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In many countries, the presence of foreign migrant workers often becomes an issue in hard economic times. And that's starting to happen in Singapore. Forty percent of the workforce there is imported, a product of Singapore's success. As NPR's Anthony Kuhn tells us, the government is on the defensive.
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ANTHONY KUHN, BYLINE: On a weekend evening, visitors to Singapore's Geylang Road may feel like 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.
Ang Peng Cheoh is a Singaporean employment agent who recruits the workers. And they are not, he stresses, competing with Singaporeans for jobs.
ANG PENG CHEOH: (Through Translator) Competition is really not an issue here. 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 midlevel, white-collar jobs.
KUHN: Xia Jianpo is a carpenter from North China's Hubei 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.
XIA JIANPO: (Through Translator) Singapore is a garden city. 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.
KUHN: Most migrants are not able to immigrate. But since the late 1980s, Singapore has welcomed 100,000 new immigrants per year - or a million each decade.National University of Singapore economist Tan Khee Giap says this is simply because Singapore's economy creates more jobs than locals can fill. And if government spending on infrastructure and services can keep up with immigration, he says, Singapore's population still has room to grow.
TAN KHEE GIAP: You see, people in Singapore, they're pampered. They're not seeing how crowded Tokyo or Hong Kong or London or New York 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.
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KUHN: Singaporeans are not wrong to feel that their subways, 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. Singapore's aging patriarch, Lee Kuan Yew, warned at a speech in February that without immigration, Singapore would face the prospect of a shrinking, graying society.
LEE KUAN YEW: I know Singaporeans do not feel very comfortable seeing so many strange, new faces, but the alternative is economic stagnation; at worst, nobody to look after our old people later on.
KUHN: 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.
Anthony Kuhn, NPR News.
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