The Racial Basis of a Small SE Asian State.*

datePosted on 16:51, July 11th, 2010 by Pablo

From my perch in SE Asia I have observed with some bemusement what passes for immigration debate in the US, UK, Europe and NZ. I am bemused because the place that I live has a very non-PC approach to immigration and yet is held out as a beacon of ethno-cultural diversity, toleration and meritocratic entrepreneurship. Were it that it be so.

In most of the West the dominant discourse on immigration is phrased in terms of labour market necessity. Countries need skilled and/or unskilled labour as the case may be because their domestic reproduction rates cannot keep pace with economic growth. Since capitalism must grow to survive, it needs labour inputs to provide the human fuel for that growth. Depending on the human resource base of the country in question, skilled or unskilled labour is imported and allowed to settle in order to fill labour market demand and to increase inter-generational reproductive rates conducive to eventual labour market self-sufficiency. Or so we are told.

Yet there is a demographic aspect to this labour-market immigration strategy as well.  In the contemporary US Hispanics fill many of the unskilled labour needs; in Germany Turks do the same; in France Algerians fulfill that function; in Greece Albanians perform the role; in Portugal Romanians, Angolans and Brazilians play that part. In NZ it has been traditionally Pacific Islanders who fill the ranks of unskilled labour, and receive preferential immigration treatment as a result. Skilled labour shortages are filled by Indians, Chinese and Europeans in the US, by Spaniards, Greeks, Italians and Eastern Europeans in “old (Northern) Europe,” and by Indians, Asians and expat Europeans and South Africans in NZ (the list is not meant to be exhaustive and recognises overlap in skill categories in some instances). There is, in other words, an ethnic component to inter-state labour market migration.

The unspoken question, and the elephant in the room in such approaches to labour market necessity requiring the import of foreign labour, involves the intertwined issues of race, culture, ethnicity and religion. Until recently, with the exception of conservative or right-wing cultural supremacists, it was simply unacceptable to wonder out loud whether certain races, cultures or creeds were more or less likely to assimilate and contribute to the dominant culture and society of their adoptive countries.  Race-baiting politicians in the US, Europe and NZ have regularly played that card for electoral purposes, but by and large the majority of “proper” people in Western democracies prefer to not to confront the thorny issue of racial and religious composition of immigrants under conditions of labour market necessity. Yet not talking about it does not make the issue of ethnicity in immigration go away. Put bluntly, elites may see immigration in purely labour market terms, but the masses may just as well see it in ethno-religious and cultural terms, with all the baggage that entails.

The SE Asian country I live in has no PC qualms when it comes to the issue of work force demographics. This country is ethnically Chinese dominant (they make up 65% of the population). The ethnic totem pole then descends through Indians (the faithful lieutenants to the Chinese), Europeans (read: white people who are the managerial class for both local and foreign enterprise, and who are derogatorily called ang mor  or ang moh (red haired, which goes to show that NZ is not the only country in which “gingas” are reviled), other Asians (Koreans and Japanese preferably), Malays, Indonesians, Tamils, Sri Lankans, Ceylonese, Filipinos, Burmese and other sub-continental ethnicities. Immigration and reproductive policy is explicitly crafted to favour ethnic Chinese over all others when it comes to immigration, residency and citizenship. Because the country is labour-starved on both ends of the skill spectrum and the local Chinese reproduce at unsustainable rates, mainland Chinese and Taiwanese are given preferential immigration treatment even though the local Chinese look down their noses at their mainland counterparts as uncouth and unwashed uneducated provincials (their disposition is more generous towards Taiwanese but the attitude of superiority of Singaporean Chinese towards other Asians is pervasive). The country makes no secret of its determination to keep the present racial balance so as to maintain ethnic Chinese dominance, and makes no secret of what it sees as the superior cultural values of the dominant ethnic group (familial piety, ambition and discipline being foremost amongst the supposedly “Confucian” traits). For the rest of us it is a take it or leave it proposition, with money being the great leveler when it comes to attracting both top end and low end talent.

The very good public housing system is based on forced racial integration schemes, with the percentage of units allocated in any given housing bloc reflecting the proportional mix of ethnicities in the country. Although promoting racial and religious “disharmony” is prohibited by law and vigorously enforced in the main, racial integration and harmony are construed on Chinese terms and in their favour. From where I sit, it looks a lot like, albeit in a more disguised and benign way, aspects of the Jim Crow Southern US, except that here everything is written in Orwellian terms so that racial “harmony” actually means Chinese dominance. So long as everyone understands their place, play by the rules as given, bow to the rule of the one party state and accept material gratification and commodity fetishism as their reward, the racial status quo is preserved and the business of making money (or in the official jargon,  “pursuing prosperity”) can continue unimpeded.

Even so and despite the official line on racial harmony, racism is a constant latent fact of life here. Besides resistance to inter-marriage and barely disguised inter-racial contempt (particularly by the local Chinese towards Malays, Indonesians and Filipinos), things like housing blocs are divided in such a way that resident Malays can only sell to Malays and Indians to Indians, thereby depressing house prices and impeding upwards mobility for the majority of these subordinate groups. Non-citizens and non-permanent residents cannot own housing bloc units. Although there is much official palaver about being a meritocracy, the unspoken truth is that nepotism and patronage networks are equally if not more the key to economic success, and these unofficial channels are, given the demographics, Chinese-centric (although ethnic Chinese are not alone in the use of informal vehicles for economic advancement, nor is this phenomenon confined to this one state–NZ has its well-known system of old boy and new boy-girl networks that are anything but meritocratic). Here the bottom line is simple: accept the racial status quo as given and toleration of difference will be the order of the day. Challenge that status quo and run the risk of running afoul of the Internal Security Laws and their very broad definition of sedition. A pervasive system of domestic intelligence gathering, particularly but not exclusively focused on the resident Muslim community, ensures that challenges to the status quo are thwarted early and often.

Non-citizens and permanent residents do not receive anywhere close to the health, welfare and housing benefits accorded to citizens. To the contrary, they are actively discriminated against in allocation of public goods. This goes as much for the high end immigrants as for their low end counterparts, but it is only the former who have the personal income or corporate subsidies to cover costs in the private health, retirement and housing  markets (this is the case with most Kiwis, Australians and Americans living here). Low skill foreign workers, mostly coming from ethnics groups such as Tamils, Bangladeshis, Nepalese and Sri Lankans, do not have the financial resources to engage private care, so most often are deported with token compensation should they fall ill or otherwise unable to work (that includes pregnancy). Most low end foreign workers live in subsistence dormitories provided by employers who sign them to three year minimum wage contracts (some of these dormitories are converted shipping containers housing 30-50 individuals with a single toilet and shower). 

In fact, foreigners in general fall into three categories, investors, employees and dependents, with the first two being the only basis for residency. Should a foreigner lose his or her job or withdraw or lose their investment capital in the country, their visas are withdrawn and they and their families summarily issued orders of deportation (usually with a 30-60 day expiration date; overstayers are regularly caned as part of their punishment). In some cases, such as those of Chinese construction companies, foreign investors bring their own employees with them and subject them to their own labour standards via exclusionary clauses in local labour legislation. Add to that the very lax labour laws governing dismissals and redundancies, and you have a structural bias, in the form of labour market regulations and working visa controls, in favour of ethnic Chinese socio-cultural dominance.

I note all of this with agnosticism. Readers can make whatever inferences they choose to. The larger point I am trying to make is that here is a small state that is considered to be a model of capitalist development in the late 20th and early 21st century that uses an explicitly race-based labour market-driven immigration model in pursuit of the cultural, social and political dominance of the majority ethnic group. The system works; in fact, it is hegemonic by any definition.  Given that success, is it worth broaching the uncomfortable subject of cultural dominance when it comes to immigration in a place like New Zealand? Or is that simply a bridge too far and labour market logics should be the sole rationale (other than refugee quotas) upon which immigration policy is formulated and implemented? But if it is indeed unacceptable for a liberal democracy like NZ to use race-based criteria when confronting labour-market driven immigration  and social policy, then why does the NZ political-economic elite use my current country of residence as a developmental model or example to be emulated?

*Because there has been some misreading of the post in the comments thread, I have updated it in order to clarify some of the argument.

17 Responses to “The Racial Basis of a Small SE Asian State.*”

  1. Chris Trotter on July 12th, 2010 at 12:46

    A very courageous posting, Pablo.

    New Zealand’s immigration policies certainly do not carry the same racial and culturally conscious imprint as those of the Singaporean Chinese. We simply do not possess the same ability to think strategically about the long-term consequences of our collective actions.

    I suspect this is a cultural legacy from the long period we spent as Britain’s farm.

    Our political class has had little difficulty in conceptualising a future in which this country would fulfill its labour needs by aping its British masters and exploiting the peoples of the South Pacific.

    But the idea that an immigration policy might need to be fashioned around the maintenace of existing racial and social hierarchies was too big for our small-minded, sons-of-the-empire to contemplate. They simply assumed that the effortless ascendancy of the Pakeha Settler Community would go on for ever and ever.

    Positioned in a much more precarious cultural, ethnic and ideological environment, the Singaporean Chinese have demonstrated a much more ruthless and self-protective approach to framing their immigration regime.

    I sometimes think our South Asian neighbours must look at Kiwis and shake their heads in sheer bewilderment at our naivety.

  2. JD on July 12th, 2010 at 15:13

    “But the idea that an immigration policy might need to be fashioned around the maintenace of existing racial and social hierarchies was too big for our small-minded, sons-of-the-empire to contemplate.”

    Um no. Ever heard of the poll tax on the Chinese to prevent them from settling here or bringing their families?

    Singapore is a model of state driven development not of capitalism and is analogous to South Korea, Taiwan and Japan in this respect.

    PS As for the NZ elite ‘aping their masters’ what exactly did you expect them to do, think up and act in an entirely different cultural manner. Does your cultural herritage make you cringe? How very very sad.

  3. Chris Trotter on July 12th, 2010 at 16:44

    You are quite correct, JD, in pointing to the deep prejudice against the Chinese evinced by both New Zealanders and Australians in the late-19th and early-20th centuries.

    My comments were directed at the immigration policies pursued in more recent times: 1980-2010.

    And, frankly, yes – I wish we had taken a radically different approach to constructing our population.

    Like John Mulgan, I believe that in the aftermath of WW2 we should have taken the men and women we needed to build post-war NZ from South-Eastern Europe and the Mediterranean lands: human-beings who, having been denied it for so long, knew the value of freedom; nations that understood the importance of good food and good wine; peoples who had mastered the art of living in sunshine.

  4. Hugh on July 12th, 2010 at 17:21

    Chris

    You realise this was the Australian policy? Do you feel that Australia is better off than NZ in this respect?

  5. Eddie C on July 12th, 2010 at 21:29

    But if it is indeed unacceptable for a liberal democracy like NZ to use race-based criteria when confronting labour-market driven immigration and social policy, then why does the NZ political-economic elite use my current country of residence as a developmental model to be emulated?

    First off, I’m not sure I accept the above proposition, which you seem to be using as a reason for NZ . I may have missed something, but who in NZ has cited Singapore as a model to be emulated (as opposed to noting generally Singapore’s undeniable economic performance)? This isn’t to say that one can’t have an enlightening debate on immigration policy, I just don’t think you’ve made a valid case for the Singaporean situation being a useful point of comparison to New Zealand.

    I would have thought the key issues to what degree a particular society (in this case NZ) requires assimilation/integration in order to function and, if it does, which individual immigrants are most likely to integrate to at least the required level.

    While you can make crude stereotypes based on various ethnicities/nationalities in this regard, they will never be anything more than that. Even if we assume continuation of the dominant (mostly european) culture in New Zealand is a desirable goal, I don’t think that actually requires a particularly European approach to immigration, unless one asserts that culture = race. At least in New Zealand, by the second generation (i.e. the first one born here), it seems to me that most New Zealand citizens are culturally ‘kiwi’ before anything else.

  6. Alex on July 13th, 2010 at 10:04

    Are people seriously advocating racial stereotypes being the basis of our immigration policy? Correct me if I’m wrong, Pablo, but I interpreted your post as (to put it crudely) “look how awful Singapore is, and yet New Zealand’s political elite want to emulate it” (economically at least, perhaps ignoring the impact – if any – of race based immigration policy).

    In any case I don’t see how you can make a connection between race based immigration policy and economic growth.

    …knew the value of freedom; nations that understood the importance of good food and good wine; peoples who had mastered the art of living in sunshine.

    Ah yes, the noble savage.

  7. Stephen on July 13th, 2010 at 11:54

    the men and women we needed to build post-war NZ from South-Eastern Europe and the Mediterranean lands: human-beings who, having been denied it for so long, knew the value of freedom; nations that understood the importance of good food and good wine; peoples who had mastered the art of living in sunshine.

    John Mulgan I guess we can excuse as a product of his time, but really Chris, this is disgusting. Precisely this kind of baseless stereotyping kept out the Chinese, Jews, and other riff-raff. I don’t care whether your racist prejudices favour or hinder any particular group, but they have no place in an immigration policy.

    Or to put it another way, surely we should have imported a lot of Africans? After all, we are in dire need of a sense of rhythm.

  8. Eddie C on July 13th, 2010 at 12:24

    Or to put it another way, surely we should have imported a lot of Africans? After all, we are in dire need of a sense of rhythm.

    But do they know how to live in sunshine, Stephen?

  9. Lew on July 13th, 2010 at 12:43

    I’m just not going to touch this discussion. See? I can haz forbearance.

    *twitch*

    L

  10. Pablo on July 13th, 2010 at 13:26

    Alex: Although phrased bluntly, that is more or less my point. There has been a sharpened debate in SG about immigrants and unlike sensitive PC types in NZ, expression of views here is not couched it gentle terms when it comes to the ethnicity of said immigrants. Plus, there is a lot of latent resentment against ang mohs because the locals know that without the infusion of Europeans the place would collapse in a week.

    Given what simmers below the surface in immigration debates in NZ, I thought it worthwhile to detail the SG case by way of comparison and for the benefit of those who may not be aware of how it operates when it comes to “multiculturalism.” Contrary to the views of one commentator (who clearly misunderstood the thrust of the post), there is nothing crude or stereotypical about my exploration–it is just the way it is in SG, and my broader reflections on the nature of labour-based immigration elsewhere merely points out, in general terms, the obvious when it comes to the ethnic backgrounds of migrants in various labour market categories.

    Senior members of National, including the PM and Minister for Trade, have more than once cited SG as a developmental model or example, mostly in terms of taxation and trade. Key, of course, was one of the ang mohs who made his name here. But they never mention the state capitalist nature of the SG political economy, much less the authoritarian means by which its “success” has been achieved. As Chris noted and I have posted before, there is a lack of strategic vision or aforethought when it comes to NZ policy-making, including the long-term social and political costs of a purely labour market-based immigration policy. That does not mean equating race based immigration policy with economic growth, which in any event is not what SG does or a point I was trying to make.

    The fact that this thread has turned acidic so quickly (to the point that even Lew has begged off involvement in it) indicates the extreme sensitivity of the issue in NZ. The irony is that in SG the response is more “so what” and “darn right” when it comes to majority opinion on the need for ethnic quotas and a two tiered approach to public good provision that favours some over others. And that, in a nutshell, is why I wrote the post.

  11. Stephen on July 13th, 2010 at 14:55

    … they never mention the state capitalist nature of the SG political economy, much less the authoritarian means by which its “success” has been achieved.

    Getting rid of MMP is only the first step.

  12. Hugh on July 13th, 2010 at 15:51

    Pablo, my guess is that Key and others’ feel they can follow Singapore’s broad model without following every specific Singaporean policy – that’s what ‘strategic’ direction means, it’s explicitly big picture.

    Not to say Key and co are right. You seem to feel you can’t have Singaporean-style development without Singaporean-style immigration. But you don’t explicitly make this argument in your post.

    No state can ever totally follow another state’s model – objective physical reality, let alone political pragmatism, dictates otherwise. You may well feel that Key’s (presumed) feeling that he can keep Singapore’s broad developmental model while discarding particular aspects of it, eg immigration, is incorrect – if so, make your case.

  13. Pablo on July 13th, 2010 at 16:02

    Hugh: Your second paragraph is yet another example of a fundamental misread or misunderstanding of the post. “You seem to feel?” How would you know or deduce that? What is with you and Eddie C imputing motive where there is none? Worse yet, I just wrote in my reply to Alex that I was specifically NOT implying a connection between SG immigration policy and its economic growth, so you appear to be willful in your misread.

    Your first and third paragraphs are more on target yet still a bit off. My only point about National’s lauding of the SG developmental model is that it does not take into account the specific means by which SG’s “success” has been achieved and yet it is used by many in the NZ Right as an example that NZ should look to when formulating macroeconomic policy. I see nothing “strategic” in that, just hypocrisy or ignorance.

  14. Hugh on July 13th, 2010 at 16:13

    I think I’m gonna follow Lew’s example here, Pablo. Later.

  15. Eddie C on July 13th, 2010 at 17:32

    Pablo – I call BS. Point to me where in the post I suggested you had any particular motive. Racial stereotypes are by their nature crude (in the sense of broad and not accurate at the detailed level).

    I’ll follow Hugh and Lew’s example, I think. I’m out too.

  16. The Big Dog on July 25th, 2010 at 15:32

    I read this and thought, a very well-thought and well-argued post on an essential topic wet liberals run scared from. You guys are like the Tea Party, beyond satire. I’d be interested to hear your objections, Lew?
    I’m slightly surprised given the famous comments your dear leader Tari has made on this topic.

  17. KC on May 22nd, 2011 at 23:31

    ***Given that success, is it worth broaching the uncomfortable subject of cultural dominance when it comes to immigration in a place like New Zealand?***

    Yes, demographics are destiny in the long run so population recruitment should be carefully planned. Singapore seem to be recognising an aspect of human nature and ensuring a level of stability by not altering the demographic balance too much.

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