Week 7—Lessons from Israel (Part II)
Start-up Nation: The Story of Israel’s Economic Miracle, a 2009 book by Dan Senor and Saul Singer, relates how immigration has been a boon to the Israeli economy. Even after World War II ended and the Holocaust became widely known, Western countries were still unwilling to welcome surviving Jews. For many Jews, there literally was no place to go.
By the 1990s, large waves of Russian Jewish immigrants began to arrive after the fall of the Soviet Union. Russians with doctorates and engineering degrees flowed into Israel in huge numbers. Victims of anti-Semitism, they had grown up understanding that they had to be exceptional in their profession to build some kind of protection for themselves. This was the kind of competitive streak and drive for excellence seen in the Russian Jewish immigrants. They arrived at an ideal time — by the mid-1990s, the international tech boom was gaining momentum, and Israel’s technology sector was eager for engineers. The Russian engineers were the right people for Israeli tech start-ups and contributed a great deal to their success.
In addition to the sheer numbers of immigrants in Israel, one other element makes the role of Israel’s immigration waves unique: the policies the Israeli government has implemented to assimilate newcomers. Unlike the US which maintains as one of its primary responsibilities keeping immigrants out, Israel is solely focused on bringing them in. If Israelis hear on the radio at the end of the year that immigration was down, this is received as bad news, like reports that there was not enough rainfall that year.
In Singapore today, locals are ambivalent toward the presence of foreigners for various reasons: (a) a perception that they are competing with us for good jobs; (b) their seeming reluctance to assimilate into our society and embrace local culture; and (c) a sense of inequity that they are here to “make money, period” rather than contribute to nation-building. The angst felt by locals regarding foreign talent is not unfounded. I think that the strongest argument against unfettered immigration is that attracting new members to an economic cluster, is insufficient to sustain it. The other qualitative elements — such as tight-knit communities whose members are committed to living and working and raising families in the cluster — are what contribute to sustainable growth.
Crucially, a cluster’s sense of shared commitment and destiny, which transcends day-to-day business rivalries, is not easy to manufacture. The problem is that many foreign talents are not motivated to build the fabric of community in Singapore. A profit motive will only get a national economy so far. When economic times are difficult or security becomes dicey, those not committed to building a home, a community or a state, are often the first to flee.
I wonder what it will take for foreigners to vest their interest in Singapore —to move beyond a transactional relationship, and situate their emotional commitment and sense of rootedness here. I have heard numerous accounts of foreigners building their own personal enclaves and professional fiefdoms in our country; as well as other, more heartfelt stories from my immigrant friends of their inability to penetrate our social cliques, no matter how accommodative they are to our norms. I wonder if our own struggles have caused us to turn inward-looking and “protectionist”. I can’t condone your actions because I don’t have the authority to do so — but everyone can accept a fellow human being. Personally, I’d rather be excluded for who I include than included for who I exclude — and I think that’s a key to creating that “sense of shared commitment and destiny”.
Our entrepreneurial ecosystem cannot thrive without a steady pipeline of foreigners and the hustling mentality that they bring to the table. Immigrants are not averse to starting over. They are, by definition, risk takers. A nation of immigrants is a nation of entrepreneurs. Whether we agree or disagree with our country’s immigration policies, we must resist directing our vitriol at the hunger and constant struggle against adversity that breeds successful entrepreneurs.
“Diversity is having a seat at the table, inclusion is having a voice, and belonging is having that voice be heard.” — Liz Fosslien & Mollie West Duffy