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.