Integration of Transnational Migrants: The Singapore Case

Md Mizanur Rahman
Research Fellow, ISAS

The forces of globalization and transnationalism have transformed many countries once known as immigrant countries into both immigrant and emigrant countries such as Australia, New Zealand, Canada and Singapore. Singapore is a case in point. Singapore, a country blessed with stability, good governance and a vibrant economy, has emerged as a country of immigration and emigration. According to Singapore Census of Population 2011, total population of Singapore was around 5.18 million: the number of resident population (citizens and permanent residents) was nearly 3.79 million and nonresidents (foreigners with work permit, employment pass, dependent pass, student pass, long stay permit, etc.), approximately 1.39 million. In addition to the rising immigration, Singapore also faces emigration of its nationals. Over 180,000 Singaporeans are currently living globally and the number of global Singaporeans is on the rise. Both groups of migrants (global Singaporeans and immigrants from other countries living in Singapore) maintain close associations with their families and communities in the countries of origin. They can be called transnational migrants (transnational emigrants and transnational immigrants), whose identity is not primarily based on attachment to a specific territory.

In the immigration and settlement literature, four main models of integration – differential exclusion, assimilation, pluralism, and trans-state spaces – have been so far developed to explain the integration outcomes in the immigration process. While most migration and settlement experiences still fit into one of these four models, increasingly important groups such as transnational migrants do not. The traditional ‘nation-state-society’ paradigm seems no longer appropriate for mapping the evolving relationship of immigrants and emigrants with their new destination and origin contexts.  Stephen Castles argues that changes brought about by globalization are undermining all ‘the modes of controlling difference premised on territoriality’. He observes that transnational migration is proliferating rapidly at present and predicts that transnational affiliations and consciousness will become the predominant form of migrant belonging in the future. What is the challenge for nation-states is to integrate the rising number of transnational migrants.   

Singapore sets an example in this case. The propensity for migration remains high for several reasons; one is Singapore’s success as a regional hub of telecommunication, media, transport, trade and commerce. Now, global Singaporeans do not often feel ‘away’ from home; they are more connected today than ever before. This is also true for the group of immigrants who move to Singapore primarily for economic advantage. I do not identify the phenomenon of emigration as well as immigration in relation to the permanent and temporary models of (im-or e)migration because they do not exactly fit into them. The right term for this phenomenon in Singapore seems to be transnationalism. Transnational immigrants who are living and working in Singapore under different categories of passes are allowed to live and work in Singapore for extended period and maintain transnational ties and practices with their home countries. Singapore has also started ‘outreach initiatives’ for the global Singaporeans that include multi-agency programs and initiatives to engage overseas Singaporeans and strengthen their connection to home and their fellow Singaporeans.

In an article in Asian Ethnicity journal (forthcoming), Md Mizanur Rahman and Tong Chee Kiong refer to Singapore’s effort to integrate the transnational (im)migrants and (e)migrants into Singapore society as  transnational inclusion.  They conceive the transnational inclusion model of integration in a broader sense and maintain that integration does not involve only immigrants in the containers of nation states, but also individual emigrants/immigrants leaving for another country, although the policies and outcomes of such integration may differ across time and space. While in the integration literature ‘incorporation’ is widely used, they prefer a softer term like ‘inclusion’ which means ‘being with’ or ‘welcome’. The concept ‘transnational inclusion’ recognizes that integrating migrants into the different spheres of the society is a process rather than an end and envisions the integration of transnational migrants as a process of forming a harmonious and stronger Singapore. However, it does not necessarily suggest memberships to other countries as a cutting point of relationships; thus it recognizes multiple memberships although multiple citizenships have yet to be recognized.

Singapore’s transnational view of integration provides a starting point for dealing with the dilemmas arising from the clashes between immigration and emigration today and the challenges for nation-states to integrate the rising number of transnational migrants. However, ethnographic research would provide more insight about how transnational migrants are integrated into major spheres of society in Singapore and make a more convincing case to follow for the rest of the world.

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