Sunday, July 18, 2010

What are some possible unintended consequences of massive immigration?

Disclaimer: Some readers might take offense at this post. This post is not motivated by any form of xenophobia, and I will maintain as neutral a tone as I can manage throughout. The purpose of this post is as a thought experiment, to think about potential unintended, and more importantly, unexpected, consequences of unrestrained and massive immigration. If you've read the Black Swan, you can think of this post as an exercise in Black Swan hunting.

We know massive immigration causes problems. Particularly when immigrant populations are not well integrated into the mainstream population or when the native population is outnumbered by foreigners. For example, see the civil unrest in France in 2005, Caldwell's Reflections on the Revolution in Europe, or the July 2009 Urumqi riots in Xinjiang.

Immigration in Singapore appears to be mostly free of these problems, and the main concerns here have been more prosaic, if still important, such as the cost of housing, employment of citizens vis-a-vis foreigners, and the declining quality of life, particularly those who rely heavily on public services.

I don't intend to interrogate these consequences of immigration, as they are well known and noticed, but to look for consequences and effects that are less obvious, less often perceived. Things that won't be found in some official record somewhere, but are street observations that are undocumented, until perhaps sometime in the future.

Take neighborhoods for instance. I am a flaneur, and the tagline of my blog is "An obsession to walk the city to experience it". And what I've noticed over the years is the changing character of neighborhoods as a result of immigration.

We know neighborhoods change as a result of redevelopment and gentrification. Tiong Bahru for instance, while still retaining an air of authenticity, has been gentrified almost beyond recognition. The most accessible parts of Chinatown are one big giant tourist trap (the interior is still somewhat authentic). And most of the shophouses in the Tanjong Pagar conservation area are given over to offices, particularly law firms and accountants' offices. I should know, I used to temp there.

But some areas have changed mainly as a result of immigration. Joo Chiat, for instance, was and perhaps is still infamous for vice, mainly stemming from callgirls from China setting up shop there.

Then there are what I call 'immigrant enclaves', buildings or places that attract a disproportionate number belonging to a particular foreigner ethnic group. For example anyone who has spent any amount of time in Singapore would know that Lucky Plaza is Filipino central, particularly on weekends. As a JC student years ago who used to head to Orchard every weekend (to chill at Takashimaya 'Square'), I used to marvel at the number of Filipino maids who would picnic on the lawn where Ion Orchard is now situated at.

Similarly, Golden Mile Complex has long been popular with Thais. I remember one time I wandered there while looking for Army supplies at Beach Road and was bewildered by the sheer number of Thais and Thai signboards. I felt like I had been transported to Bangkok.

On recent trips to Peninsula Plaza, I noticed the vast numbers of Myanmarese businesses (travel agencies and shops) amid the ... piquant ... odor of that aging mall.

What, in practice, have I found to be the best indicator that an area or building has been colonized by an immigrant group?

Supermarkets. Because food is so integral to culture, and supermarkets are high volume, low margin businesses, ethnic supermarkets are the number one indicator of a sizeable immigrant presence. Places of worship are another great indicator, but still not as useful, or visible, as supermarkets.

It's not just places that change as a result of immigration. Industries and occupations change as a result of immigration too.

We've already talked about vice in Joo Chiat due to China girls. Then there's that infamous report on human trafficking in Singapore that the government has dismissed. Perhaps Singapore's allegedly lax stance on immigration has contributed directly or indirectly to the prevalence of human trafficking in the sex trade here. We have the ubiquitous Banglas in the construction industry, more accurately South Asians, as they comprise Indians and Pakistanis as well. Their social problems have been well-documented by The Online Citizen. And the nimby effect was clearly evident when the thorny problem of situating their dormitories came up. We have also seen the problems of customers communicating, or not communicating, with non-English speaking service staff. Everyone in Singapore has had experience with that. And university students in the local universities have long complained of lecturers from China or India who are unable to teach effectively due to their heavy accents.

What is less commonly remarked upon, noticed, or is simply a more recent phenomenon? 

The Ministry of Manpower has an entire department of statisticians churning out labor statistics which are unfortunately publicly unavailable due to 'sensitivity', but we can make a few observations.

The IT industry and call centre industry is heavy with foreigners, particularly Filipinos. Anyone who has had to interrupt a meeting because of a cold call from a credit card representative would know this if he had deigned to notice. A friend who works as an IT recruiter has commented that it has been this way for quite a while.

And a colleague who complained of driving on the roads these days because of "aggressive" mainland China bus drivers clued me in on something I had noticed, but hadn't really internalized. Our bus drivers today are increasingly from China. And they're aggressive enough on the roads to have caused some drivers to take notice. Just a few days ago, a friend told me of how his bus driver got into an quarrel with a passenger due to a fallen tree branch incident which blocked traffic on an expressway. The bus drivers of today aren't the bus drivers of yesteryear, that's for sure.

We know of wildcat strikes in China at Honda factories. For better or for worse, immigrants to Singapore are generally not as ... tractable ... as native Singaporeans. If a critical part of our infrastructure like the public bus transport network is heavily dependent on foreigners of a particular ethnicity or creed, what happens if they have reason to get organized and demonstrate, protest or go on strike? Like the Falun Gong demonstration that happened in Singapore a while back? Or the diplomatic fracas that came in the wake of the Flor Contemplacion incident? There would potentially be a lot more unhappy Filipinos on Singapore soil today should a diplomatic incident like that happen again. And frankly, before 9/11, Singapore was lucky to not have sourced for immigrants from Muslim states that might subsequently have found our staunch relationship with the USA ... objectionable. 

What about our other industries? Electronics, petrochemicals, pharmaceuticals, construction? Any possibility of some adverse event occurring simply because we are so critically dependent on "hired help" in those industries? Nobody knows, and the MOM a'int talking. Maybe we should start asking. Just sayin'.

Finally, immigration changes not just places and industries, but also people. 

With every change, I find myself becoming less and less rooted to this island. A sizeable mass of Singaporeans has been disenchanted with "growth at all costs", income inequality and massive immigration. Because of immigration, some wags talk about being second class citizens in our own country. We have become disenchanted, disenfranchised and increasingly disconnected.

Home is where the heart is, but what happens when the heart itself has left the home?

I remember when the old National Library building was demolished despite massive public dissent, and the collective memories of generations was lost. Is that so different when neighborhoods are transformed through immigration? They may be revitalized, and that is undoubtedly a good thing for places plagued with urban decay, but something is lost nonetheless. Lost and unmourned.

Our local patois of Singlish is regularly denigrated (lah), as if being drowned in a babel of foreign tongues and accents is not challenge enough already. Will the day come when even ordering in a hawker centre is something that can't be done in Singlish? Because the service staff don't speak it, not at all?

And immigrants are brought in to "stick spurs" in our hides to make us work harder. We work plenty hard already, and are justly proud of our achievements. Yet we are told time and time again to work harder, cheaper, better, faster. We are exhorted to emulate some city or country, to strive to be the "insert city here" of the east. We are told we have to be hungry like some nationality or ethnic group. We are made to feel inadequate and insecure, and when we voice concerns, those concerns are belittled or dismissed. All the national education and NDP parades in the world will not be enough to dispel the actual experience of the modern day Singaporean. That despite having made it from third world to first, we are still not good enough. Hence the need for more immigration. We are not allowed to feel pride in being Singaporean.

The Singapore Tourism Board has been zealous in promoting the Uniquely Singapore brand. But no one seems to be paying attention to the fast eroding Uniquely Singaporean Identity. For better or for worse, we are getting disconnected from our place of birth. We already have a low birth rate. Do we need an escalating rate of migration among native born Singaporeans as well?

It is clear from recent news that the powers that be are intellectually wedded to a pro-immigration policy. But what might that tunnel vision bring us in the future, when the unintended consequences of massive immigration are fully felt?


I am very interested in the transforming urban landscape in Singapore due to immigration. I would be much obliged to readers who can point out instances of neighborhoods or districts that seem to have taken on an overt foreign character. 


ed said...

Such fascist/racist rubbish. Your 'unique' identity is nothing but a legalist-confucian and non-singaporean identity. It bears little or no resemblance to the best of other cultures. Not used to being treated as the non-chinese have been treated the past couple of decades? Use this experience as an education. Not as yet another avenue to practice self-absorption and arrogance.

mjuse said...

Fascism refers to a radical form of political ideology. It is absent here. You may wish to consult a text on political science.

Racism implies that there is a target race(s) being discriminated against here. I have made passing mention of South Asians, Filipinos, Myanmarese and mainland Chinese in this post, but I have not singled any out for pejorative remarks. I have also made mention of immigrant Muslims, but not to denigrate them. I have speculated what could be possible consequences of hosting large communities of foreigners, especially foreign Muslims, in the wake of 9/11 and Singapore's relationship with the USA. This is reasonable in light of what other countries' experiences have been. I did not advocate for or against such an arrangement.

As for xenophobia, read the disclaimer at the top of the post.

With regard to a uniquely Singaporean identity, I did not mention legalist-Confucian ideals or Asian values. You did. You chose to conflate what I wrote with what you perceive to be a purported or officially sanctioned Singaporean identity that you want no part of. I picked the old National Library building and Singlish as common touchstones for Singaporeans. If you want to disavow these two things, or any part of what I wrote as part of the experience of being Singaporean, you are welcome to state your opinion. I will however disregard everything else that is not on point.

As for your sneering comment of "not being used to being treated as the non-chinese have been treated the past couple of decades. use this experience as an education", that you have a grievance and are a non-Chinese Singaporean seems clear enough. That however, was not the thrust of this post. My post was not intended to highlight the problems Chinese Singaporeans face uniquely, in comparison to other Singaporean races, as a result of immigration. The last I checked, non-English speaking service staff do not make it a point to single out and frustrate Chinese Singaporeans, and then turn around to speak perfect English to Malay or Indian Singaporeans.

Even if you are sure I am Chinese, indulge in your schadenfreude on your own time, and start your own blog if you want to publicise how exactly disenfranchised you and your unique blend of race/religion/sexual orientation/(insert some minority attribute) and citizenship are. That would be more fruitful than trolling my blog.

I allowed your comment to pass this one time. Subsequent comments have to be on point and germane to the content of my post: exploring unintended consequences of massive immigration. I will reject them otherwise.

Luke said...

In response to your header, the distortion of the electoral landscape could very well be an intended (or unintended) consequence of our loose immigration policy.

testtube said...

1) I don't think the high speed of urban change is due to immigration. That has been the case long before the recent spike in immigrants. I can't think of a single example of too-speedy urban change that plausibly would not have happened if not for immigrants. In general the 'pragmatic' Singapore government does not appreciate old landscapes unless they could be tourist attractions.

2) That said, the high speed of urban change is more destructive to my sense of belonging than the high rate of immigration is. That's because the old landscapes, once destroyed, will never return. The immigrants add to the population but do not deplete the store of my personal relationships that is still in Singapore -- not directly anyway (but see point (3)). Furthermore, the old landscapes are inevitably replaced by new ones that have a generic look to them -- I see many malls and glass buildings springing up that don't look terribly different from one another. There exist interesting exemplars of modern architecture (and I do not think the ION is one of them), but few of them are to be found in Singapore. Perhaps our developers just do not have enough of a sense of adventure to accept true architectural innovation.

3) I said that immigrants do not contribute to a decrease in my sense of belonging, because it is the personal relationships I have with people in Singapore that matter, not the gross characteristics of the population. As long as my old friends are still in Singapore, my sense of belonging is not diminished by the fact that there are more cultural strangers in Singapore. It's only the close relationships that matter for me, when it comes to people. However, it may be the case that immigration causes more of my friends to leave Singapore. I'm not sure how large a factor that is, since it could well be that even without immigrants, the lifestyle would still be stressful enough and the pay low enough to compel them to leave -- after all, the brain drain problem was recognised in the 80s, well before the recent spike in immigration.

OT, I see you're reading Constructing Singapore. Would be interesting to hear your thoughts on it. By the time I'd read it, I'd come to many similar conclusions about Singapore society, so I was a little disappointed in not learning much new from it.

mjuse said...

To Luke, I am pretty sure the distortion of the electoral landscape is intended, if you are referring to new Singapore citizens. But thank you for the comment nonetheless.

We now know from local media that new citizens have a generally favorable opinion of the PAP government.

We also know that one of the reasons why the government encourages immigration from China is to maintain the racial balance among Singapore citizens. The fertility rate for Singapore is well-known, at about 1.21. Less well known is that when examined by race, the fertility rate of Chinese Singaporeans is just above 1, while it is considerably higher for Indians and Malays.

In case anyone accuses me of racism, let me state here that I have no comment on this policy. If you're curious, verify the numbers yourself.

mjuse said...

To testtube:

Your point on the high speed of urban redevelopment is a valid one. It could be a prime reason behind the sense of disconnect. However, I do believe that immigration exacerbates the sense of alienation that accompanies the disorienting pace of urban redevelopment. The Joo Chiat residents certainly did kick up a fuss over the vice activities in their neighborhood.

As for Constructing Singapore, I read that book back in March, so it's been a while.

While like you, what I read confirmed what I already knew, it was still interesting to read it framed and articulated as well as it was, backed up with data as well.

The key takeaway points I had were how race is the prism through which so much of government policies and practices are framed, the conflation of the civil service with the PAP government, in particular the Philip Yeo and MP anecdote, and the subtle indoctrination of the Singapore Story in our school lesson materials.

I do not intend to make a post of my read of Constructing Singapore. You may however have read my earlier post on Parallels with Liquidated.