in 1957 on the eve of independence.

The fall in the foreign-born component of the population continued after independence, dropping to about 26 per cent in 1970 and to 22 per cent by 1980. With transnational economic flows of all kinds (products, capital, labour) increasing in a relative sense over the past 30 years – the essence of economic globalisation – unsurprisingly, the long-term trends shown above regarding the foreign-born proportion of Singapore’s population have been reversed in recent decades.

This is so whether viewed in terms of the foreign-born proportion of the resident population (citizens and PRs) or the foreign-born component of the total population (citizens, PRs and non-permanent residents).

Employing the latter, more expansive measure – after all, Singaporeans notice and feel the weight of foreign-born people whether or not they are here permanently – one finds the foreign-born proportion of Singapore’s population rising to about 25 per cent in 1990 and to 34 per cent in 2000. During the first decade of the 21st century, the foreign-born proportion of the population continued to grow. Because government statistics are not broken down in such a way as to obtain precise figures regarding nativity of citizens and PRs, estimates vary significantly regarding the foreign-born proportion of the total population, with a low estimate for 2010 of about 35 per cent, a high estimate of over 45 per cent and many estimates in between.

For the lack of something better, let us use a figure of around 40 per cent for 2010, that is, about two million of Singapore’s total population of just over five million. This figure, to be sure, represents a sizable percentage increase over the figure for 2000, but even so, the 2010 figure is still lower than the proportion foreign-born in 1947. Moreover, the foreign-born percentage in 2013 is likely a bit lower than in 2010.

The world has clearly been in motion in recent decades, and the US and Singapore, to name but two of many nations, have been powerfully affected by increased net inflows of people. Two important takeaways from the above discussion are that such inflows have occurred, and they are not inevitable or irreversible, but highly contingent and contextual, dependent on economic, demographic and geopolitical variables.

A well-conceived plan

SIZEABLE population inflows inevitably produce pressures and challenges, even as they bring new opportunities. From the outside, it appears that Singapore’s Government is both aware of the costs and benefits of immigration, and is proceeding deliberately and purposively to minimise the former and maximise the latter.

From a policy perspective, the Population White Paper seems a well-thought-out plan to sustain the base needed to keep Singapore, the native population of which has a low fertility rate and is rapidly ageing, moving forward economically in later decades. As I write, policymakers in the US, the population of which is expected to exceed 400 million by 2050 due to both immigration and natural increase, are at long last within reach of adopting a somewhat coherent approach to immigration. In this regard, one thinks of Winston Churchill’s famous observation that the “United States invariably does the right thing, after having exhausted every other alternative”.

With respect to immigration, the right thing for the US is to establish more purposive, economically rational policies designed, among other things, to bring into the country the requisite amounts of high-end and low-end skills needed to keep its economy efficient and competitive.

Singapore is doing this already, and the process, on balance, has succeeded even though it has made for some inconveniences, produced certain disamenities and provoked considerable criticism from natives. Some of the criticisms are well taken, the question of whether or not bringing in low-wage labour has decreased incentives to increase productivity and the question of whether or not competition with immigrants is depressing wages at the low end, for example.

Other criticisms, particularly when aimed at nationals from specific countries, seem rather more like those Wilsonian invectives.The writer is Albert R. Newsome Distinguished Professor of history and director of the Global Research Institute at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill in the United States.

He has been visiting Singapore several times a year since the 1990s. He was in Singapore in 1992-1993 as a Fulbright Scholar and, for one semester in 2005, was a Raffles Professor of history at the National University of Singapore.

This story was first published in The Straits Times on April 5, 2013

To subscribe to The Straits Times, please go to