Infernal Ramblings
A Malaysian Perspective on Politics, Society and Economics

Immigration is the Lifeblood of a Country

Written by johnleemk on 11:26:00 pm May 9, 2007.
Categories: ,

There seem to be two constants when it comes to migration: the people who are on the move, and the people who would like to stop them. For many, migration promises a better life; for others, it promises suffering and indignity.

The conventional argument against migration is simple. Immigration dilutes a "national identity". It causes problems when migrants can't join the social and cultural life of their country — either by choice or by force, when they are kept from doing so by ethnic bigots.

Many of the most vehement anti-migration — or as seems to be the accepted euphemism, "nationalist" — parties claim that all they are doing is preserving a "white Britain" or a "French France".

The problem is that such national identities are so malleable as to be utterly worthless. What does it mean to be American, Singaporean, Chilean or South African?

Our conception of nationalities is an artificial construct, and nothing more. It was only a thousand years ago that a band of marauders went from being Viking to French Norman to English.

Similarly, Italians, Irish and even Jews were outcasts, discriminated against in American society as recently as 80 or 90 years ago. Yet today, these people are as American as apple pie.

The only reason to oppose immigration is the social costs it imposes on society. But fixing these costs is simple — impose a tax on immigration. Don't bother with setting inefficient quotas, or other artificial restrictions.

Migrants will always integrate into their new society somehow, as long as they plan to reside there permanently. It takes time — just look at the fate of the Irish and Italians in America — but eventually, amalgamation does take place.

There are times, though, when the huge influx of new people results in the creation of a subcommunity where the people feel no need to adapt to a new identity, because they can maintain their old one. This occurred, for example, in Malaysia, where the Chinese community makes up about a third of the population.

However, the Malaysian experience is a unique one — the Chinese were imported by the British to work the Malaysian tin mines. As we all know, such reckless and thoughtless government intervention did not have the best of results.

Unless governments enact such silly policies, such as subsidising immigration, there is no reason to expect a swamping of migrants. A tax on immigration, proportional to the cost of absorbing new members of society, is enough to deter unwanted numbers and ensure only those who can afford it migrate.

At this point, though, one might be inclined to ask: "Why the need for immigration?" Because immigration is the lifeblood of a society. Look at countries which have generally not been known for accepting new migrants — Japan, China, India — are they known for dynamism?

The only reason these countries do so well is because they already have a strong population base to start with, and because they are at least open to new ideas (Japan industrialised in literally one generation because it was so eager to accept new ideas).

But look at countries which have both traits, and welcomed immigrants with open arms. Britain accepted almost any citizen of a Commonwealth country until the 1950s, with the result that they developed a substantial black population. Many Asians, especially from India, have also migrated there.

Despite the presence of British "nationalists", Britain has generally accepted and included such communities in its social and economic life. The result is a Britain that is far more dynamic than the "white" Britain of 40 years ago.

Similarly, America is the world's most powerful nation for many reasons — and one of them is immigration. The Americans basically accept almost anyone who wants to be an American.

This means they absorb the best and brightest of the world, because if you feel like moving to America one day, hey, there's nothing stopping you. The Americans include these newcomers in their society, and the product is a country which is always changing and always improving — and always benefiting from the wealth of human capital which has been abandoned by other countries.

Immigration is something to be welcomed, not to be feared. What is important is to control it — not ban it, not curtail it, not stigmatise it. Migrants are the lifeblood of any society, because if you don't have new people, new ideas, new cultures percolating in your country, how are you ever going to change? Migrants are the driving force for change — and change is good.


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Infernal Ramblings is a Malaysian website focusing on current events and sociopolitical issues. Its articles run the gamut from economics to society to education.

Infernal Ramblings is run by John Lee. For more, see the About section. If you have any questions or comments, do drop him a line.


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