Millions Of Immigrants Cause Tension In Singapore

In many countries, foreign migrant workers often take the blame when economic times are tough and unemployment is high. Now imagine a country where 40 percent of its work force has been imported from overseas. The Southeast Asian city-state of Singapore is such a country.

The changes are evident on a weekend evening visit to Singapore's Geylang Road, where anyone might feel that they've taken a wrong turn and arrived in mainland China. Chinese migrant construction workers pack sidewalk eateries, chattering over plates of dumplings and noodles.

The government allows Singaporean construction companies to import seven foreign workers for every local hire. The mainlanders' dress, speech and behavior make them stand out in Singapore, even though its population is three-fourths ethnic Chinese.

Employment agent Ang Peng Cheoh recruits these workers, who are not, he stresses, competing with Singaporeans for jobs.

"Competition is really not an issue here," he says. "We need more of these people to help us to do the work young Singaporeans are unwilling to do. Some people say these workers are stealing our livelihoods. It's not like that. The competition is for mid-level, white collar jobs."

Xia Jianpo is a carpenter from northern China's Hebei province, working in a Singapore shipyard. He's ambivalent about being here. The pay in Singapore is not much more than in Chinese cities, and even if he were able to move here, he probably couldn't afford the high cost of living.

"Singapore is a garden city," he says admiringly. "If I had the choice, I'd choose to stay here. But we barely make enough money to send back to our families in China. We migrant laborers don't have the ability to immigrate here."

Most migrants are not able to immigrate, but since the late 1980s, Singapore has welcomed 100,000 new immigrants per year, or 1 million each decade.

National University of Singapore economist Tan Khee Giap says that this is simply because Singapore's economy creates more jobs than locals can fill. Singaporean women, meanwhile, give birth on average to less than one child each, the lowest birth rate of any country in the world, and well below the rate needed to keep population levels stable.

As long as government spending on infrastructure and services can keep up with immigration, he says, Singapore's population still has room to grow.

"The people in Singapore, they're pampered," Tan says. "They're not seeing how crowded Tokyo or Hong Kong or London or New York's subway is. And therefore they think it is very crowded. But Singapore has only 5 million. And I think if you plan it properly, I think we can live comfortably with 8 million."

Singaporeans are not wrong to feel that that their subway, schools and public housing are becoming more crowded. They are. But they're still up to first world standards, and the best in Southeast Asia.

This affluence has not kept the immigration issue from triggering public concerns about a widening wealth gap and the dilution of Singaporean identity. The issue loomed over last year's general election, in which opposition parties made their biggest gains ever against the still-dominant People's Action Party.

The party has responded by reducing the inflow of foreign labor, while trying to better integrate newcomers.

At a recent citizenship ceremony, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong encouraged new Singaporeans to try harder to assimilate.

"Pick up Singapore customs, lifestyles, norms, social rules," he urged the new citizens. "Be conscious that this is something which you need to do. And watch out also for the little cultural differences which I'm sure there will still be. Know about them, and try to bridge them."

Singapore's aging patriarch Lee Kuan Yew, who is Lee Hsien Loong's father, warned at a speech in February that without immigration, Singapore would face the prospect of a shrinking, graying society.

"I know Singaporeans do not feel very comfortable seeing so many strange new faces," he said. "But the alternative is economic stagnation, and worse, nobody to look after our old people later on."

Singapore has always been an immigrant society, Lee likes to point out, and attracting the best and brightest is still the only way to keep its economy competitive. Lee's critics may find him domineering, but few have offered clear alternatives to his policy.

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