Wednesday 06 Oct 2021 | 19:28 | SYDNEY
Wednesday 06 Oct 2021 | 19:28 | SYDNEY

Southeast Asian labour migration: Falling off the ladder


Malcolm Cook

20 December 2007 08:20

Kerry Howley’s ReasonOnline article, Guests in the Machine, is quite correct to argue that labour migrants to Singapore from its poorer neighbours, though badly treated, often fare better than if they stayed at home. Labour migration from the much poorer Indonesia and the Philippines to the much wealthier Singapore and Malaysia has been one of the most important sources of economic integration in Southeast Asia and has kept many families afloat financially through remittances.

Alas, times might be changing as the Singaporean and Malaysian economies move up the value chain away from (semi-skilled) labour-intensive export manufacturing to highly skilled services niches. In the case of Singapore, this transition is well under way, while in Malaysia it is still largely on the planning boards of Putrajaya. Singapore is still pursuing foreign labour and aims to lift its already crowded population by more than a million in the next couple of decades. Yet, their  focus now is on highly skilled people from anywhere in the world, and certainly not cheap labour from neighbouring countries often linked in the popular mind to crime and disorder. Likewise, in Malaysia, where there are up to 2.5 million foreign workers, many undocumented, there is growing political tension over the number of low-skilled guest workers.

With Malaysia and Singapore becoming less welcoming of the poor and unskilled on their doorsteps and seeking to attract the best and brightest from the world, including their neighbours, Southeast Asia’s labour migration patterns will change and neighbours’ concerns with brain drains will grow. Howley’s representation of Singapore today is accurate; the question is, for how long?