Are you ‘of this place’?

At a recent Fulbright Association of Singapore annual dinner, a rapt audience listened to Citi head of ASEAN Michael Zink share his thoughts on foreign firms and their obligations to the local workforce.

Mr Zink, an American whose career has, thus far, spanned 10 countries, highlighted that foreign firms such as ExxonMobil had been in Singapore since 1893 (through Vacuum Oil, which later became a subsidiary of Standard Oil, ExxonMobil’s predecessor company) and that its second Singapore petrochemical complex officially opened earlier this year was at a cost of US$5 billion (S$6.26 billion) to US$6 billion, Singapore’s largest manufacturing investment.

He also noted that companies such as Citi had been the incubator of local banking Singaporean leaders such as DBS chairman Peter Seah and chief executive Piyush Gupta. Mr Zink forcefully put forward that it was immaterial whether a company was domiciled in Singapore or elsewhere; the true test of belonging was contribution to Singapore.

At the individual level, he reaffirmed that the colour of one’s skin, the country of one’s birth or the passport one holds — all these should not matter. What should matter is the commitment to Singapore and the values Singaporeans hold dear. One phrase he used repeatedly to emphasise this was “of this place”.

Despite the seeming airy-fairy nature “of this place” suggests, it is a critical issue to address. Four in 10 marriages today involve a Singaporean and non-Singaporean. Singapore opens its doors to approximately 30,000 permanent residents (PRs) and 20,000 new citizens each year. Nominated Member of Parliament Eugene Tan has described immigration as the “mother of all issues in our political landscape”.

How should we determine who is “of this place”?

CRITERIA FOR CITIZENSHIP AND permanent residency

Looking at the application forms for permanent residency and citizenship available on the Immigration and Checkpoints Authority (ICA) website, it seems the primary criteria revolve around economic contributions and academic qualifications.

For permanent residency application by Employment or S Pass holders, one has to list “details of achievements and innovations that you have made in your profession/occupation”. There is also one small section that requires information about “membership of professional societies, associations, clubs and other organisations”.

But there is nothing explicit about what the applicant has contributed to Singapore.

As a Singaporean, I am somewhat distressed that the application form baldly states: “This form may take you 20 minutes to fill in.”

Should 20 minutes be all that is needed to complete an application for permanent residency or citizenship in Singapore?

Thankfully, friends who have recently gone through the process inform me that after submitting the forms, some are called for interviews or are required to submit further documents.

What about asking upfront for a personal statement, evidence of contribution or commitment to the Singapore community in non-economic ways and even supporting letters from long-standing Singaporeans?

After all, entry into university, arguably a less consequential decision, is based on not only academics, but also evidence of co-curricular activities, leadership and often even requires personal statements and letters of support from teachers. What more citizenship or permanent residency?

HOW OTHERS DO IT

In Switzerland, “foreigners with no direct blood ties to Switzerland through either birth or marriage must live in the country for at least 12 years before they can apply for citizenship”. The criteria go on to state the “person must be well integrated, familiar with customs and traditions, law abiding and pose no threat to internal or external security”.

The United States is stringent too: Applicants need to pass an interview where, among other factors, their “character” and “attachment to the constitution” will be taken into account. During the interview, English proficiency and “knowledge and understanding of US history and government” will be assessed.

Our immigration processes, at least as reflected on the ICA website, are rather underwhelming. Perhaps our policymakers, ever cautious about corruption and accusations of bias, have deliberately designed a process biased heavily towards objective measurements of economic contribution and academic prowess, while downplaying the qualitative aspects. But as Einstein, perhaps one of America’s most famous immigrants, reportedly wrote: “Not everything that counts can be counted, and not everything that can be counted counts.”

Singapore needs immigration. We accept and appreciate this reality. But we do not need indiscriminate immigration and immigrants who treat Singapore like a hotel and fellow Singaporeans as hotel staff.

We need immigrants who are “of this place” and our selection processes should be long and tough enough to find such people, even if some subjectivity is inevitable. If we spend twice as much, take thrice as long and finally get half the final numbers because we cannot find enough, so be it.

A pink identity card should be a rare privilege accorded to only those who are “of this place”.

Dr Jeremy Lim

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