Note: This combines two original posts. In the first part, I suggest something to the Singaporean embassy. In the second part, they respond.
Illegal baby part 1: The strange case of the sluggish passport
July 1, 2008
Anyone within earshot will know that Imagethief welcomed his son, Zachary, into the world last March 9th. The nearly four months since have been one long sleepless adventure. Despite my fatigue induced delirium, however, the experience has been a happy one. Like parents everywhere I take the most profound pleasure in things that non-parents wouldn’t even notice. This week’s new talent: Blowing damp, drooly raspberries. I glow just thinking about it. In Imagethief’s parenthood-addled mind, it is but the merest step from a wet raspberry to a full ride at Harvard.
Having a baby means paperwork. Last week’s trip home to Singapore was case in point, as I spent my “holiday” dealing with health insurance for Zachary, life insurance for me, a will for everyone in the family, and various other “responsible parent” stuff. It all left me feeling rather old and grown up.
Having a baby abroad means even more paperwork, as one must go through various registrations with various consulates and embassies in order to ensure that papers are obtained and the relevant authorities (“relevant authorities” is Imagethief’s top phrase for Summer ’08) don’t think you’re some kind of flesh peddler smuggling healthy Chinese babies out of the country for resale to monied but childless Western suburbanites.
The racial distinction in the sentence above is important because Mrs. Imagethief is Singaporean and Zachary is thus Eurasian, with his looks falling less to the “Eur” and more to the “Asian”. Dad’s nose and ears, mom’s everything else if you must know. Considering my nose, this may not be the optimum distribution of features, but so it goes. Imagethief believes that mixed races are the future of mankind and is glad to be doing his part for ethnic homogeneity and conscientious outbreeding. (“Conscientious outbreeding” is Imagethief’s number-two phrase for Summer ’08.)
But ethnicity isn’t everything. While it hasn’t always been the case, the trump-it-all organizing political concept of the last few hundred years has been the nation-state. Imagethief has mixed feelings about nation-states, especially as a proxy for good old-fashioned tribalism, but bows to the prevailing fashion. This means that my boy is a dual citizen, and entitled to both United States and Singaporean passports.
Some people –especially my cynical Singaporean friends– might ask why bother with the Singapore citizenship. Singapore doesn’t permit dual citizenship for adults, and assuming that policy doesn’t change Zachary will eventually have to choose a nationality. But it is important to me that he have a say in that choice. He has roots and family in Singapore, and being part Singaporean will always be part of his identity. There is also a good chance that he will go to primary and secondary school in Singapore, where he will no doubt learn the finer points of Hokkien vulgarity. Should he remain a Singapore citizen or permanent resident, national service will fill any gaps in his vocabulary and ensure that he matriculates with a truly colorful assortment of multilingual profanity. I swell with paternal pride at the thought.
So we duly registered Zachary’s birth at both embassies. And this is where the surprise lay. Singapore has a reputation for bureaucratic efficiency. Having participated in the registration of a business in Singapore, filed taxes there for many years, and applied for both work permits and permanent residency papers, Imagethief can attest that this reputation is largely justified. Singapore’s civil service is cool, crisp, courteous and efficient, and maintains comfortable waiting rooms with widescreen televisions invariably featuring either Mr. Bean reruns or Tom & Jerry cartoons. (Both can be watched silently and neither offends any of Singapore’s established religions or creeds, although I personally find Mr. Bean rather offensive.)
The United States’ reputation for bureaucratic efficiency is less glittering. Thanks to America’s Global War on Terror (TM) this has been especially true in matters of travel and identification, with Vietnam or Soviet Russia seeming better comparisons than Singapore. So I fully expected Singapore to produce a passport within days while the US Embassy waited for the Department of Homeland Security to grind through a months-long analysis of whether my mixed-race, China-born baby constituted a clear and present danger to national security or intellectual property.
I was exactly wrong. The US Embassy approved our application on the spot and had a passport ready one week later. Two weeks after applying, the only thing the Singapore embassy had managed to do was to call my wife and ask her to come back and sign an oath that she had not renounced her Singaporean citizenship. Somehow it didn’t occur to them to do this during her first visit. Going on two months later we have a recently delivered Singaporean citizenship certificate, but no passport. Thus, despite the fact that we travel to Singapore far more often than to the US, Zach’s Chinese visa is in his US passport, and he just completed his first visit to Singapore as a foreigner. I can stay as long as I want, but after ninety days he is baby non grata.
That seems a shame, because Singapore has a problem: No babies. According to the CIA World Factbook, it has the third worst fertility rate in the world, at 1.08 children per woman. Only Hong Kong and Macau (where everyone is apparently too busy gambling to have babies) fare worse.
In fact, that 1.08 is apparently misreported. A 2007 article from Singapore’s Channel News Asia (think CNN stripped of the things that make CNN interesting) gives a figure of 1.24 as the record low, from 2004, with 1.08 being the number for ethnic Chinese women.
But that’s still pretty bad given that the ethnic Chinese are about 75% of Singapore’s population. And it means that the Malays, the most significant minority group, are doing most of the heavy lifting when it comes to having kids. The government is unlikely to admit this publicly, but I think they’d prefer ethnic status quo rather than a growing Malay minority that may upset Singapore’s carefully nurtured political balance.
In addition to trying to encourage the immigration of educated professionals, Singapore has trundled out the incentives for having children. These apply to everyone, not just the reproductively-indifferent Chinese, and include grants of SGD$3,000 for the first two children, with even larger sums for the next two. But judging from the figures, the incentives don’t seem to have helped much. This is not too surprising. The “baby bonus” is nice, but having kids is a complex, long-term project and SGD$3,000 in Singapore is a couple of months rent even if you live in public housing. Personally Imagethief would much rather have free local childcare and less stress about whether his kids will get into a top school or languish in some also-ran academy for mouth-breathing troglodytes.
Anyway, the long and short of it is that Singapore needs babies. And what it really wants, it will tell you over a teary, confessional piss-up (if a nation-state could do that), are the high-potential babies of prosperous, educated people. Precisely the people who don’t have children because they’re too busy chasing the brass ring and spending SGD$150 a pop to tank up their Lexus LS400s.
So, if I may flatter myself, you’d think they’d be going overboard to ensure that the child of an educated, long-time permanent resident who works in China (a country Singapore prioritizes) and an educated, professional, Singaporean woman becomes a Singapore citizen. You’d think they’d have sent salesmen around while we were still pregnant, with brochures explaining why Singaporean citizenship is the best choice for our child. You’d think the embassy would have called to remind us of the top notch medical care and excellent schools that await my child in the motherland. You’d think they’d have had a passport tucked into an immense fruit basket waiting for us outside the delivery room with a letter from the Minister of Babies (or whomever) thanking us for doing our bit for the country’s future prosperity.
But no. Two months later and I’m still waiting for a passport. And no fruit basket either. Which is a shame, because Singapore has outstanding fruit (even if it’s all imported). Meanwhile, Uncle Sam, who ranks near the top of the developed world fertility league tables and has no baby shortage at all, has stolen a march.
Which brings me to complaint two: Singapore’s policy on dual citizenship. It’s not having any, thank you. Hence my boy’s impending Big Choice. For a country that wants to be the Switzerland of Asia, the antipathy to dual citizenship seems surprising, but I understand where it comes from. Singapore’s government fosters a national sense of vulnerability as a political tool. We’re economically fragile, surrounded by Indonesians, could lose it all in a heartbeat, etc. Work harder. A conviction that national loyalties can’t be divided under such precarious circumstances fits neatly into that picture. After all, when the going gets tough, those with foreign passports might just bail and leave the rest treading water (literally, if the challenge at hand is the rising sea level).
Aside from assuming the worst of its citizens, the problem with this approach is that any visit to Western Australia will demonstrate that educated, prosperous Singaporeans aren’t waiting for permission to leave. As always, those who are most desirable will be those with the most options. As a nation that thrives on its international connections, Singapore needs to sell itself not just to foreigners, but also to its own citizens on an ongoing basis.
Even though I’m a foreigner I consider myself pretty invested in Singapore. That’s why I want Zachary to have the option of choosing Singapore citizenship for himself someday. I would even consider taking Singapore citizenship myself if I didn’t have to renounce US citizenship to do it. Sorry, but that trade ain’t happening (America’s stone-age expatriate tax policies notwithstanding). And perhaps that’s QED for the Singapore government. If I’m not willing to make the big commitment, why should I be taken into the fold?
But it all comes back to that desire to grow the population and encourage successful professionals to make Singapore home. Part of that is being flexible enough to do what’s necessary to make people feel welcome in a long term, raise-my-children-here kind of way. Singapore is afraid of its citizens hedging their bets, but that’s exactly what it does. That’s why my “permanent” residency expires every five years and why Singapore won’t tolerate dual citizenship. It’s a not a big deal for me, but it’s a shame for my boy, who will be part American and part Singaporean for the rest of his life, regardless of which passports he is allowed to carry.
Encouragingly, things change. It wasn’t that long ago that Singaporean women married to foreigners weren’t allowed to register their children for Singaporean citizenship at all. If that can change, who knows what else might come to pass in the sixteen or so years that will pass before Zachary has to choose a nationality. Perhaps he will be part of Singapore’s first generation of dual-nationals.
In the meantime, however, just getting that passport would be a good start.
Illegal baby part 1A: The Singapore embassy sends a fruit basket
July 26th, 2008
About a month ago I wrote about the long time it was taking the Singapore embassy in Beijing to produce our son’s Singaporean passport. Reflecting my frustrations about various aspects of Singaporean citizenship policy, and what I see as the conflict between Singapore’s reluctance to accept dual citizenship and desire to have more citizens, I wrote the following:
[If] I may flatter myself, you’d think [the government of Singapore would] be going overboard to ensure that the child of an educated, long-time permanent resident who works in China (a country Singapore prioritizes) and an educated, professional, Singaporean woman becomes a Singapore citizen. You’d think they’d have sent salesmen around while we were still pregnant, with brochures explaining why Singaporean citizenship is the best choice for our child. You’d think the embassy would have called to remind us of the top notch medical care and excellent schools that await my child in the motherland. You’d think they’d have had a passport tucked into an immense fruit basket waiting for us outside the delivery room with a letter from the Minister of Babies (or whomever) thanking us for doing our bit for the country’s future prosperity.
Well, it did indeed take three months, but last Monday the Singaporean embassy finally came up with Zachary’s passport. Not only did they come up with it, but they sent two Singaporean embassy staff (as oppose to local couriers) around to our apartment to hand deliver it along with congratulations and a personal apology for it taking so long and, yes, a fruit basket:
Technically it was more of a biscuit basket (for giggles, say that out loud) than a fruit basket, but the idea was the same. I have no idea if this is Singapore embassy SOP, they just felt they needed to make restitution for the delay or they are (gulp) reading this blog. The latter possibility is a little worrying considering some of the less than worshipful things I have written about Singapore’s government over the years. Any Singaporean readers who’ve registered the births of their children in Beijing are invited to let me know if they received the same treatment.
The apology and fruit biscuit basket didn’t change how I feel about Singapore’s reluctance to allow dual citizenship for adults. But they did go a long ways toward defusing my annoyance at the delay in delivering Zach’s passport. Nothing like a touch of personal service and attention to mollify a disgruntled customer. Especially a blogging customer.
Note: The passport was not actually tucked into the fruit basket. That’s my own arrangement.