Yawning Bread. August 2006

Selling immigration




One of the chief topics in Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong's National Day Rally speech (20 August 2006) was the need for foreign talent, and by extension, immigration.

Predictably, the Straits Times then annoyed me (and perhaps many others) by featuring "new Singaporeans" you know, happy nuclear families, doing well in life. More importantly, they all sang praises of Singapore: this is great, that is great and that's why I relocated my family here, and took up Singapore citizenship.

(I was recently reminded, in a recent conversation with a Straits Times journalist, that I had not used the word "Pavlovian" for a long time, so I shall use it again.)

This follow-up by the Straits Times was utterly Pavlovian. The more cynical among us would say that the newspaper takes its cue from the government, and as soon as the Prime Minister raises the subject of immigration, there is a headlong rush by its reporters and editors to write stories about immigration. More than merely addressing the same subject, the cynics would also say the aim of these stories is indistinguishable from the Prime Minister's, which is to sell the idea of an open-door policy to Singaporeans.

The more charitable might say it isn't as simple as that. The editors choose to do stories about new migrants and new citizens because currently, that's a newsworthy topic. But that only begs the question: why is it newsworthy? Is it because Singaporeans are clamouring to read about the subject, or because the Prime Minister headlined it in his speech?

If the latter and there is no evidence that there is any public clamour for stories on the subject then isn't it essentially the same explanation as the cynics'?

On a separate note, even if the Straits Times was out to help sell Lee's message, that is, do "national service", the question should be asked whether it did it well. I will argue that it did a dreadful job of it. Too many stories got sidetracked into praising Singapore. Like too much make-up on a face leading you to question the authenticity of the person behind it, the ego-boosting merely damaged the credibility of the reporting.


Moreover, there is the question of whether the message is relevant at all. How do you persuade Singaporeans to accept more newcomers by telling them that Singapore is such a good place to live?

Or is this just compulsive behaviour? That whenever anyone mentions Singapore in the newspaper, good things must be said about it, and laid on thick?

I think it is just embarrassing for the Straits Times to operate the way they do. They really should stop and ask themselves,

  1. By what yardstick do they judge newsworthiness of stories, and how does that meet its paying customers' expectations?
  2. For stories where the government has a policy position, how should they angle their reporting?

These are very basic questions, and it is disgraceful that they largely operate on auto-pilot on these points.

* * * * *

Rather than the media, it is the government and PAP Members of Parliament who should be the ones selling immigration. It's their policy proposal, after all. Alas, judging from Lee's speech, it's not a convincing sell. You can bet that other ministers and MPs will probably do an even more amateurish job of it.

The reason is obvious: this lot does not know how to sell, how to persuade. Recruited from the ranks of the elite, and floated into office, they may know how to wield power, but they have precious little experience winning support.

If Lee's speech is any indication, the argument will fail because to the layman, it remains abstract. It is couched in macro-economic terms. Singapore is short of babies. We need talent to keep the economy growing. Foreign talent is available. So we should admit more of them. It is good for Singapore. Therefore it is good for you.

Besides being too abstract, it suffers from two critical weaknesses.

  1. It fails to close the loop in the mind of the listener, Tan Ah Kow. So you say it's good for Singapore, but how does all this become good for me, he would ask? And find no answer.
  2. It fails to respond to his primary objection, which is the fear that foreigners will rob him of his job.

Our ministers and MPs must roll up their sleeves, wade into the crowds (yes, dispense with the protective shroud of party members and constituency volunteers who buffer you from the metaphorical pushing and shoving that is real engagement) and speak to the people on those terms.

Actually, it isn't all that difficult. The sales pitch must be predicated on two simple messages:

  1. Entrepreneurial foreigners who start companies can create jobs for you. The government has to find examples of companies created by new migrants and showcase the new jobs created and filled by Singaporeans.
    (This means that it should stop showcasing migrants who work as employees of Singapore companies! That's the exact opposite message!)
  2. The availability of a larger pool of foreign talent attracts foreign investment that might never land here.
    This is a more complicated argument than the one above. But one could use as an example (hypothetical here in this essay, but it shouldn't be in the real sales campaign) a foreign company wanting to set up an advanced manufacturing facility. Say it needs 40 50 experienced chemists, besides other lower-skilled workers. If it thinks it cannot find more than 15 20 such chemists among Singaporeans, then it won't come here, and these 15 20 won't even get those jobs. But if the company can find foreigners to top up it's human resource pool, then it will invest. However as I said, to sell effectively, the government must find real-life examples and showcase real Singapore employees of such new and talent-intensive investments. Hypothetical examples are not convincing.
It is possible that the intent of these stories is to persuade non-Singaporean readers of the newspaper that they too should consider taking up Singapore citizenship.

But even so, I'd question the wisdom of doing that, when there are more Singaporeans reading the newspaper than non-Singaporeans. For every reader you aim the message to, there may be 10 more you piss off.


Basically, the thrust has to be to show the layman how we depend on foreigners for our jobs, not how foreigners are rushing here to enjoy the good life. And the language used for this message must be down-to-earth, something that ordinary people can identify with.

Now that I've explained it to you, it sounds like little more than common sense, doesn't it? Yet, why didn't the Prime Minister adopt this kind of sales pitch? Why did the Straits Times, in its eagerness to cover "newsworthy" stories out of whatever motive it had, execute it in a manner that actually obstructs the selling?

I'll put it down to this: no political skills. Because everybody has had a cushy path into office.

* * * * *

You will discern from this article that I am pro-immigration. It shouldn't be news to anyone, because I have stated my position before in previous articles. I may not agree with all the operational details of the various migration schemes, but I am in broad agreement with the idea that immigration is good for Singapore.

This alone may come as a bit of a shock to a few readers. There is the assumption that because I am critical of many government policies, I am anti-everything.

A loyal opposition is never anti-everything, even though one vehemently disagrees with some things.

Yet, even as I am in agreement with immigration, you will find here that I am critical of the poor job that the government is doing in selling the idea. I attribute it to its selfish instinct to dominate the political landscape by fair means or foul.

But so long as the government has the power to change policy at will, what does it matter whether they can sell the idea or not? It matters. If it cannot convince Singaporeans that migrants should be welcomed, then there is a real risk that migrants will not be treated with courtesy and fairness when they are here, and then a bad reputation for the way we treat foreigners on a daily basis will impede our success in attracting and integrating them.

That is to say, even if the government has the power to ram an open-door policy down Singaporeans' throats, its failure to convince Singaporeans to adopt a welcoming attitude can undercut the benefits and effectiveness of the open-door policy. No government is so omnipotent as to control how individuals react to their foreign co-workers, how landlords view foreigners seeking to rent, how shopkeepers deal with new ethnic groups. If the ground sentiment remains adverse, I think Singapore will be poorer for that.

That's why political skills matter and this is one example of how the People's Action Party's obsession with maintaining its overwhelming dominance, thus atrophying its own political skills, is not in Singapore's best interests.

Yawning Bread 



Lee did mention on example of an immigrant who created jobs: Mustaq Ahmad, who founded Mustafa's, a major retailer.

Unfortunately, Lee showcased Mustaq, when he should have showcased an ordinary Singaporean employee. Don't showcase the rich foreigner. Showcase the ordinary bloke who benefitted from a inward migration of the entrepreneur.

This helps the audience identify better with the example.