Amidst rising concerns about the recent surge in the number of foreign workers in Singapore, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong highlighted on Sep. 15 the government’s assurances that “the interest of citizens will always come first.”
Lee told a crowd of over 1,500 people at the Nanyang Technological University (NTU) Ministerial Forum 2009 there would be a clearer and sharper distinction between citizens, permanent residents (PRs) and non-residents in terms of the benefits afforded to each group.
“Our immigration policy is to benefit Singaporeans, not foreigners,” said Lee.
However, Jonathan Lee, a fourth year NTU sociology undergraduate, feels this may result in a situation whereby foreigners and PRs take up citizenship to gain access to these benefits, only to leave a few years later without repaying Singapore.
“People may simply choose to take up citizenship for the citizen benefits, and leave before repaying the country, such as when it is time to do National Service,” he told the Observer.
Prime Minister Lee gave a tongue-in-cheek example of this during his 45-minute speech when he related a recent exchange with a PR who was seeking his help to attain citizenship. He asked the elderly woman during a Meet the People session why she wanted citizenship at her advanced age.
The reply, in Mandarin, Lee said was “Get citizenship, got money.”
Audrey Ong, a third year NUS Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences undergraduate, is not overly worried about this issue though.
“Before these foreign talents can become citizens, they would have been here for some time and thus already contributed in some way to Singapore,” she said.
Ong agreed that there needs to be a clear distinction between the groups, deeming that “there is no point in being a citizen otherwise if the benefits for both are the same.”
The topic of distinctions between citizens and non-citizens surfaced during the question and answer session when a doctoral student, who is a Chinese national and Singapore PR, asked Lee if the current rules on new HDB flat purchase could be relaxed for PRs like him.
Lee replied, “One PR, cannot buy flat. Two PRs, can buy resale flat. One PR and one citizen, can buy new (HDB) flat.”
This difference between the privileges afforded citizens and PRs in the purchase of government-subsidized housing, known as HDB – or housing development board – flats, reflects the “responsibilities and privileges of citizenship,” Lee said.
Singapore admits more than 100,000 immigrants per year, and has more than a million foreigners working here, taking jobs that “Singaporeans do not want” and to help “make up for (Singapore’s) low birth rates,” Lee said.
Karen Lee, a first-year NTU mathematics undergraduate, welcomes this move by the government to put Singaporeans first, and acknowledges the need for quality foreigners in Singapore.
“Singapore cannot do without these foreign talents and workers as they contribute greatly to our economy. However, the government has to screen these people carefully and choose only those with the quality to improve us even further,” she said.