A brief spell of rioting by low-skilled Indian migrant workers in Singapore has once again brought to the fore questions on integration and social harmony —– an issue haunting many countries such as the UK, Germany and Italy.
Early this year, citizens of this island-nation vehemently opposed in large numbers a White Paper proposed by the government to enhance the population to 6.9 million by 2030, from the current 5.4 million.
The proposal was based on the fact that the country has been registering a below-replacement level fertility rate for several years and the proportion of the ageing population is estimated to be high from 2020 onwards. Hence, other means to attain a steady increase in the population, and to ensure economic productivity were focused on, i.e. to encourage migration by 15,000 to 25,000 immigrants per year and to attract Singaporean expatriates back to their home country.
However, the idea of encouraging migration at such a high rate was rejected by the resident population. Among other things, they felt threatened by the presence of large numbers of foreign workers on the streets. It was argued that such large-scale migration would dilute the nation’s cultural identity. Concerns were also raised with regard to increasing pressure on public spaces and infrastructure.
Too many guests Singapore’s economic growth in the last three decades has been attributed to a number of factors, namely, a conducive business atmosphere, strategic location of port and container terminals, democratic but centralised governance, among others. It has also effectively utilised migrant labour in the oil refining and construction sectors.
However, the proportion of guest workers to the resident population has been steadily increasing, whereas the required cultural give-and-take has not been happening at the same pace. This was the major cause behind the recent unrest, although the trigger was a bus accident that killed an Indian migrant worker on December 8. Inequality in economic entitlements must also have played its part in brewing discontent among the migrants. Of the 5.4 million population in Singapore, 1.55 million (28.8 per cent) are non-residents.
A worker in a low-skilled category earns on average $7,200, which is around six times lower than the gross national per capita income which is $42,930. In addition, options for healthcare coverage and better housing for guest workers are limited. Most of these workers live single and rely mostly on mobile phones and the internet to keep in touch with family and friends back home.
It is not hard to find people who have traded an active political past in India for a job in this city-state. The provision of absentee voting in their home country has not reached them. Thus, many have missed opportunities to register their mandate in elections in their home country.
This lack of say in the socio-political issues of both home and host countries could weaken the democratic disposition workers might have attained during their formative pre-migration phase.
Communication technology has helped workers keep abreast of happenings in their home country. Opinion leaders among them even canvass for their candidates by phone at the time of elections in the home country. However, there is little creative use of communication technology.
The author’s own research shows that original content is hardly posted on social media platforms, due mainly to limited freedom of expression in the country of their current residence, and due to the lack of time and opportunity to be involved in matters related to the public.
In short, while Indian expatriates in the UK and US take to the streets to show their protest or support to governmental policies back home, or to express solidarity with social movements, no migrant worker demonstrates in Singapore.
Bridging the divide In order to achieve proper integration of Indian migrants into Singaporean society, measures must be taken by both migrant-sending and -receiving countries.
Firstly, these workers should not be viewed as cheap labour, they must be given proper opportunities to develop their skills and advance their careers. Social media platforms may be utilised, with proper content regulations agreed upon between the home and host countries in order to allow workers to express their opinion on matters affecting their lives.
Moreover, in the era of rapid advances in communication technology, measures should be adopted to bridge the divide that occur due to lack of financial resources, technology skills and motivation among the underprivileged sections of migrants.
The different kinds of deprivation are often connected — non-residency is linked to lack of advanced professional skills, which is related to cultural marginalisation and falling behind in communication technology adoption and use.
Only by addressing these divides in a holistic manner can migrants’ lives be improved; unnecessary tension between migrants and the resident population be avoided.
(The author is a Ph.D. student at Nanyang Technological University, Singapore.)