Tuesday, May 15, 2012

The hidden consequences of massive immigration

This post is terribly current given the state of the global economy and the spate of traffic accidents involving locals and foreigners. I didn't plan it this way, but here it is.

[BTW, the taxi-Ferrari accident couldn't have happened at a worst time for the PAP. The rational PAP elite would dismiss this as having no bearing on the Hougang by-election. Such a rational PAP elite would be a f***ing idiot in my opinion.]


As was amply demonstrated over the last several months since before the General Elections of 2011, the PAP government likes to strenuously protest that its ways are the right way. Then, after the GE campaign started looking less sanguine, it started getting religion, the highlight of which was the PM's unprecedented apology. 

But months after the GE, I think it's mostly been window dressing, backsliding and soft-pedaling on the hints of promises for reform and change, renewed justification of prior policies, and a belief that the current direction is fine, just that better perception management of us unwashed peasants is required.

Sort of the PAP equivalent of sticking the fingers in the ears and going lah-lah-lah-lah-lah.

Well, today, I'm going to talk about the hidden consequences of massive immigration [and this is over and above the spate of traffic accidents we are seeing]. 

Because I believe it is not going to be long before these hidden effects stop being hidden and start exerting themselves in ways that will make life very uncomfortable for the average Singaporean.

Even if the government is no longer handing out visas, PRs and pink ICs like candy at Halloween (and it's debatable that they have stopped doing so), the fact remains our population has almost doubled in the past 10 years, and the composition of our population has dramatically changed.

As a flaneur, an observer of the city, I am going to stick my head out and make some predictions. Take what you read here with a pinch of salt, as these are mere prognostications of an Internet blogger. Still, if these predictions come to pass, remember, you read them here first.

First, the preamble. I believe the precipitating event for these hidden consequences will the next global recession, or rather the Great Financial Crisis of 2008 Continued, since that particular drama hasn't actually ended; the debt was merely transferred onto sovereign balance sheets. For reasons too long to discuss here, I believe that the next recession will be particularly bad for countries that currently run trade surpluses. So, countries like Singapore that appear to be coasting along swimmingly just now will probably see their economies pancaked in the next couple of years.

The "morning after" of massive immigration...when the next recession hits:

1. We know that foreigners are quite often preferentially hired over qualified Singaporeans by employers, particularly when the hiring managers are foreigners, and especially so when they come from countries that are known to be more...clannish. Heck, some hiring managers are even brazen enough to advertise specifically for foreigners of a certain nationality.

Well, when the next recession strikes, don't be surprised if Singaporeans are preferentially retrenched over foreigners. There are no safeguards in place today, and even if there were, the government would be weak at enforcing them. Besides, as soon as employers cry hardship, the PAP government will cave like a cheap whore on a slow night.

2. Structural unemployment will almost certainly increase.

If you've ever had to look for a job in recent years, you'll know that today, job descriptions / specifications are written in incredibly narrow terms. If you aren't doing exactly the same thing in your current or previous job, you're unlikely to get callbacks for interviews. This is partly a function of an extremely open immigration policy where companies can source employees from wherever they wish.

This isn't just about hiring managers writing job descriptions in narrow terms so that they can hire someone they already have in mind. It's also about companies being unwilling to invest in training and wanting only to hire someone who can be immediately productive. And Singapore's immigration policy encourages this line of thinking.

When a recession hits, companies that have long been used to hiring staff that are immediately productive are unlikely to change their minds about hiring workers that may have industry-relevant experience, but no job-specific experience.   

3. In a bad economy, a lot of foreigners will leave the country. What works well on the upturn works just as well on the downdraft.

Singapore is an expensive city to live in. It's even more expensive when you're a foreigner. And foreigners are frequently singles who spend a big chunk of their income each month.

That means that foreigners probably account for a massive amount of discretionary consumer spending in our economy. If a foreigner loses his job and decides to balik kampung, he takes all his spending with him. That isn't going to be pretty by any measure. Suddenly, I think we'll see a lot more boarded up restaurants, bars, clubs, hair salons, nail parlors, retailers and the like. 

Which brings me to point number 3...

4. The market for goods and services will shrink. Expect fewer choices in the future.

Remember, a big reason why Singapore is oh-so-cosmopolitan and you can get your Gap, H&M and Topshop here now without going overseas is because having doubled or even tripled our working (and spending) population, Singapore as a market is now large enough to accommodate several niches for various consumer goods and services.

If you've gotten used to the wider range of goods and services, not just in retail, but in restaurants, bars, clubs, salons, bakeries, upscale grocers, boutique bike shops, rock concerts, theater performances, museum exhibitions...think about the bad old days when you wished Singapore wasn't such a cultural backwater...cuz those days could make a reappearance faster than you think.

5. With fewer foreigners, the property market will plummet, taking everyone invested in property with it.

No surprises here. The amazing thing is not that property prices have gone up in a big way in the last decade, or that people are up to their eyeballs in mortgage debt. The amazing thing is that so few people I've talked to realize that for these property prices to be sustained, not only do we need our foreigners to stay, we also need (a) the supply of housing to continue to be throttled (which is unlikely to happen now that Mah Bow Tan has exited stage right) and (b) the rate of immigration continues to be sustained at the high level of previous years.

(b) is simply not going to happen because it is politically untenable and the infrastructure is already coming off the rails (literally).

If foreigners actually start leaving because of a weak economy and the high cost of living in Singapore, the property market will collapse like a house of cards.

6. Many foreigners will stay on in Singapore. And that's actually a bad thing.

Realistically speaking, even in a global recession, prospects are still better for some foreigners here than back home, or elsewhere. I'm talking about Filipinos, PRCs, Myanmarese, perhaps the odd Greek or Irishman too. That's partly a function of how bad some other countries are doing, and also a function of how undiscriminating how government has been in the quality of the skilled/unskilled immigrants that it has let in. See the above comment on handing out visas, PRs and pink ICs like candy.

If you're a foreigner with a PR or short term visa, and you've lost your job, but you don't want to leave, what would you do?

Doesn't take a genius to figure this one out. You move out of your apartment and downgrade to digs with cheaper rent. Or you double-up or triple-up with other foreigners you know. Some Singaporean landlords are going to knowingly or unknowingly become tenement slumlords. And that leads to...

7. An increased incidence of petty crime, vice, panhandling, domestic violence, you name it.

Unemployment or underemployment, adrift in a foreign land with limited family support or frayed relationships, overcrowding in tenement apartments...it's a bad combination. 

It's likely you'll be seeing more foreigners in your neighborhood if you live in the suburbs, simply because it's cheaper to live there. Perhaps the occasional foreigner selling tissue paper at the hawker center. Or panhandling (begging) even.

I lived in Baltimore for a few years. There was a practically a panhandler on every street corner. And the crime and homicide rate was among the highest in America. So, I'm cool with this kind of situation. Not ideal, but hey, I lived in Baltimore, I can live anywhere.

Some Singaporeans would probably need some time to get used to such a situation though. Good luck with that.

8. Because these ill sentiments tend to feed off each other in a bad economy, expect tensions to rise between local Singaporeans and foreigners.

Singaporeans are going to go from grudging indignation to righteous anger to blood boiling rage. As for foreigners, they've long been accustomed to being treated with kid gloves by the PAP, so much so that there is an entrenched sense of entitlement among them. It would be funny if it wasn't so terribly tragic that should the first riots in decades to occur actually happen, they would more likely be fueled not by racial differences, but anti-foreigner sentiment.

No need to elaborate further, because the anti-foreigner sentiment that is current will simply be a foretaste of what is to come. And the PAP government will be heavily blamed. Then perhaps, the calculus behind massive immigration will finally be recalibrated to reflect the true cost of immigration, which can only be a good thing.

Don't get me wrong though. I'm not a supporter of xenophobia; I'm simply predicting which way the wind is going to blow.

Monday, May 14, 2012

Book List Refreshed 14/5/2012

I have removed:

How to Disappear by Frank M. Ahearn and Eileen C. Horan
Extreme Money by Satyajit Das
Factions and Finance in China by Victor C. Shih
When Money Dies by Adam Fergusson

I have added:

Cyber War by Richard Clarke
Cornered by Barry C. Lynne
Quiet by Susan Cain
Currency Wars by James Rickards

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

For the love of flying...my heart belongs to the sky.

Lake Maninjau, West Sumatra, May 2012.

(That's me in the top right, sharing airspace with my friend N. Credit to T. for the pic.)