Wednesday, February 27, 2013

In Praise of Immigrants

High income economies have a history of accepting immigrants with open arms, make them feel at home so that they can devote their minds and hearts and souls to making the best of the situations they find themselves in and hence in the end contributing to providing goods and services to the respective economies and the rest of the world.

The concept of the immigrant is the anti-thesis to the concept or thesis of the citizen. The citizen is the legitimate resident of the city, so says the people of the city, and others are considered as slave labour or, in modern terms, as immigrants. In the old days when the city was protected by the city wall, a stranger could be welcomed as a citizen by the mayor with the presentation of the key to the city so that he could go in and out of the city at ease. All others had no ease of movement and they were considered as slaves or contractual labour until they were released by their masters. Even Athens, the seat of democracy, had slaves in its economy and Aristotle devoted some energy in justifying. But it is clear when there is a elite class that seeks to further its position and pleasures in life should employ slaves or migrant workers to labour for them, arguing that they are cheaper and more hard working. It is true that anyone who has left his or her home and friends and family must do so after having resolved within himself or herself that only by making such extreme sacrifice that there is going to be a chance of earning and saving enough to accumulate sufficient capital to provide a head start for a better life at home, if he or she should get home. This must have been the initial thought and intention of first generation immigrants - to work hard, save hard and then go home, for every human being must miss home and wish to return.

The immigrant worker must first work very very hard if he or she can have any chance of achieving his or her goal. Hard work, or extreme hard work, must be the central characteristics of anyone, however qualified, who happens to have the misfortune of work away from home, even if in another city in the same country, just because there is no suitable job at home. It is therefore not just the immigrant from another country but the immigrant from another town in the same country who will work very hard to justify the sacrifice made by leaving home. "I am here to make a success of myself." In contrast, the locals in the comforts of their own homes with their parents and their families, even if they are of modest means, will not be inclined to think out of the box and introduce changes to their traditional way of life which has been handled down for centuries and being upheld and defended by the elders of the respective villages. In traditional and usually farming communities, the key to a successful way of life is working together, helping each other, praying for good weather and sharing everything they have - for the weather is an absolutely unreliable thing. The migrant has nothing but energy (if he or she is fed well) as well as honesty and integrity (if the master shall decide your future). Because they are usually clustered in a relatively small area, the only thing they could do is to trade and make deals with the nearby rural villages as well as the markets in the rest of the world, usually their respective initial home land where they have the market information. As the towns grow, more buildings are being put up to house the growing population and, as property prices rise, all the urbanites simply have to work harder and harder just to pay for their food and accommodation.

The growth of productivity of an economy has mostly to do with the growth of the towns and cities for, as we all know, the productivity growth of traditional agriculture is the lowest among the three major sectors of the economy (plantation/manufacturing and services). It is therefore a strategic error in economics when the politics call for the ownership of industries to be nationalised (for want of a better term) so that those assets will be in the hands of the locals. With a change in ownership, it is presumed that the industrial or market linkages remain the same and that everything will go well into the future, provided that there is no trade or business cycle that the world economy has to deal with and that the businesses are in a position to adjust and adapt to most often increasing challenging times. On a static basis, an acquisition of an asset appears to have accomplished instantly an objective who would have taken many years to starting from scratch.

Worse still if the intention of the politics is to chase away the immigrants who have trained themselves to survive even under the most trying of times. They can withstand the pressure and do not crack. These are the cornerstones of a growing economy, people who work extremely hard, eschew themselves from unnecessary consumption, save as much as they can, learn to invest smartly with a trained insight into the future direction of things and persist in making the best of even a lousy situation. They have nothing in the first place and they have nothing to lose and they go all out for it (to achieve their vision) - with a passion and a devotion that must be total.

The most effective way to sabotage such an economy, an economy built on the international movement of finance and human capital, is to threaten the immigrants with insecurity. The insecurity has the first impact of making the immigrants work even harder and save even more because they can no longer trust the politics, and this will accentuate the disparity between the towns and the villages in terms of asset accumulation. There could be acceleration of property development and trade, but the underlying current is one of safeguarding of one's investments which would in modern times be called the "outward flow of investments." It is an evident economic truth that when there is a loss of confidence in an economy, there will be an increase in the supply of money and an increase in the outflow of funds.

Malaysia is now undergoing its second wave of immigration (some may even argue a third wave) and I would argue that it is a good thing. There are of course major implications for the politics. But purely from the view of the economist, we should take advantage of this great presence of humanity in our midst and welcome them properly by ensuring that they are properly processed and documented, that there is a clear immigrant policy as it is being implemented (rather than to have a formal policy to frustrate the law-abiding ones and a clandestine one to entertain the underclass). There should proper planning for housing and education and healthcare as well as the enforcement of law and order (not excluding jay walking and all forms of thievery).

For all we know, Malaysia may somehow find itself to be probably one of the most multi-cultural societies in the world, with its rich display of many different facets of life in all its bright and varied colours. Malaysia could be the most admired society with a unique preservation of the Malay culture, the Chinese culture, the Indian (or they say sub-continent) culture as well as the indigenous cultures (in Sabah and Sarawak and, some, they say in the Peninsula as well). A good government embraces all these cultures as its own and it should. After all, Malaysia is probably, in my estimation, the first or among the first to grapple with the issues concerning a multi-cultural society and its relative peace must reflect the great tolerance of its peoples. I think the men and women on the street accept this. It is probably those desperate for power who are inciting pockets of different groups to go against each other. This would be most unfortunate should this go unrestrainted in the public domain which has a tendency to overblow issues.

On an even more philosophical note, we are all, after all, just passing by this way and it is good fortune that we have a chance to meet or interact and we should make this the best moment all the time for all of us. In this sense, we are all immigrants of one form or another.


de minimis said...

Your insight and clarity of exposition should be appreciated by all. The economic perspective on this matter of immigration is the most rational perspective. All the pontificating and posturing endemic in politics only cloud the matter. Kudos to you!

walla said...

Let's expand further the notion that we are all immigrants one form or another.

If we expand this concept completely, it should mean we are all living in a single global village where lines between countries are blurred so that the local immigrant becomes a global citizen.

We next ask what are the attributes of each of these newly minted eight billion immigrant citizens of this one-country planet.

The attributes are exactly those brought to this particular land by its immigrants of the past. Namely, the culture of hard work, savings and education.

To those attributes, are there any other qualities, it is heard asked? One may add a never say die attitude combined with a disdain for frivolities on the basis that time is money and that particular combination leads to a more efficient usage of all resources accumulated by trial and effort.

In other words, a learning curve is drawn targeting specific objectives that underlie a pragmatic approach to finding purpose in life resulting in higher personal productivity which aggregate to industrial and economic expansion and growth.

Over time, services also get polished as new methods are acquired by better education so that trade as well becomes more sophisticated resulting in more exchanges and networking with view to greater wealth.

Needless to say, some would have cut corners in the race to improve themselves and that is why their cultural element in a society functioning as peer pressure and measure becomes important for the role it plays to re-balance attitudes and actions.

Although on first sight this personal loyalty to one's own career or life seems anathema to the aspiration of forging a common nation, it is, if seen in the second light of the global citizen-immigrant, actually pin-point precision engineering of means by which a nation can achieve real globalization which brings with it more options for improvement and a bigger market for what is produced, albeit at risk of losing certain local characteristics.

Which comes to the question whether those local characteristics originally in the land to which the immigrants had arrived could have contributed on their own to a more successful globalization of the natives in the first place, thereby enabling them to be more productive, wealthier and self-assured. At this late juncture of our nation-building, do we need to go into that?

Therefore when we consider the present third wave of immigration onto these slivers of land, we have to be mindful whether the new immigrants bring both attributes and qualities that will add fillip and impetus to what was created by the earlier waves. Do we need to go into that too?

Which finally comes to the specter that if the third wave enjoys some politics-shaped criteria to bypass in status the earlier waves who have not just by jus soli but also by self-sacrifice contributed more to elevating this land, then an injustice will be delivered onto these on-going contributors which exceed that perceived in the form of economic inequality of an uneven playing field. Because the former is exactly what any well-meaning state would have supported to generate any economy.

And since life's biggest undercurrent is a malthusian propensity for the weakest to produce more of themselves, we will soon reach a situation that those who contribute the most will find it more logical to own more or ship out.

Since neither is to the liking of the people responsible for perversion of the criteria by which immigration was run, one concludes that in doing so they have not only shot themselves in the foot but also the land they presume to champion politically.

walla said...