PM Lee has a dream

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By Michael Y. P. Ang

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong is dreaming. He dreams of a Singapore recognised worldwide as a leading global city. Exactly how many Singaporeans identify with his dream? Nobody knows. What we do know: PM Lee wants Singapore to continue with the intake of immigrants.

Let’s be absolutely clear: No Singaporean is calling for zero immigration. It is the volume of immigration and the skill set of immigrants that are getting Singaporean hearts pumping, but not in a good way.

Speaking at the Lord Mayor’s Dinner in London last Thursday, PM Lee said all global cities rely on skilled immigrants to keep up and remain globally competitive. (His speech, a transcript of which is available on the Prime Minister’s Office website, can be viewed on YouTube.)

PM Lee said Singapore and London are “connected by an intertwined history”. However, there appears to be one pivotal difference in their approaches to building a global city. Singapore appears to lack quality control on the sort of immigrants the government welcomes. Has the Singapore government been using the word “talent” too loosely?

Britain’s approach to making London a global city

The way English football recruits foreign talent offers a glimpse into how the British government accepts global talent to keep the UK economic engine running optimally.

Not every one with the requisite skill set for even the English Premier League is granted a UK work permit. He must have played at least 75 per cent of his national team’s competitive international matches. Furthermore, his national team must be in the top 70 of the FIFA World Rankings.

In other words, to contribute to Britain, a foreigner must have proven himself in his own country and be valued outside his country. No foreigner is admitted for a role for which an equally qualified Briton is available. Clearly, the UK takes a very strict approach to admitting immigrant talent.

For instance, in Nov 2012 Queen Elizabeth II approved the appointment of Canadian Mark Carney as Governor of the Bank of England, making him the first non-Briton to run UK’s central bank. But Carney is no ordinary foreign talent.

A Harvard- and Oxford-educated economist, Carney is credited with shielding Canada from the worst effects of the global financial crisis that began in September 2008, while governing Canada’s central bank. Furthermore, he can fairly easily assimilate into English society, having lived in England before and being married to an Englishwoman.

To show how much he values integration, Carney even confirmed on Britain’s Channel 4 News last November that he would take up British citizenship after meeting the residency requirement, a commitment he had made to the British PM when Carney accepted the British job offer the previous year.

Singapore’s approach to building a global city

On the other hand, Singapore’s experience with immigration in the 21st century has been rather negative. Sadly, the way Singapore recruits foreign footballers seemingly reflects the Republic’s experience with certain immigrants.

The typical S-League foreign player has no clue what it is like to play in his own country’s top or even second-tier league. No wonder S-League clubs, when swimming in the deep waters of Asia’s club competitions, still struggle to hold their breath.

Strangely, the Football Association of Singapore (FAS) seems to fall head over heels for some of these foreign players. No fewer than 11, enough to form a team, have donned the Lions jersey since 2002. Apart from Aleksandar Duric, born in the former Yugoslavia, I am hardly impressed by the rest.

For instance, Englishmen Daniel Bennett and John Wilkinson have never even played in England’s top two tiers of league football. Bennett played a few games for third-tier Wrexham in 2001-02, before the team was relegated. So he spent 2002-03 in England’s fourth-tier league. Wilkinson has only played for fourth-tier Exeter City.

Asia’s leading footballing nations have players earning their living in Europe’s top-tier leagues. Yet the FAS is targeting to be in Asia’s top 10 by next year, even though it had allowed former coach Raddy Avramović to build our national team, from 2003 to 2012, around a core group of foreign-born players incapable of competing with Asia’s leading teams.

Is the government similarly accepting immigrants who are redundant in our economy, thinking they can help Singapore become a global city?

Does Singapore’s appalling football situation remind anyone of a company that hires foreign employees who may be articulate and seemingly make business presentations confidently, but essentially possess inadequate knowledge to perform their duties professionally, forcing their Singaporean colleagues to pick up the slack?

The mere fact that a foreign white-collar worker has overseas experience does not necessarily make him more valuable than his Singaporean counterpart.

A truly global city is not just about high GDP growth. Squeezing as many people as physically possible into a city to increase economic growth is not the answer Singaporeans are seeking. I hope the government will not be overly zealous in its drive to make Singapore a global city, to the extent it overlooks flaws in its immigration system.

Despite government efforts against it, are we still seeing foreigners who are filling up jobs for which available Singaporeans, even those over 40, are equally or adequately qualified?

What will the government do if an immigrant, even a highly skilled one, has shown that he is undesirable for Singaporean society by openly insulting Singaporeans or worse, committing a crime, especially a violent one like attacking a taxi driver? Should the government revoke his permanent resident status or Employment Pass, or simply close an eye to his indiscretions?

There are many issues PM Lee needs to iron out. I wish him the best, but only if his policies will create the optimal scenario for the largest-possible number of Singaporeans.

For the sake of our nation, I hope PM Lee doesn’t wake up from his dream to a nightmarish Singapore in the future.