During the Budget Debates in Parliament today, I gave a speech on NS and the thorny issue of integrating our citizens, new and old, PRs and foreigners in our society. My speech stemmed from my proposal for a national defence tax which I mooted online a few weeks ago.
I shared with the House what I learnt from you. Ultimately, as I said, something needs to be done about the current situation. In my speech, I outlined some measures that the government could adopt: promoting integration, sharpening distinctions, introducing compulsory service for PRs and dealing robustly and effectively with those who seek to undermine our efforts and values.
I concluded my speech with a personal anecdote about how proud I felt to be a Singaporean when my friends and I were recognized in Thailand as Singaporeans because of the racial diversity of our group. Somehow, where integration is concerned, we have lost our way. However, we should not shy away from this topic. It is time for the Government to take the lead on the national debate on integration, and to do so boldly.
Here is the full text of my speech.
I am part of the post-65 generation of Singaporeans, born here after independence. I served my national service in the infantry. I carried my M16, wore my No. 4 and ate what the SAF optimistically called “combat rations”. I spent time in the soil of the jungles of Singapore and Taiwan with other Singaporean males, who have become my friends.
I view my NS with pride, just as I am sure many Singaporeans do. NS is a common touchstone for us. We will never do anything else quite like it for the rest of our lives. Even decades later, we talk about it with friends. It brands us as Singaporeans. When people talk about a “Singaporean core”, NS is one of the ingredients that lie at the heart of it.
Last month, I wrote a series of posts on my facebook page suggesting that we impose a national defence tax on non-citizens as a way of sharpening distinctions between citizens and non-citizen residents, and using the proceeds to benefit our NS men.
I was happy that my posts sparked a lively debate. It brought into focus the larger issue of whether Singaporeans, new citizens, PRs and foreigners are successfully integrating in our society, and the implications for us if they do not. The problem is that we have largely dealt with these issues on a superficial level.
What I Learnt from Singaporeans
I would like to share with this House some things I have been told online and in person in the course of the debate. I believe they represent the views of a good number of Singaporeans. They raise serious issues which I hope the Government will look into.
First, many Singaporeans recognise and appreciate the contributions of new citizens, PRs and foreigners. They have no desire to discriminate against them. They acknowledge that this country would not be the success that it is without their contributions.
Second, many want to see new citizens and PRs genuinely integrate better with Singaporeans and be part of our society. We want them to demonstrate that they regard this land as their home; that they believe in our cause; and that they too have a stake in Singapore’s future. What grates most on our nerves is the thought of those who seek the privilege of citizenship and permanent residency do so purely out of convenience or economic gain, and that they will abandon us at the slightest risk or sign of trouble.
That is why National Service is such an emotional topic. Doing National Service, or giving an undertaking that your son will do it, is a tangible demonstration of that commitment. Many talk about shedding blood, sweat and tears. But it means more than that. It forges a common bond which is unique to us, and in some ways, helps define who we are. There is also a real financial sacrifice. For men from poorer Singaporean households, it means two years of earning a nominal allowance when they could have joined the workforce and helped supplement the family income.
So it disturbs us when we perceive others avoiding NS by playing fast and loose with the rules, and taking easy rides in the system. That is the true cheapening of National Service.
Thirdly, most demand that those liable to do NS must perform their duty. It is not enough that NS-dodgers pay a penalty and are barred from returning to Singapore. We rather that they stay and serve with us. But we must accept the reality that some PRs will arrange for their sons to leave when they reach a certain age. Not a single person who has posted or given their views believes that the current sanctions against this are adequate.
That was why I proposed the National Defence Duty - as a practical response to a practical problem. We cannot force people to remain in Singapore who do not want to stay here. But we can make it so costly that they would think twice, three times before taking PR status or arranging for their child to dodge NS. As with all proposals, some liked it; some criticised it; some felt it did not go far enough. Some even accused me of proposing that PRs who were liable for NS be allowed to pay their way out of their obligation. Of course, I never made any such suggestion.
But one thing most appeared to agree on: something needs to be done. The status quo will not do.
An Action Plan
This issue should be tackled as part of a national effort to promote integration. We can and need to do a number of things.
First, at a macro level, we need to explain better the importance of keeping Singapore an open society with an open economy. “Singaporeans first” does not and cannot mean “Singaporeans regardless”. These issues are complicated, and frankly, we do not do a good job explaining things. This is sad because we have such a compelling story to tell. Neither will the approach that people should trust us because we know what we are doing. We cannot take the people’s trust for granted.
Second, we need to convince Singaporeans that Singaporeans remain central to Singapore and its future. This year’s Budget takes a step in that direction. More is being done for members of our Singapore family who are in need of more help – increasing incomes for low wage workers; securing their children a better education; helping the elderly age with more dignity. More is being done to share the prosperity that Singapore has achieved. We become a better, stronger society when the lot of all Singaporeans are improved.
Thirdly, while foreigners and PRs are important, we must also demonstrate that there are privileges in being a citizen. We have thus far largely dealt with this on a piece-meal basis, with different Ministries announcing changes or measures at different times, whether it is securing places in primary schools, differentiating medical fees or property ownership. We should have a comprehensive review of all these measures and look at how we can make changes on a fair and principled basis. Some have said that such a move would be xenophobic. By that definition, any privilege given to a citizen is xenophobic. Of course, it is not. It is legitimate for a government to draw distinctions between its citizens and non-citizens. In any case, I firmly believe most Singaporeans are not xenophobic. But they are genuinely unhappy because of perceived unfairness of treatment. We in this House need to address this squarely and rationally. If we ignore this, we will only give cause and strength to the less rational voices.
Fourthly, we should review our approach to granting citizenship and Permanent Residency. It has to be more than satisfying criteria and completing forms. I have a constituent who is Singapore citizen. His wife, a Malaysian, gave birth to their son in Malaysia, and he became a Malaysian citizen. The boy is now about 20 years old, not well educated but hard working and wants to improve himself. He has been working as a cook in Singapore for about 2 years on a work permit. The boy wants to live in Singapore with his father, become a citizen and do NS. His application for PR has been rejected several times. Why? Is it because of his lack of education? But he is the son of a Singaporean, who wants to live with his father and do NS, and does a job which Singaporeans apparently shun. Why do we regard him as less qualified to be here compared to sons of PRs, who may or may not choose to stay and do NS when they come of age?
Fifthly, we should have new citizens and PRs perform some form of compulsory service. If NS is not suitable by reason of age or other circumstances, other forms should be introduced. This can be for short periods annually, much like how Singaporean men do reservist training. The point is not to discourage foreigners from sinking their roots here, but to emphasise that they now have a stake in this country as well. One commenter on my facebook page mooted the idea of having them serve in the Volunteer Special Constabulary (VSC). It is worth exploring. There are even practical benefits as it helps with the current manpower shortage in the Home Team. In fact, there are currently 52 PRs serving in the VSC. At a recent award and appreciation ceremony, I met one of them, Cpl (V) Yanase Yoshitaka, a Japanese who has lived here for 12 years. He was proud to serve in the VSC, and told me that he wanted to become a Singaporean. Others can do the same. Give them a chance. They may surprise us.
Finally, we need to have a more robust and effective response to those who undermine our efforts to integrate. I have spoken about PRs who send their sons away to avoid NS. We also need to deal with the allegation that some employers favour hiring foreigners at the expense of Singaporeans, or retrench Singaporeans before releasing their foreign staff. The story is always different depending on who you speak to – employers who say they cannot find Singaporeans despite their best attempts or that Singaporeans are unrealistic about pay and benefits; Singaporean employees who say they have been discriminated against because their employers want to hire cheaper foreigners or help their fellow nationals.
I know of cases where my constituents have gone to the CDC looking for jobs, only to be told that nothing was available, or to be sent on interviews which proved a waste of time. This should not be happening in our tight job market. What is the real problem? Let’s get to the bottom of it and show where the truth lies.
Some have mooted rules or laws to compel employers to prove that they cannot find Singaporeans before they are allowed to bring in a foreigner. We should find simple ways of doing this. The CDCs and NTUC can help by offering a comprehensive job matching service, not just for low income workers, but PMETs as well. To make sure that efforts are sincere, we can have them certify that job matching has failed before an employer can make an application for a foreign worker. In this regard, an employer who has proven that he is unable to secure a Singaporean for a reasonable wage should be given some leeway to bring in foreign workers. For some industries, you can only improve productivity so far, and workers are needed to keep the business going.
But it cannot all be one way. Singaporeans must also bear responsibility for themselves. Singaporeans who unreasonably refuse to take up jobs or to improve themselves should not expect to keep getting support from others, whether through the Budget or otherwise.
One Day in Bangkok
Integration is a long and complex journey. It was something that Singapore did very well. In one of my first speeches after becoming an MP, I told of an encounter which made that clear to me. In 1991, shortly after my final university exams, I undertook a backpacking trip with some of my friends around Asia. On a hot day in Bangkok, my two Chinese friends and I walked towards a street vendor selling drinks. Before we could say a word, he looked at us and said “Singapore”. We asked him how he knew. He said: “Different colour, walk together; must be Singapore.”
We laughed at the incident, but you know, I have never felt prouder being a Singaporean. I hope always to feel that way.
We have lost our way somewhat on integration. It is not too late to get back on the right road. The Government must lead the national debate on immigration and integration. It should come up with a comprehensive package which Singaporeans, PRs and foreigners can accept as sound, compulsory community service, monetary and non-monetary measures, carrots and sticks.
We should not avoid this sensitive topic, but embrace it as part of the evolution of our young country. It is a fallacy to think that a country can stand still, frozen in time, and never change. Change is inevitable, and change can be a good thing, provided we manage this process fairly and rationally, involve Singaporeans, and most importantly, act in the interests of Singapore.
We are very different from the Singapore of the 1970s and we will be a different Singapore in 2030. Nonetheless, we must remain a multi-racial, multi-religious society defined by values embodied in our pledge of unity, democracy and equality to achieve happiness, prosperity and progress for all.