The Problem with ‘Integration’

On Quora, the question was asked, ‘What do Singaporeans think of the vast immigrant and non-native population in the country?

In one of the answers, I read: ‘But something seems different about some of the new immigrants, and that is worrying Singaporeans. As the numbers of foreigners have increased, there is no longer a compelling need for them to integrate to survive.’

I vehemently disagreed with this, and the orientation of the rest of the answer. I am cross-posting my response here (initially here).


I would broadly agree that a desire to integrate has value for anyone in any community or society, but I could not insist on this as a kind of standard for accepting immigrants (or not).

Desire to integrate is a tricky criterion to stand by, I think, for two reasons. The first is that it runs both ways, in that, if we are being consistent, other countries have as much of a right to demand this of their immigrants. The second is that the judgment about the ‘right’ level of desire to integrate is going to vary.

Where do these two facts leave migrants? It might not be a problem for Singaporeans; we might well expect Singaporeans abroad to manage to integrate, because we regard their ability to do so highly. But remember that not all migrants are equal (apart from being human beings); we might not all have a home state (one that we like, anyway), or be as economically free to make the choices we would rather make. I would imagine that, more often than not, migrants leave more behind than they might like.

Given the above two facts, as well, I think it is a trap to view the desire to integrate as a value, in that the agency is devolved to the migrant rather than the community as a whole. If we truly believe the community as a whole is worth integrating into, then shouldn’t the community value being open and accepting over demanding that newcomers integrate?

From the broader perspective, comparing different countries, for example, I think we will find some places easier or harder to integrate into. Is that ease or difficulty due to the migrant not trying hard enough, or is it simply the result of how open to immigrants the society decides to be? There is only one immigrant, or one family, or one sub-community of immigrants, ultimately.

Societies do have that right to decide, I think, but it is precisely for this reason that I think ‘desire to integrate’ is a terrible criterion to adopt. It facilitates a potential kind of hypocrisy in our relationship with migrants, in that it is not because we’re not accepting, but because the immigrants don’t want to integrate.


Personally speaking, my view is that Singapore should value being open and accepting, for reasons of geography and history. I think that our capacity to do so is going to be determined by our sense of community as a society, and perhaps our sense of identity as a ‘nation’ (a problematic category too).