Bryan Caplan  

Lee Kuan Yew's Immigration Contradiction

Carrying Hyman Minsky's Torch... AP econ quiz...
Singapore is relatively open to immigration.  But Lee Kuan Yew has no apparent sympathy for the Vietnamese boat people:
In the weeks before Saigon fell, a huge armada of small boats and ships packed with refugees set out across the South China Sea, many headed for Singapore... I signalled that we should refuse them landing and get them to move on to countries with more space to receive them.  A massive exercise started on 6 May.  The Singapore Armed Forces repaired, refitted, reprovisioned, and sent out to sea a total of 64 vessels carrying more than 8,000 refugees.  Many of the captains of these vessels had deliberately disabled their engines to avoid being sent off.
Well, maybe this was just another example of Lee's "pragmatism."  But amazingly, he is more than open to the possibility that Hong Kong and Taiwan greatly benefited from their communism-induced refugee "problems":
Unlike Hong Kong we did not have a million and a half refugees from the mainland.  Perhaps if we had, and with them had come some of the best entrepreneurs and the most industrious, resourceful, and energetic people, we would have gained that extra cutting edge.  Indeed, a similar refugee inflow from the mainland in 1949 also helped Taiwan.  Without it, Taiwan would not have had the top talent that had governed China until 1949... When all this happened in 1949, I did not understand the importance of talent, especially entrepreneurial talent, and that trained talent is the yeast that transforms a society and makes it rise.
Maybe Lee would resolve the paradox by saying, in effect, "Chinese refugees are high quality; Vietnamese refugees are low quality."  But many of the boat people were ethnically Chinese. In any case, the success of Vietnamese refugees in the U.S. make a big ethnic distinction look like simple prejudice. 

Lee's best defense, I guess, would be that democracy tied his hands.  Electoral constraints left him no choice but to shoo away thousands of talented refugees to face the terrors of the high seas.  After all, he also tells us that:
A competitive, winner-take-all society, like colonial Hong Kong in the 1960s, would not be acceptable in Singapore.  A colonial government does not have to face elections every five years; the Singapore government did.
It's no surprise, then, that Hong Kong was far more open to refugees from communist Vietnam.  Once again, a "winner-take-all society" also turns out to be the most humanitarian in the ways that really count.

Comments and Sharing

COMMENTS (9 to date)
david writes:

Rejecting immigrants who intend to stay seems entirely in keeping with Singapore's immigration policy. Many 'immigrants' are merely guest workers, sent home when their employment ends. Actual immigrants are heavily skewed towards 'foreign talent' - whatever the EDB thinks might be desirable.

It's plausible that democracy ties the PAP's hands now, but in 1975 the power of the Lee and the PAP was near total in Singapore. And immigration policy, even today, is still far from popular.

Kurbla writes:

Well, dictatorship is always ugly. Even if one can imagine "soft" dictatorship it is very unstable position. Once resistance starts, supported by majority, and with no channels for peaceful resolution all demonstrations, strikes, attacks tend to succeed. The society cannot progress well and leans toward brutality or revolution. Such instability doomed Hong Kong for a long time and was at its height in 1967; bombs, murders, abolished freedom of speech - until China decided that Soviets are their main problem, and it is not worth to fight with Brits about soon-to-be-their Hong Kong and Zhou Enlai silenced local (Hong Kong) communists.

If Hong Kong really had open borders, and China was malevolent ... it wouldn't be very nice place to live.

Jason Malloy writes:

"But many of the boat people were ethnically Chinese. In any case, the success of Vietnamese refugees in the U.S. make a big ethnic distinction look like simple prejudice."

The human capital of Vietnamese people is a bit of a question mark. Thai, Cambodian, Lao, and Hmong people from Indochina are fairly low IQ, but the bordering area of Southeast China (where Lee and most Singaporeans trace their origin) is perhaps the smartest region in the entire world. IQ data for Vietnamese immigrants in a few countries is pretty good, but I don't know if they were boat people.

I am not aware of US outcome data for what are unambiguously the non-Chinese boat people.

Jason Malloy writes:

And, a "winner-take-all" society that doesn't shrewdly ensure there are a critical mass of winners, will rapidly orient itself towards the interests of the losers. Lee is one of the vanishingly few leaders who gets this.

That may result in some overly-cautious or bad decisions along the way, but if you value a certain kind of society, it seems worth it to me.

Jason Malloy writes:

And here's a frustrating observation; when you create/sustain a winner society everyone will praise your leadership, even if your methods are antithetical to their ideology. This is because people instinctively reject HBD, and assume government is responsible for the economy.

So if you're a ruthless, xenophobic capitalist autocrat who maintains a society where a critical mass has the genetic willingness and ability to work hard and learn difficult, useful skills; the world will look at that functional, orderly society and feel obliged to praise its leadership. They will praise you regardless if they are socialists or open-border libertarians. Everyone wants to associate with winners.

But if you are a big-hearted, democratic leader who lets in every sad immigrant or refugee, then everyone in the world will look at how poor and dysfunctional your nation is, and they will blame you for it. They will curse you for your loser society, and blame your leadership and your policies for "causing" the poverty (including the very immigrants you let in; they will blame you for their condition!).

Lee Kuan Yew knows that he can be a xenophobic dictator and good Libertarians like Dr. Caplan will fall in line and praise him, and pretend he shares their views, and apologize for him anyway! (He must have had his hands tied... that's it.)

Evan writes:

Jason, I'm not quite sure I understand the third paragraph of your post, are you implying letting in immigrants would make a country poorer? That flies in the face of everything I've ever learned about economics (although admittedly, I'm self-taught in that regard). Generally, having more people to do work makes countries richer, as per Say's Law as I understand it. For example, Mexico has about 1/3 of the U.S.'s population, so if every person in Mexico emigrated to the U.S., the U.S.'GDP would probably increase by 33%. I'd love to be 33% richer, so I'm naturally rather upset at the anti-immigration lobby (and before anyone mentions Aztlan or MEChA, as far as I can tell, those people are a few isolated nuts. Worrying about them influencing Mexican immigrants is about as rational as worrying about the Pope influencing Catholic immigrants. They'd probably have even less influence if the U.S. was more open to Hispanic immigrants).

Arguments about I.Q., genetics, and race might be true, but regardless of whether or not they are, they're completely irrelevant. Low I.Q. immigrants who free up high-I.Q. natives to do high-I.Q. jobs have the same economic impact as as high-I.Q. immigrants who take a high-I.Q. jobs directly.

Jason Malloy writes:

Evan, there is a ton of debate about this in old EconLog comment sections, it's probably best to search function "immigration" and read through those threads, rather than repeating much here. But, yes, low human capital immigrants lower economic development, living standards, etc. National IQ is a much stronger determinate of economic conditions than population size. Compare Nigeria and Iceland.

But there is another sense the third paragraph is true as well: the low IQ immigrants will be richer, in an absolute sense, in the rich country than they were in their old country, and generally the first generation immigrants will realize this -- that they are being elevated by the new country environment. But their new country-born descendants don't realize this, and believe their low relative station in the society is because they are being held back (instead of greatly advanced) by the social conditions, relative to their human capital.

They will blame the society and specific groups and people in that society for their condition, and the wider world will blame the society and groups and individuals in that society for the inequality. Nations are morally indicted by the world community for having higher levels of inequality, especially when it cuts across ethnic lines.

The morally "generous" end up being morally condemned, and that's how history will remember them. Capitalist nations are more influential to poor nations when they minimize their inequality and maximize their development, and thus people in poor nations will be helped more if we keep them out. Poor nations are more likely to copy the economic policies of winner countries.

Kurbla writes:

Jason, great analysis.

Nish writes:

A "winner-take-all society" also turns out to be the most humanitarian in the ways that really count.

I agree, Europeans may sneer at the meagre welfare benefits in the US, but the meaness of the welfare state make possible politically to keep an open for the huddled masses from the world to come and improve their lot. On the other hand the lofty sounding Europeans have to shut their doors in face of the poor to keep their welfare budgets from going bust.

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