Bryan Caplan  

The Singaporean Path to Cosmopolitanism

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Singapore has one of the most open immigration polices in the world.  But these policies do not currently enjoy popular support.  According to the World Values Survey, Singaporeans seem more anti-immigration than Americans:
Only 4% of Singaporeans favour open borders, and just 24% are willing to admit immigrants "as long as jobs [are] available"; the comparable numbers in the United States are 12.4% and 44.8%...
Fortunately, Singaporean elites are very pro-immigration, and the Singaporean electorate treats their elites with great deference.  Hence the Singaporean government's official long-run plan:
Foreigners now make up about 38 percent of the total population of 5.3 million. In 1990, that figure was 14 percent, when the total population was around 3 million.

Last year, a government policy paper called for the population to increase a further 30 percent by 2030, to 6.9 million, at which time immigrants would account for nearly half of the island's population.
Contrary to popular mythology, Singapore is a democracy.  It's conceivable that populist pressures will reverse Singapore's cosmopolitan course, as in Switzerland.  But I'll bet against it.  As immigration keeps rising, so will the social pressure against nativist complaining.  Deprived of social support, nativist sentiment will atrophy as well.  By the time Singaporean natives become a minority in their own country, nativist hold-outs won't lament "the country they lost."  They'll be too busy pretending they were never nativists in the first place.



COMMENTS (20 to date)
Amelanchier writes:

How many of those foreign-born residents are citizens with voting rights? Not many, I'll warrant. There are lots of other places where the foreign-born make up an even higher proportion of the population - UAE, Bahrain, Qatar, Bermuda, Cayman Islands, Andorra, etc. - but what's interesting is that all of them have extremely strict citizenship (and even land ownership) policies.

simon... writes:

Not sure about your "bet". I've met too many anti-immigrant immigrants...

vikingvista writes:

"Singapore is a democracy. It's conceivable that populist pressures will reverse Singapore's cosmopolitan course, as in Switzerland. But I'll bet against it. As immigration keeps rising, so will the social pressure against nativist complaining."

What you are saying, it seems, is that if the pro-immigration plans of the Singaporean elites is to succeed, it will be in spite of democracy, and because of popular sentiment--two very different things.

Likewise, wasn't the open borders of the USA 100 years ago really only possible because of the *impotence* of democracy wielding only a small centralized state?

Democracy is rule mostly by the leaders of the most politically influential and intensely interested factions, and the most politically influential will tend to be both established and nativist. Democracy will never tend to favor competition with nativists. Or at least state democracy will not.

mbka writes:

Bryan, I'm sorry but like all your posts mentioning Singapore, this post comes across as blissfully uninformed about the real issues. You are taking tiny bits and pieces of information out of context to construct support for your favorite themes. I suppose that's what blogging is often about, only see what you want to see, but I just don't know what to make of this kind of post. Let me try a spoof of what you wrote, replacing the issues with some recent Americana:

"The US has some of the world's highest health care spending. This illustrates the top quality of the US health care system. Recently, the American Care Act was implemented with great support by the US populace. Naysayers there sure were, but luckily the US elites prevailed in implementing universal health care, a system that will bring the benefit of high cost, and thus, high value, healthcare to all Americans."

You see, the bits and pieces aren't all wrong (although some are). And taken together, it sure doesn't sound right.

Terra writes:

I'm curious. For those of you complaining about the inequity in Singapore, would you rather be poor in Singapore, or would you rather live in Malaysia?

Thomas Boyle writes:

The history of both the United States and Australia would suggest that you're wrong. The children of immigrants will be nativists, who oppose immigration.

Finch writes:

How does one look at this knowing something about Singapore's birth rate, and not think "This is a society in it's death throes?" This is what the death of a nation looks like. Personally, I find the birth rate more troubling than the immigration policy. One leads to the other. And their apparent inability to turn the birth rate decline around is frightening.

It's a relief for the rest of the world, and perhaps the ruling elite, that somebody else is going to occupy the buildings and keep the companies going, I suppose.

gwern writes:

So, in the country with the most open policies and hence with the most experience about open borders, the population almost to a man despises the policy. Fascinating.

Fortunately, Singaporean elites are very pro-immigration, and the Singaporean electorate treats their elites with great deference...Contrary to popular mythology, Singapore is a democracy.

How does one distinguish between an authoritarian pseudo-democracy and a genuine democracy which 'treats their elites with great deference'?

Jeff writes:

Singapore's elite might be happy to have all these immigrant workers, but the immigrants may not be terribly happy with Singapore's elite. Here's a story about an ethnic riot that took place there in December:

http://guardianlv.com/2013/12/little-india-riot-highlights-ethinic-divide-in-singapore/

For everyone's sake, I hope this "path to cosmopolitanism" doesn't get any bumpier.

MikeP writes:

It's a relief for the rest of the world, and perhaps the ruling elite, that somebody else is going to occupy the buildings and keep the companies going, I suppose.

"Singaporean" is not a race, ethnicity, people, or even a long-lived nation. It is, much like "American", a cosmopolitan idea that does not require that one be born in a certain place or to a certain people in order to exercise it.

I don't think that the rest of the world or the ruling elite will mind in the least that Singaporeans a century hence won't be descended from Singaporeans today. The idea is what matters.

Finch writes:

> "Singaporean" is not a race, ethnicity, people,
> or even a long-lived nation.

Would the point be different if it was? I don't think it matters how the group came to be defined. The group is failing.

> I don't think that the rest of the world or the
> ruling elite will mind in the least that
> Singaporeans a century hence won't be descended
> from Singaporeans today.

Yeah, I agree. But if you are Singaporean, it's critical.

MikeP writes:

But if you are Singaporean, it's critical.

Why?

Should Americans of 1830 have been worried about all the Irish, Italians, and Poles who were going to be the Americans of 1930? Should I be worried about all the Latin Americans, Chinese, and Indians who are going to be the Americans of 2114?

Finch writes:

> Should Americans of 1830 have been worried about
> all the Irish, Italians, and Poles who were going
> to be the Americans of 1930?

Not at all. They should have been worried about what would happen to them and their kids. Just as Singaporeans should.

James A. Donald writes:

Difference is that Singapore is encouraging high IQ immigration. Low IQ immigrants get the Dubai treatment.

Thus, Singaporean natives are not going to become a market dominant minority, therefore less likely to be exterminated or ethnically cleansed than white Americans.

Tom West writes:

Finch: "death throes"

Oh brother.

The fact that pretty much any society with a modern industrial standard of living and decent human rights for women has a birth rate below the replacement does *not* mean that society is in its "death throes".

We'll have several thousand years to worry about the future before mankind 'disappears', so stop hyperventilating and accept that when people actually have a meaningful choice about how they run their lives, it won't always line up with exactly what you (or I) want.

After all, that's pretty much the definition of freedom.

Chandran writes:

I think this post is a bit simplistic. It's important to ask what it is that Singaporeans are objecting to, because it's not just immigration per se. A greater part of their concern is the composition of the immigrants, which is substantially shaped by government policy. That policy is not an open immigration policy but a carefully engineered immigration policy. The population is not particularly nativist. If anything, one could argue that the government is more so because it is greatly encouraging immigration from China. Though Singaporeans have no particular prejudice against Chinese, since they are predominantly Chinese themselves, they are bothered by the controlled influx of mainland Chinese whose English language skills are limited and who are culturally very different. I suspect that many Singaporeans object more to the engineering than to the immigration. Singapore is indeed a democracy, as are Switzerland, Ukraine, and Russia in their different ways. Not too much should be made of this, since it tells you only a little about how it is governed.

John Smith writes:

As a Singaporean with an economics education (only a economics minor, but with the flagship state university), I side with the ruling elite.

Those who oppose the elite are for the most part a bunch of economically illiterate rabble. As for those who have economically literate arguments that are primarily centred around social sentiments, I understand but do not necessarily agree with them.

But for the most part, the opposition are the former, i.e. rabble, and not the latter.

Finch writes:

@Tom West

Fair enough. Clearly I'm projecting. If people like me were dying out at the rate Singaporeans are dying out, I would be alarmed for my kids. After all, my kids are people kind of like me and they don't inherit my bubble. I'm not Singaporean; the loss of Singapore doesn't really affect me if someone else takes up their productivity and does so without subtracting from somewhere else. It's sad, but it's not really my problem.

FWIW, the Singaporeans don't have thousands of years to solve their problem. I anticipate in most societies, evolution will solve this problem and we'll be back at high birth rates long before "thousands of years." Jason Collins has modeled and published about this. But it doesn't seem like Singapore is diverse enough for this to save them.

John Strong writes:

They have a smart health system too.

Minhu writes:

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