Are Singaporeans Xenophobic?

Singapore has been beset by charges and counter-charges of xenophobic attitudes towards foreigners.  A major financial center, regional economic power, and playground for the super wealthy Singapore has carefully crafted its image as foreigner friendly with welcoming immigration policies.  The rapidly rising level of foreign born residents has prompted a variety of concerns by many Singaporeans with charges and counter-charges of xenophobic attitudes.

Immigration provokes strong feelings around the world for both rational and irrational reasons.  It is important however to put immigration, the benefits, and the costs in perspective.  The United States has the largest absolute number of immigrants in the world with 46 million but also one of the highest numbers as a percentage of the total population among large countries.  Only Canada and Australia have higher relative numbers with 21% and 28% of the population foreign born as compared to 14% in the United States.

Small countries generally have higher levels of foreign born population than larger countries.  This happens for a couple of reasons.  First, there are numerous prosperous but small countries like Monaco, the United Arab Emirates, and Singapore.  As people generally prefer to migrate somewhere prosperous, these countries are magnets for migration.  Second, given the law of large numbers, relatively small numbers of immigrants into a small country can have large relative impact.  For instance, Monaco has less than 25,000 immigrants, but that represents 65% of the total population.

It is important to compare the absolute and relative level of immigration before we examine the charges of xenophobia.  Singapore has the 22nd highest number of immigrants when ranked as a percentage of the population.  To put this number in perspective, this is roughly three times the number of immigrants as a percentage of the population in the United States and 420 times China.  Even in absolute numbers Singapore has lots of immigrants.  Singapore has more total immigrants than China, Brazil, and Indonesia combined.

This however does not answer the question of attitudes towards foreigners or whether Singaporeans are xenophobic.  Speaking only from personal experience, Singaporeans have been respectful, agree, and disagree with what I have said but rarely have I experienced anything I would classify as anti-foreigner.  Ironically, the emails and commenter’s who have told me not to poke my nose into Singaporean affairs, to speak generally, are those who defend PAP.  The most anti-foreigner emails and comments I have received come from those, generally speaking, accusing others most vociferously of xenophobia.  People who have listened respectfully and challenged me are criticizing the party in power and those generally on the receiving end of xenophobia charges.

However, this fails to address what people think about immigration and why they believe what they believe.  As an economist, I believe in the free market which includes the free movement of goods, capital, and labor to where they can be most productive.  However, I also recognize that for many reasons, there are practical reasons this is difficult or impractical in the real world.  Too often proponents of a specific policy, even economists, fail to recognize the trade offs.  For instance, immigration has generally overall positive benefits but also very real costs.

Taking the case of Singapore, given the constraints to housing and land, large population inflows are going to place significant pressure on housing prices.  Furthermore, while high skilled workers doctors, scientists, and economists are better suited to immigration pressures to the labor pool, middle and low skilled workers are going to face the greatest pressures.  Consequently, immigration is placing upwards price pressure on housing and downward pressures on wages for most people in Singapore.

Criticizing government policies on immigration is not xenophobic.  There are real benefits to immigration but also very real costs.  Criticizing government policies on immigration is not xenophobic as people are facing very real pressures from the decisions.  Criticizing opponents of government immigration policies as xenophobic and bigoted reveals the weakness of the argument and inability to weigh the complexity of policy dilemmas involved.

Are Singaporeans xenophobic?  If they are, I certainly haven’t experienced it and the anti-foreigner rhetoric that has been directed at me as come from those criticizing others as xenophobic and as a substitute to refute my ideas.  No, Singaporeans aren’t xenophobic, they just want honest debate about government policies.

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