Should Singapore adopt a “freedom of movement” policy for its citizens to thrive in today’s globalized world?

Flight Arrival in Zurich, Switzerland

This 3000-word essay was a submission piece for the author’s social science module in university. It explores possible governmental policies and their implications, with the goal of helping citizens of Singapore thrive in an ever inner-connected world.

Introduction & Definitions

Former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan once told an audience of non-governmental organizations in the 2000 UN Millennium Summit, “arguing against globalization is like arguing against laws of gravity.” This interpretation of globalization as an unavoidable natural process has largely prevailed in the decades since. Today, even the most secluded communities have experienced some sort of interaction with the rest of the world. In the context of this essay, globalization refers to both “the increase in transborder interactions, relations, and flows” as well as “the emergence and evolution of globali, planetary-scale institutions” (Modelski, cited in Zinkina et al., p. 9). Hence, a globalized world in this case would describe the interconnected communities that we reside in. While much of academia remains divergent on the definition and conceptualization of “thriving”, the term will be defined as the “joint experience of development and success” (Brown et al., 2017, p. 179) for the facilitation of discussion. Consequently, for Singaporeans to thrive in today’s globalized world would mean the perpetuation of their well-being and economic opportunity. In the recent whirlwind of political developments, a worrying trend of selective openness among nations has surfaced, endangering the furtherance of globalization. The implications have reached far and wide, but more importantly, it has inhibited the ability of Singapore and its citizens to thrive. In this essay, I will explore the local and global contexts behind the current state of affairs, before discussing why the “freedom of movement of workers” policy is the best way forward in re-enabling prosperity for the citizens of Singapore.

Global Context

The characteristics of globalization have always been reciprocatory in nature — its benefits are reaped only when all parties agree in both practice and principle. This phenomenon is evident especially when economic sanctions are involved; without the concurrence of all other sovereignties, the impact of such actions remains perpetually limited. In a similar fashion, free trade deals only benefit nations when all parties involved agree to abide by the agreements set forth. Hence it is undeniable that in today’s globalized world, outward-facing policies are only effective when other nations concur unreservedly. This is the reality of our interconnected world and as a role model for cosmopolitanism, Singapore is especially vulnerable to winds of change on the international stage. The emergence of a global pandemic and economic recession has therefore been counterproductive to her interests, as nations are now increasingly cautious in their attitude towards globalization — adopting an approach that is sluggish, selective, and often accompanied by a dash of nationalism and regionalism (Bremmer, 2014, p. 103–107).

Local Context

Singapore has always relied extensively on human capital to attract business and investments, leading to a cycle of immigration as people all around the world seek fortune and opportunities in the nation-state. This “brain gain” is the magnum opus of the government’s strategy in ensuring economic competitiveness, which has undoubtedly proven itself to be wildly successful in the past few decades. However, the growing popularity of “guarded” globalization threatens the validity of this model — economic stagnation being one of the many worrying signs. In 2019, Singapore’s gross domestic product (GDP) only grew by 0.7 percent, the slowest pace since 2008’s global financial crisis. Authorities subsequently predicted a GDP growth of 0.5 to 2.5 percent in 2020, but these figures have since been revised to between “-7.0 to -5.0 percent” as a result of the COVID-19 induced economic recession. Singapore’s economy has only begun experiencing the consequences of a global slowdown, many citizens will soon face increased risks of unemployment and financial uncertainty as the pandemic continues to loom over much of the world. Despite the bleak outlook in both the local and global, opportunists know Singapore currently stands at a pivotal crossroad in policymaking. The decisions now may very well determine our future in decades to come — will our nation bounce back stronger than ever before or will we fade into obscurity?

Proposition

The post-COVID-19 era will unequivocally leave nations wary of international travel and migration. This effect coupled with existing policy trends (such as that of the US-China trade relation) may suggest a protectionist renaissance, but the reality remains on the contrary as fences continue to be torn down between many other countries (albeit slower than before). In fact, several major trade agreements such as the 11-country strong Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP) were signed as recently as 2018. While Singapore’s immigration-centric labor policies have always been welcoming of foreign workers, it is now more important than ever to create these same opportunities for her own citizens. As a cosmopolitan nation-state, these new policies should be founded on the ideals of multilateralism and international cooperation instead of conventional navel-gazing. With this in mind, I believe the Singapore government should actively adopt a “freedom of movement of workers” policy (akin to that of the European Union) with select nations to provide additional avenues for our citizens to thrive in a post-pandemic globalized world.

Before we delve into its viability, it is paramount to discuss what a free movement policy entails and how it has performed in the context of existing multilateral agreements (specifically a regional union). The “freedom of movement of workers” policy was first established in Europe based on the principles of “mobility rights” in the aftermath of World War II. The motivation for its implementation was rooted in hopes of economic recovery for participating nation-states through the free movement of labor. During the post-war period, citizens from the newly formed European Union (EU) could fill job vacancies in the different member states, which benefited all parties involved — unemployment fell and industries began their recovery with additional manpower. The modern iteration of this policy chapter still holds true to its beginnings as EU law edicts that “nationals of any member states may be employed in another member state under identical conditions equivalent to their home nation” (Official Journal of the European Union, 2016). In 2015, a special report by the European Court of Auditors detailed that almost 4% of the entire EU-28 population ( over 11 million people) are long-term beneficiaries of this labor mobility clause. Hence, the introduction of a “freedom of movement of workers” policy has undoubtedly provided livelihood to many Europeans in the past and present. While the perks of labor mobility are undeniable, the advent of guarded globalization and a growing economic disparity between EU member states (along the east-west axis) has also led to an intensification of nationalism support. Lega Nord, a right-wing populist party in Italy perfectly demonstrates the changes in sentiment among Europeans as they enjoyed an increase in votes of over 550% between the 2014 and 2019 European Parliament elections, becoming Italy’s most popular political party (European Parliament, 2019). Although these ramifications may seem daunting, they play a salient role in the policymaking process for Singapore — an opportunity to learn from the shortcomings of others. With a better understanding of labor mobility and its impact, we can now move on to discuss the feasibility of adopting such a policy in the context of Singapore.

Analysis

The most fundamental benefit of a labor mobility policy lies in its ability to generate additional economic opportunities both locally and abroad. Since the advent of a pandemic-induced economic downturn, a surplus of new graduates and job lay-offs have skyrocketed unemployment numbers in Singapore. The provision of an emigration option will hence alleviate the pressure on Singapore’s ailing economy while simultaneously improving the prospects of the newly unemployed. Colloquially referred to as “brain circulation”, the circular movement of skilled labor across nations can do wonders for a nation. When these migrants return to their home countries, they can contribute through a myriad of avenues — improving human capital, finance capital, and social norms among many other areas. This strategy also contributes to the grooming of global citizenry, which is a key element of the Singaporean national identity. Tan Min-Liang, co-founder and chief executive of consumer electronic brand Razer exemplifies the notion of “brain circulation”. As an NUS Law graduate with a keen interest in the gaming industry, Tan worked with like-minded individuals abroad and incorporated Razer in San Diego, California over a decade ago. Throughout the years as his business grew, he actively contributed to Singapore’s reputation as a global hub. Today, Tan is a board member of the Intellectual Property Office in Singapore and the youngest self-made Singaporean billionaire. His success story is not unique, and the government’s introduction of a “freedom of movement of workers” policy can help establish a framework for citizens to thrive in a globalized world.

In addition to generating economic opportunities abroad for Singapore citizens, a labor mobility policy can improve the welfare of the nations involved. Despite Singapore’s claims of being cosmopolitan, employment policies in the status quo show otherwise as groups of foreign workers continue to be treated differently. This systematic prejudice against certain workers contradicts the cosmopolitan image of Singapore and inevitably fuels preconceptions of certain races within a colonial frame of reference (Yeoh, 2004, pg. 2441). As a multiracial society, such biases damage our social fabric and worsen the welfare of minority groups. By replacing conventional immigration policies with a labor mobility agreement, we allow the free labor market (where employers compete for the best workers) to determine employment opportunities regardless of race or socioeconomic background. This integration of human commerce between nations also promotes peace as “commerce cures destructive prejudices, and it is an almost general rule that everywhere there are gentle mores, there is commerce and that everywhere there is commerce, there are gentle mores” (Montesquieu, 1914, p. 338). This is the first crucial step the government can take towards mitigating welfare impacts caused by existing immigration policies. Academic research conducted by various reputable institutions has also shown that both immigration and emigration can increase the welfare of all countries involved by up to 10%. These improvements in well-being come in two main forms: the first, when migrants move from a low-labor productivity country to one with higher productivity, which affects the migrants themselves and those at home (through remittances). The second, when an inflow of migrants increases the size of the labor force, increasing the mass of varieties available for consumption and as intermediate inputs (di Giovanni, 2015, p.26–27). Taking these factors into account, the labor mobility policy has proven itself to be a good candidate in enabling Singapore citizens to thrive through the dual-benefit of economic opportunity and improved national well-being.

Although the economic benefits may be indisputable, critics have raised a common discourse about the limited integration of transnational businessmen in their new homes. These critics argue that many immigrants work in limited areas and often form expatriate enclaves as they struggle to establish business overseas, ultimately retreating to “ethnic enclave economics” (Ley, 2004). This trend of negentropy is present in many different migrant groups as humans are often attracted to familiarity. During the mass exodus that occurred at the end of the Vietnam war in 1975, over 125,000 people left South Vietnam for the United States to escape communist reprisal and economic regression. Initially, the American government attempted to distribute these new asylum seekers throughout the country to facilitate their assimilation, but their efforts remain insubstantial as enclave communities formed anyway — creating businesses in “Little Saigon”. A major cause of this phenomenon stems from the perception of non-whites as second-class citizens, which remained a widespread sentiment among the American population despite racial reforms in the 1960s. As such, many immigrants of the 20th century found it difficult to fully integrate into the new society they reside in. This limited integration as critics assert, detriments the well-being of immigrants and impedes their opportunity to thrive.

Yet, the proliferation of technological innovations and changing migration trends in the 21st century speak of a different story. In this day and age, the ethos of cosmopolitanism — now a cultural habitus of globalization (Ang, 2001) is commonly accepted as a part of life in large cities around the world. Despite cultural differences, modern transnational businessmen have evolved considerably — allowing them to thrive despite the lack of familiarity and comfort found in their home countries. These economic migrants may continue to congregate with fellow expatriates, but their well-beings are no longer threatened by the extent of integration abroad or defined by the company around them. The advent of a counterculture “global nomad” lifestyle epitomizes this new adaptability found in working professionals as they constantly move between borders, seeking happiness and individual well-being instead of traditional materialism (Kannisto, 2016). As the world continues to become more interconnected through advancements in information and communication technologies, cosmopolitanism and its associated lifestyles will continue its growth in popularity among the younger generations, eventually leading to a paradigm where well-beings and opportunities surpass contemporary geographical barriers. With the considerations of such implications, it is prudent for Singapore to introduce labor mobility policies now as the youth continues to explore what it means to be a global citizen.

Limitations

Some critics have also argued that the freedom of movement of workers between Singapore and select nations can potentially cause social divisions that are detrimental to globalization. This sentiment is founded in the fear that workers from less economically developed nations may “undercut wages and take away jobs”, leading to the rise of xenophobia and ethnocentrism among local populations. While not the sole factor in the United Kingdom’s decision to leave the EU, areas that experienced an increase of over 200% in foreign-born population between 2001 and 2014 saw an overwhelming majority of voters back “leave” in 94% of cases during the 2016 EU membership referendum (The Economist, 2016). In response to the “leave” majority, the UK government invoked Article 50 for the nation’s formal withdrawal from the EU in 2020. Although correlation does not imply causation, this statistic demonstrates how local sentiments can be shaped by immigration. Critics have hence concluded that indeed, an absolutely free labor mobility policy is beneficial for a nation’s cultural flow, but it comes at the expense of social stability as prejudice grooms divisiveness within a country’s population.

While the concerns raised by these critics are valid in the context of the EU, they do not necessarily provide a substantiated point of reference for Singapore. A key fallacy in this comparison stems from how the policy is implemented. In the EU, the “freedom of movement of workers” policy is founded on a framework that includes all member states based on geographical boundaries and irrespective of economic disparities. Singapore on the other hand has a “freedom of choice” to build partnerships with select nations. This enables the government to work with strong economies, providing favorable working conditions for all parties involved. Through this arrangement, social divisions caused by the “undercutting of wages and stealing of jobs” are mitigated as fair wages and employment opportunities for locals will still remain within arm’s reach. Ultimately, Singapore’s adoption of a labor mobility policy comes as the best version of compromise between economic prosperity and social stability. The prejudices outlined above are often found beyond the realm of job security and can never truly be eliminated in a cosmopolitan society even with transnational labour mobility out of the question.

Conclusion

The advent of a pandemic has left much of the world with debilitated economies and growing uncertainties. While much of the future remains unpredictable, analysts suggest that the global economy may take years before returning to its original trajectory. During this process, many countries may still choose to remain selective in their openness to ensure a smooth transition to the “new normal”, but more importantly to avoid the resurgence of yet another public health crisis. This “guarded” form of globalization in a post-COVID-19 era threatens the recovery and prosperity of cosmopolitan nation-states as trade and commerce continue to dwindle.

As a consequence of Singapore’s open market economy and heavy reliance on human capital, the slowdown of globalization has exacerbated financial uncertainties and unemployment among her citizens — causing harm to their ability to thrive. Today, many local businesses are propped up by the government’s stimulus package as a means of survival. In order to re-enable Singaporeans to thrive in today’s globalized world, the government needs to take a firm and prudent approach through the implementation of a “freedom of movement of workers” policy with select nations. Not only will this alleviate pressure on our labor markets, but the new economic opportunities may also equip citizens with additional experiences and skills which would have been otherwise unattainable locally. The appropriate execution of such a policy also encourages welfare betterment among partner nations, which addresses the joint experience of development and success necessary for Singaporeans to thrive.

While limitations do exist in the form of possible social divisions, existing arrangements for the proposed policy can only at best, mitigate the situation. For these issues to be truly addressed effectively, Singapore and its partners must inculcate a “global” culture through cosmopolitan education. Fundamentally, the “freedom of movement of workers” policy accurately tackles the necessary prerequisites for Singapore citizens to thrive in today’s globalized world.

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