Lee Kuan Yew's Immigration Contradiction
By Bryan Caplan
In the weeks before Saigon fell, a huge armada of small boats and ships packed with refugees set out across the South China Sea, many headed for Singapore… I signalled that we should refuse them landing and get them to move on to countries with more space to receive them. A massive exercise started on 6 May. The Singapore Armed Forces repaired, refitted, reprovisioned, and sent out to sea a total of 64 vessels carrying more than 8,000 refugees. Many of the captains of these vessels had deliberately disabled their engines to avoid being sent off.
Well, maybe this was just another example of Lee’s “pragmatism.” But amazingly, he is more than open to the possibility that Hong Kong and Taiwan greatly benefited from their communism-induced refugee “problems”:
Unlike Hong Kong we did not have a million and a half refugees from the mainland. Perhaps if we had, and with them had come some of the best entrepreneurs and the most industrious, resourceful, and energetic people, we would have gained that extra cutting edge. Indeed, a similar refugee inflow from the mainland in 1949 also helped Taiwan. Without it, Taiwan would not have had the top talent that had governed China until 1949… When all this happened in 1949, I did not understand the importance of talent, especially entrepreneurial talent, and that trained talent is the yeast that transforms a society and makes it rise.
Maybe Lee would resolve the paradox by saying, in effect, “Chinese refugees are high quality; Vietnamese refugees are low quality.” But many of the boat people were ethnically Chinese. In any case, the success of Vietnamese refugees in the U.S. make a big ethnic distinction look like simple prejudice.
Lee’s best defense, I guess, would be that democracy tied his hands. Electoral constraints left him no choice but to shoo away thousands of talented refugees to face the terrors of the high seas. After all, he also tells us that:
A competitive, winner-take-all society, like colonial Hong Kong in the 1960s, would not be acceptable in Singapore. A colonial government does not have to face elections every five years; the Singapore government did.
It’s no surprise, then, that Hong Kong was far more open to refugees from communist Vietnam. Once again, a “winner-take-all society” also turns out to be the most humanitarian in the ways that really count.