Openness lies at heart of thriving hub


It is ironic that Singapore, which has never hesitated to applaud the merits of an open economy, should find itself having to assuage foreign concerns over its own global talent strategy.

This task fell on Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong during his visit to France. He had to reassure a gathering of business leaders, at a networking forum in Paris, that Singapore would remain open to foreign expertise, but that it would have to manage its immigration policies in a politically sustainable way for the long term.

Sustainability, as he explained candidly, meant ensuring that immigrant inflows did not overwhelm the social ethos but that newcomers were integrated - a process of mutual adaptation by migrants and citizens.

These ideas have become a standard part of political discourse within the country, but Mr Lee's French experience revealed how sensitive foreign investors are to any perceived shift away from the city-state's traditional openness to foreign trade, investment and skills. These ingredients of the "Singapore Brand" remain irreplaceable in its recipe for economic success.

When those chatting online and in coffee shops about foreigners here get carried away, they would do well to keep cautionary perspectives by foreign observers in view.

It is the cosmopolitanism of London and New York that makes them global cities. If Singapore wishes to be a global node rather than merely a regional hub, it cannot slide into economic parochialism, beginning with labour protectionism.

The crucial difference with other global cities, of course, is that Singapore is both a city and a state. The city must be globalised to survive, but the state must remain responsive to public opinion to succeed.

Economics is global, but politics is local. It is in the tension between the twin imperatives of being an economic city and a political state that Singapore is finding a new identity. A sustainable balance will be struck if domestic pressure does not push the pendulum too far away from economic realities.

The key question to address is whether the nation can, any more than London or New York, generate on its own the entire range of skills and experiences that a global hub needs to function efficiently and successfully.

Once inherent limitations are accepted, the challenge lies in getting newcomers to fit in. This effort involves the state but goes beyond it. Immigrants must respect the cultural norms, practices and expectations of this country, but Singaporeans must give them both the social space and the time to fit in.

If the appeal and benefits of being a global city are broadly accepted, more should step up to help shape the character and spirit of a hub that all can take pride in.

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