Guests in the Machine

Guest worker programs may be the best hope many of the world's poorest people have for improving their lives.

The towers of Marina Bay Sands will reach 50 stories into the sky, narrowing in the middle and splaying at the tops and bottoms, arching toward the water’s edge like giant joysticks in play. A thumb shaped pier, known as the “sky garden,” will hover above the complex, and a lotus-shaped museum will flower from the bay itself. Together the towers will house 2,500 hotel rooms and lord over the heart of the casino complex, a million-square-foot convention center that will sweep from the feet of the towers to the edge of the South China Sea.

Singapore’s first casino, a $5 billion project on some of the most expensive property in the world, has been billed as a microcosm of the city itself. Ambitious, futuristic, pristine, and not especially humble, it is the ideal urban physiognomy of a country straining to stand out among its much larger neighbors. “People know Singapore,” Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong assured his countrymen in a 2006 address to the nation. “They no longer think that Singapore is somewhere in China. They know Singapore is special.”

Three miles from Marina Bay, in Singapore’s Little India, many thousands of young Bangladeshi and Malay men gather every Sunday—their one day off—to eat, drink, and spend. Weaving through piles of coconuts and stacks of steaming naan, men shout to one another across streets packed tight with bodies. Here the air grows sweaty, the streets smell of garlic, and incense fumes waft from vendor to buyer. This is not the aseptic, polished Singapore of Marina Bay. It is the muscled hodgepodge that will take the Bay blueprints, unload ships full of steel, and build a casino.

As the world gradually learns to locate Singapore on a map (it’s on the tip of the Malaysian Peninsula), Little India is expanding. The Ministry of Manpower says the construction industry will need between 40,000 and 50,000 more foreign workers if projects like the Marina Bay Sands Integrated Resort are to rise from the page. When the visas are granted, these workers will add to a non-resident workforce of 670,000. That may not sound like much by the standards of the United States, where 670,000 doesn’t even capture the number of undocumented workers who cross the border in a single year. But Singapore is a city-state little larger, and far more densely populated, than the city of Chicago. Its growing foreign population is party to a radical experiment in labor mobility.

If any nation has reason to feel threatened by country-level disparities in wealth, Singapore does. The city-state is an oasis of prosperity in a region packed with countries far poorer than, say, Mexico. Yet it has shown itself to be more open to immigrants willing to work than is the relatively empty, relatively well-protected United States. Using the latest data available, the United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs puts Singapore’s foreign-born population in 2006 at 42.6 percent. In the U.S., the proverbial nation of immigrants, the foreign born comprised 12.9 percent of the population that same year.

That gap is likely to grow, as neighboring countries spill workers and Singapore’s hungry economy sucks them in. The economy created 176,000 net new jobs last year, with foreigners filling half of those slots, and the Ministry of Manpower predicts that 450,000 new jobs will be created over the next five years. The country’s birth rate is below replacement level and among the lowest in the world, offering little hope to Singaporean isolationists. Employers know they cannot rely on natives to fill their payrolls, and they will increasingly draw from Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, and elsewhere to stave off shortages.

If larger economies were to introduce guest worker programs like Singapore’s, the impact on migrant welfare would be enormous. The number of foreign-born residents in the wealthy countries of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) is now a mere 7 percent of the total population, as compared with the Asian city-state’s 43 percent. The Harvard economist Dani Rodrik estimates that if OECD nations were to administer small temporary labor schemes, with the imported workers totaling just 3 percent of the countries’ labor forces, the result would “easily yield $200 billion annually for the citizens of developing nations,” dwarfing the $60 billion the same countries offer in official development aid.

Beneath these clean numbers lurks a tangle of ethical quandaries and unanswered questions. For those who want a less restrictive regime, these programs are a compromise and an accommodation. There is no constituency for a policy of open borders in any of the wealthy countries of the OECD, and government-run guest worker programs are a politically viable means of increasing mobility. Like tightly regulated medical marijuana dispensaries, they are a highly regimented alternative to prohibition. In a political environment where full mobility is as unlikely as full drug legalization, such incremental change may be the only alternative to stasis.

In the United States, where guest worker plans have been part of a heated conversation about immigration reform, supporters of mobility rights are operating in an extremely hostile political environment. The events of 9/11 have intensified American nativism, and age-old debates about collective identity are now infused with the lexicon of terror and national security. Five minutes of talk radio should make clear what pro-immigration groups are up against: a fear of chaos, an aversion to illegality, a need for structure and predictability. Singapore, a country best known in the United States for the caning of a graffiti artist, has found a way to combine an obsession with order and a highly fluid economy of movement.

But for supporters of immigrant rights, it has never been clear that this compromise is one worth making. In the United States, opponents of guest worker programs point to historical abuses of Mexican migrants, seemingly threatened ideals of political equality, and America’s history as a land of assimilation and settlement. They question whether the United States can invest in such a program without losing the very values that make it a place worth breaking into. Such moral probity may be heartfelt and is surely anguished, but it ultimately does little to help the poor in the developing world make their lives even a little less wretched.

Guest Workers in Singapore
Gener Manalac said goodbye to his children, and to the Philippines, on June 25, 1993. Things had gone sour for the family ever since the Filipino government refused to renew the lease for Subic Bay, the U.S. naval base where Manalac and his wife earned a solid living for his family of five.

He worked as a crane operator, and she in the military commissary. When the base closed following a contentious political debate in the Philippines, he and his wife were immediately jobless. “The government closed the base,” he explains, “and offered no alternatives.” He describes it as the worst time of his life.

Manalac looked for work but never really expected to find it in central Luzon, where his family waited anxiously as money began to run out. When a recruiter from Bahrain showed up looking for construction workers, he knew his future was no longer in the Philippines. He tried Bahrain, hated it, and returned to look for something else. The something else was Singapore.

Fourteen years later, Manalac is still here. He is now a supervisor for a construction company, and he helps build condos and cluster houses for Singapore’s growing population. His family is still in the Philippines, and he has managed to keep his kids clothed and in school with remittances he sends home monthly. His older daughter is studying to be a nurse, his son a computer engineer. His youngest daughter is 17 and studying English. Manalac has seen his children three times since he left that day in 1993, and he winces as he talks about the separation.

It’s not the experience of fatherhood he might have hoped for, but Manalac is delighted with his good fortune. Fifty-two and no longer trim, he smiles broadly as he describes his climb up the ranks of the construction industry. In 2000 he was promoted; suddenly he was in charge of a team of newly arrived immigrants. He works 15-hour days, six days a week. In what spare time he has, he studies conversational Mandarin in hopes of better communicating with his Chinese coworkers.

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  • Timothy||

    That's a great article, Kerry. Really makes one wonder what the US's problem with that set up is. Oh, right, we've got a lot of racists like TLB and Mr. Lemur around. Silly me, there I was thinking we'd gotten past that in the last century.

  • Brandybuck||

    A guest worker program here would be awesome. It would take the pressure off of illegal migration, provide for those low wage unskileld jobs that native workers won't do, and let the migrant support his family in dignity. It boggles my mind why anyone would be against it.

  • ||

    It boggles my mind why anyone would be against it.

    Brandybuck -- Democrats oppose it because it allegedly threatens the jobs and wages that "belong" to unionized workers.

    Republicans oppose it because they're afraid the workers, once inside the borders, will take off and pursue their own agenda.

    It takes a libertarian, someone who actually thinks about each issue, "how can we maximize freedom", to support something like this.

  • Kolohe||

    As someone who has met many (esp Fillippina), ahem, 'guest workers' throughout Oceana & East Asia, there are trade-offs which you are close to capturing in this article. But I hesitate to apply too strongly any lessons of East Asia/Pacific Rim or the Gulf to the United States. The underlying history, economic, social, and political systems are too different in the three disparate locations to draw too many universal meaningful lessons.

  • ||

    I am not sure this artcle shows that Singapore has a better Guest Worker model than the US, at all. It was also confusing to see the Guest Worker and Immigrant categories used interchangeably in the article - this may be true of the US, but the UAE and Singapore draw fairly clear distinction between the two. I don't believe the UAE offers a path to citizenship for Guest Workers at all. IIRC, Singapore and the UAE both used to have explicit ethnic/religious quotas for immigration. In fact, one of the Singaporean officials quoted in Howley's article seemed to admitting as much, only abliquely.
    "Hierarchy and segregation are part and parcel of the Singaporean psyche," says Leong Chan Hoong, a psychologist at Singapore National University and an expert in the public perception of foreign workers. "Because of that, you are able to accept foreign workers more readily." - Yeah, right ! A fine way of saying that Guest Workers stay in their Ghettoes where they aren't seen by the real people. This is a better model than the US ? This is how you best build human capital ?
    I'm not saying the US program is ideal, but come on ...

  • ||


    Leong Chan Hoong was describing an ugly trade-off. It's not an endorsement.

    Nor is the piece an endorsement of the specific system it describes. As I articulate in the piece, the Singaporean model is fraught with serious problems (such as the lack of a minimum wage coupled with barriers to finding new employment.)

  • ||

    I would say that a guest worker program is better than other proposals presently on the political table and the apparent direction of the US in general.

    But it is very much inferior to simple free migration. And I would say it is even inferior to the don't ask don't tell understanding that was common prior to the recent crackdowns and spates of fence building hysteria.

  • ||


    I agree that free migration would be ideal from both a moral and economic perspective. But given that there is no sizable constituency for open borders in any developed nation, it's worth considering the least bad alternative.

  • ||

    FWIW, I certainly wouldn't say Singapore's program is "successful." I'd say it's problematic but preferable to a number of alternatives.

  • TLB||

    I didn't bother reading the article, but I'm going to guess that Kerry Howley forgot to mention that Singapore is basically a PoliceState.

    A find failed to show her mentioning that the U.S. - unlike virtually every other country - has BirthrightCitizenship, meaning that we'd create even more misery and difficulty sending "guests" home.

    And, I doubt whether Singapore would put up with meddling in their internal politics by their labor suppliers.

    For instance, a UN official proposed former MexicanCitizens voting in U.S. elections in order to promote the MexicanAgenda inside the U.S..

    And, even the president of Mexico has explicitly stated that they're going to be using U.S. nonprofits to promote the MexicanAgenda inside the U.S..

    Giving foreign governments PoliticalPower inside the U.S. has a very steep cost, but I don't expect the corporatists at Reason to acknowledge that.

  • Timothy||

    Oh TLB, did the MexicanAgenda steal your LunchMoney and give you an AtomicWedgie? Is that what this is all about? Do you need a hug?

  • ||


    I didn't think your article endorsed Singapore's Guest Worker program, i was really reacting to how it was described in the blog post.
    But I do think Leong Chan Hoong's comment perfecty describes the attitude to immigrants that rests lightly behind Singapore's & especially the UAE's program. To paraphrase the Who song - "You talk about your xenophobia, i wish you could see mine" !

    Also - LoneWackoIsAnIdiot.

  • Click \'n\' Learn||

    Visitors might want to ask themselves, "did Howley disclose all the costs that the U.S. would endure from a similar 'guest' program here?"

    Then, when they find out that she didn't, they should think of what name we call people who promote plans without revealing all the costs.

    What would happen with a similar program here is that the MexicanGovernment would worm its way even more into our PoliticalSystem. Several nonprofits already have links to that government, and they've explicitly stated they're going to use nonprofits to push their agenda. And, there are several elected officials who more or less represent MexicanCitizens, such as GilCedillo. Why, there's even an IL state sen. who also serves on an AdvisoryCommittee to the MexicanGovernment. In GA, a former MexicanConsulGeneral is particularly active in pushing the MexicanAgenda, and he's got links to politicians.

    So, importing a large number of "guests" will inevitably lead to the MexicanGovernment having more PoliticalPower inside the U.S.

    Before promoting things like this, and to avoid being called "shills", "hacks", or worse, Reason should quantify that cost for us.

    So, Kerry Howley and Reason, put a dollar figure on that and then get back to us.

  • ||

    Then, when they find out that she didn't, they should think of what name we call people who promote plans without revealing all the costs.

    Presidential candidates?

  • Timothy||

    Visitors might also want to ask themselves: Did TLB ever get beat up by the MexicanAgenda? How much does he hate the BrownPeople? Does he love la migra? How much of the MexicanReconquista has he ShottoDeath?

  • ||

    Singapore has an authoritarian political system, but its not a "police state" in the North Korean sense.

  • ||

    "I didn't bother reading the article, but I'm going to guess that Kerry Howley forgot to mention that Singapore is basically a PoliceState."

    Hey TLB, do you support throwing people in jail for hiring illegal aliens to, I dunno, mow the lawn or watch the kids? in the U.S. I mean?

    'cause if you do--and I suspect you do--then I don't know where you get off faulting Singapore for being a police state.

    If just half of what I heard about Singapore were true... You can't kiss in public. You can't chew bubble gum. ...but even if it is a police state--can I hire a guy to mow my lawn without some wacko makin' a federal case out of it?!

  • VM||

    Timothy -

    his coupon at ChiChis was rejected.

    and then he bit his lip when getting the fried ice cream.

    then his mother plugged and thumped Jose, the absolutely fantastically hot maintenance man.

  • VM||

    but the solitary batshitInsaneOns is sure DarnedCute

  • BakedPenguin||

    Moose, you forgot Maritza Martinez turning him down for the prom (hence "lone" wacko).

  • VM||


    Although I heard it was Juanita who rejected him...

  • BakedPenguin||

    Well, you never see him on the War on Drugs threads. Maybe hearing her brings back painful memories.

    Back OT, I find it interesting that all the anti-immigration folks are more than happy to demand to know the costs of allowing immigrants here, but are completely tone deaf to the costs (both direct and associated) of kicking immigrants out.

  • ||

    Oh, PleasePleasePLEASE!!! VisitMyWebSite*. Just once? PrettyPlease,with SugarOnTop?

    She's gorgeous, isn't she? (the sites not really mine, but I did have a claim on her long ago.)

  • VM||

    cool web site, LoneSuperDee!

    Plus, we have it on authority that hier is a pic of SolitaryBatShitInsaneGuy right before Juanita stood him up for prom. (don't his parents look proud)

    h/t: C"BP"B

  • ||

    US per capita GDP is $43,000. World per capita GDP is $10,500.

    Free immigration sounds like a lovely idea, until three billion people start knocking on your door.

  • ||

    Delaware per capita GDP is $66,961. Mississippi per capita GDP is $27,829.

    Free migration between states sounds like a lovely idea, until three million people start knocking on your door.

  • dbust1||

    "Migrants spend money 'conspicuously in order to indicate that it has been earned easily (which is prestigious) and are lavish in their generosity to fellow villagers as well as to village causes in order to secure the goodwill of the community and a higher social standing'…When outsiders visit a Singaporean family they expect to see goods bought in Singapore, all of which signal heightened status."

    Wait a minute, do you mean that capitalism and wealth are the answers to poverty and not socialism and welfare? But I thought welfare was meant to cure poverty. How could these little brown people think they have a better answer than middle and upper class American twit liberals?

    Also, as an aside and in reference to TLB's comment on "BirthrightCitizenship," this is an idea whose time has since passed and it needs to be killed.

    @Ken Shultz,

    In Singapore you are not allowed to chew gum. My brother-in-law just came back from a business trip and confirmed this. On the bright side though, the Singaporean immigration officer did offer him a breath mint when he entered the country!

  • ||

    "Also, as an aside and in reference to TLB's comment on "BirthrightCitizenship," this is an idea whose time has since passed and it needs to be killed."

    Because ? Let me guess - the country is full up ?

  • dbust1||


    No, because the idea that you are a citizen simply because you are born here is ridiculous. The law was written in the days when it took weeks, if not months, to travel here and before the existence of our current welfare state. Also because a successful guest worker program would require the repeal of the law.

  • ||

    As someone with a wife and children, I really had trouble getting the thought of Mr. Manalac's separation from his family for the last 14 years out of my head. It's interesting that while the article mentioned his obvious hurt, it completely ignored that aspect throughout the US debate portion of the article. Many American's have grown up poor, maybe not mud hut poor, but poor none the less. I believe if you asked most of those people if they would have been willing to trade one of their parents for more material comfort, or even a better education, most would probably not make that trade. Although as a father I can certainly empathize with wanting to provide better for our children (after all, isn't that our job), and I can't say I wouldn't do the same, the idea of enticing people to break up their families so we can have cheap lettuce has perhaps a larger role in the debate then what was addressed in this article. Overall, however, I found the article quite well written, very informative, and the arguments compelling. While it's would be difficult for me to argue against what's basically a voluntary arrangement between parties, I find some of the consequences of a GWP troubling. I suppose I would prefer to see an increase in legal immigration, as well a huge improvement in efficiencies of that process (privatization?). At the very least I believe a GWP should address the family aspect of this debate.

  • douglas gray||

    Good article, but there are some differences between Singapore and the U.S. Singapore is an authoritarian society, and has no problem with forbidding the family members from coming over, which I find draconian. The Mexicans know that we are wimps when it comes to enforcing immigration rulse that separate families. Kerry does contradict herself, first saying the man is happy with the situation, then mentioning that he misses his family.

    Singapore puts drug dealers to death. Their value system is skewered.

  • ||

    Kerry does contradict herself, first saying the man is happy with the situation, then mentioning that he misses his family.

    As it turns out, it's possible for a man to feel happy that he can feed his children while--at the very same time!--feeling sorry that he can't be with them. Sorry, not every emotional reaction can be expressed with an emoticon.

  • ||

    Malcolm Cook, Director of the East Asia Program at the Lowy Institute for International Policy, has some thoughts on this essay on the Lowy Institute's blog, The Interpreter:

  • ||

    Basically the article is informative about Singapore but is not applicable to the USA.The differences between the two entities are so huge the similarities that supposedly develop because of a shared phenomenon, immmigration, are not worth investigating.Bad idea for an article.

  • Luke Lea||

    If guest workers are the best hope for the the third world's workers, then there is not much hope for the third world. Guest workers seldom go home, and immigration from poor countries to rich countries retards the development of the poor countries, which hurts the poor majority left behind.

    World trade and investment is a better answer. And such immigration as does occur should run the other way, bringing much needed human capital to areas with very little.

    These are really elementary conclusions from a theoretic point of view. The fact they aren't widely known is a standing indictment of the field of academics economics. It should be abolished in favor of the old field of political economy.

  • ||

    It's ludicrous to talk about a Singapore-style guest worker program in the US. We're going to somehow turn from the kind of country that gives free medical care to anchor babies to the kind that deports pregnant women? Employing illegal immigrants or helping someone overstay his visa is a *caning offense* in Singapore. I seriously, seriously doubt it is possible to maintain the kind of disparity in wealth that Singapore has without that level of authoritarianism, and it is absolutely not possible for the US.

  • Norman Hanscombe||

    Discussion about whether or not Singapore has a 'good' system is irrelevant. Singapore has laws and widely accepted attitudes to social issues which are not found in liberal Western democracies. Let's face up to the fact that much of what may work well there, would prove disastrous elsewhere.

    We can't make the world "better" by simply wishing things were different, or hoping sometging will come true.

  • ||

    The article confuses terms and therefore confuses the argument or rather, the arguments, length being another weakness of this long and tedious report.

    An "IMMIGRANT" is a person who "EMIGRATED" from his country and is going to take up permanent residence in a new country legally. In the USA, immigrant status is granted by way of certain proscribed rules and regulations.

    A "GUEST WORKER" falls under a completely different category. A guest worker is allowed to come and work in a specified country, usually under a "contract" for a specific time period only....a time period which can be extended depending on the rules of the country.

    As the article states very well....A guest worker comes to build a nest-egg, not a nest.

    The US has never had a "guest worker" program such as is found in the Gulf States, Europe and Singapore. What it does have is different kinds of "entry visas" one of which is a "working" visa, usually granted to people with highly valuable skills (usually in the computer field), artists and so on. But these really aren't "guest workers". They're visa holders, not contract workers.

    Thus the term "illegal immigrant" so often applied to the millions of "illegals" in the USA, mostly from Latin America, is a contradiction in terms.

    All "immigrants" are legal by definition. The proper term for illegals in the US should be "illegal aliens".....people in the country that have no legal status at all.

  • ||

    An "IMMIGRANT" is a person who "EMIGRATED" from his country and is going to take up permanent residence in a new country legally.

    And the award for the comment that most assumes its conclusion goes to...

  • ||

    The inner part.

    The inner light
    and the beautiful
    and tender narrator
    invent a mutable
    moment, when
    Christmas arrives;
    I see a blackbird
    singing the birth
    of an ancient era,
    the time of my
    life, the care and
    the reason.

    Francesco Sinibaldi

  • wyng||

    Some things to clear up:

    Yes we are authoritarian, but no-where a "police state". I find that label extremely insulting.

    Apart from banning the sale of chewing gum (technically you still can chew gum, just not sell it), and draconian death penalties/caning, the people are allowed to do what they want. Including: having long hair, kissing/making out in public. The gay and lesbian scene in Singapore is actually rather thriving, even though there are laws that are anti-gay sex.

    There are a lot of problems with the Singaporean government and the city's laws, but it's not as stuck up and regulated as some peeps here would believe.

    Just some facts to clear things up.

  • thomas||

    I am a "guest worker" in Singapore and think this article is far too kind to the place. People come because they are made promises that are rarely kept, and stay because it can be difficult to leave. Yes, the money can be good, but you are constantly reminded that you are a "guest" while doing the real work that Singaporeans are either unwilling or unable to do and then expected to say thank you after the terms of your contract suddenly change. Oh and legal recourse? Not for foreigners!

  • ||

    Prudence and the melody.

    Arbours coloured
    by a soft September
    breeze delay in
    the sunshine of a
    beautiful morning,
    and a loving
    profile presents,
    in a moment, the
    taste of a dream.

    Francesco Sinibaldi

  • nfl jerseys||



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