Sunday, 21 February 2010

We need citizenship test ...and tolerance, respect

To combat a growing tide of xenophobia in recent months, the Government has used perks and persuasion to hammer home two key messages. First, that when it comes to public policy, Singaporeans will always come first. And second, that as the privileges of citizenship multiply, more permanent residents (PRs) here should consider trading in their blue identity cards for pink ones.

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Guanyu 道 said...

We need citizenship test ...and tolerance, respect

Locals should reach out and newcomers should know Singapore better

By Radha Basu
20 February 2010

To combat a growing tide of xenophobia in recent months, the Government has used perks and persuasion to hammer home two key messages. First, that when it comes to public policy, Singaporeans will always come first. And second, that as the privileges of citizenship multiply, more permanent residents (PRs) here should consider trading in their blue identity cards for pink ones.

After a slew of recent announcements to cut health-care subsidies and increase school fees for PRs and foreigners, Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew summarised on Thursday all the various perks already available only to citizens. ‘We always give preference to our own citizens,’ he said.

These statements are meant to reassure Singaporeans, some of whom have felt crowded out of their own country in the wake of a record influx of foreigners. But there is another reason besides this. With Singaporeans having far too few babies - the total fertility rate (TFR) here has slid to its lowest-ever level - this country needs to continue minting as many new citizens as it can.

Last September, while announcing that perks for citizens would be enhanced, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong expressed the hope that more PRs would become citizens as the latter enjoy more benefits. Earlier this month, Senior Minister Goh Chok Tong took a different tack to drive home the same basic message. ‘If you want to come to Singapore, decide to be a PR, the logical conclusion must be Singapore citizenship,’ he said.

But citizenship is not only a matter of greed or reaping rewards or assuaging guilt by committing oneself to a country that has given one so much. It is also about identifying with the ideals of the country and understanding its history, culture and ethos.

These take time to acquire. It is probably why countries like the United States, Britain and Australia have strict criteria - in terms of time spent in the country and knowledge of life there - when assessing citizenship and PR applications.

In Singapore, a foreigner can apply to be a PR within weeks of setting foot here and for citizenship two years after becoming a PR. In the US and Britain, you generally need to wait at least six years before applying for citizenship; in Australia, at least four years. These countries - all magnets for migrants - also require citizenship applicants to take tests to prove their knowledge of their adopted country’s history, culture and ethos.

Wanting to mint instant citizens is a bit like wanting to be married immediately after a blind date. Mismatches may have unintended consequences. And any friction in the future in this case could harm not just a home, but an entire nation.

Ideally, Singapore should increase the minimum amount of time foreigners need to spend here before applying to be a PR or for citizenship. But in case that is difficult to do immediately - given that Singapore’s TFR is so abysmally low - then the Government should at the very least institute a test to assess whether future citizens have a basic knowledge of the country. An interview to try and suss out how well a future citizen can integrate would also help.

So far, the Government appears to have looked largely at the economic potential of applicants when granting PR applications or citizenship.

But I have come across immigrants who drive fancy cars and live in District 9, but are steeped in religious or racial prejudices brought here from their native lands. These people also often have scant knowledge about Singapore’s multi-racial society, its history, institutions and people. If income or formal education levels were the sole criteria for citizenship, they’d probably qualify. But fat wallets cannot crystallize social cohesion.

Guanyu 道 said...

MP Halimah Yacob, who spoke in Parliament in favour of a citizenship test last November, believes such a test will help to improve the selection process for Singapore citizenship. A standardised test, she says, could help throw more light on the ‘social’ aspects of a candidate’s application. How well, for example, does a potential citizen know this country? Does he or she even understand - much less identify with - the values it stands for?

A test, of course, can never be a foolproof gauge of whether immigrants can be weaved seamlessly into the fabric of Singapore society. Indeed, such tests have been derided in the West as discriminatory. But when speaking to friends who became naturalised US citizens recently, I learnt how the tests can be useful, after all.

Potential US citizens need to know answers to about 100 questions pertaining to the country’s history, civics and politics. An interviewer then tests them by asking about half a dozen questions, which require brief, factual answers. But the booklet which is meant to help candidates prepare for the test goes far beyond merely providing the one-word or one-sentence answer required for the test. It is in essence a primer on what it means to be American.

If the US government had simply given away the booklet to new citizens, it would probably have remained unread. But tying it to the test ensures that it gets read, understood - and imbibed. It makes new citizens proud to be American.

Prospective citizens here too need a test and a booklet that teaches them Singapore’s history, ethos, ideals - and what it means to be Singaporean. Being forced to learn more about the country and its people will also help make migrants venture out of the social ghettoes they now share with their compatriots.

But native Singaporeans too need to tear down the sulky walls of suspicion they have erected to insulate themselves from foreigners. We need more tolerance, respect and interaction among the two groups, so that everyone who lives here roots for Singapore.

That’s not quite happened yet. Earlier this month, a Singapore PR told me sadly that he has lived here for nearly a decade - but has yet to see the inside of a Singaporean home.

As Chinese New Year - that time of year when festive eating, merry-making and home visits are de rigueur - came and went last week, he waited, hopeful, but uninvited.