The Temasek Times (source)
Note: This article was first published in the old Temasek Review in March 2010.
Immigration is a double-edged sword – it can build a great and powerful nation like the United States, but can also plant the seeds of its eventual downfall too as in the case of the Western Roman empire.
Great civilizations like Tang China might have enjoyed a relative period of prosperity brought about by its open-door policy to immigrants, yet it soon declined and descended into chaos following a massive rebellion led by a barbarian general An Lushan.
Using history as a mirror, Singapore should reflect carefully on its present immigration policy which has resulted in dissatisfaction and discontentment among native Singaporeans.
While Singapore must remain open to the world, we must be extremely selective on the immigrants we accept. Unfortunately, the seemingly uncontrolled immigration in the last few years has led to many foreigners being given Singapore citizenship without truly understand what it means to be a Singaporean.
Singapore has accepted too many immigrants within too short a period of time such that there is no time at all for them to be integrated properly into local society.
Furthermore, Singaporeans have less of a racial or cultural identity than the Chinese, Indians, and Filipinos and it would not be easy to assimilate them especially when there are so many of them here causing them to congregate within their own communities.
Uncontrolled immigration can easily destroy a nation as exemplified by the Korean empire of Balhae (渤海).
Balhae (698 AD – 926 AD) was founded in 698 AD from the remnants of the Korean state of Gorguryeo (高句麗) after it was conquered by a joint invasion from Tang China and Silla (新羅), another Korean state which occupied the Korean peninsula.
Balhae became a major empire in Northeast Asia and occupied southern parts of Manchuria, Russia’s Primorsky Krai, and the northern part of the Korean peninsula.
This area was a volatile region with several ethnic tribes of which the Koreans were one of them.
Due to historical animosities between Balhae and Silla, the Balhae kings banned the inflow of Korean immigrants from Silla and relied on immigrants from other ethnic groups instead.
(Balhae blamed Silla for “conspiring” with Tang China to destroy its predecessor state Gorguryeo)
As Balhae was a newly founded country, it adopted an open-door policy to immigrants from neighboring kingdoms and tribes including the Khitan (契丹) and Malgal (靺鞨).
Large numbers of Khitans and Malgals were allowed into Balhae and the Koreans became an ethnic minority in their own country in less than a hundred years.
Unlike the Koreans, the Khitans and Malgals were Tungesic nomads and it was impossible to integrate them fully into Korean society though the Balhae kings had implemented policies to assimilate them such as allowing inter-racial marriages between the two groups.
While the Koreans retained control of the central government and aristocracy, the administration and military became dominated by the Khitans and Malgals which soon led to social conflicts and civil wars between them.
During the last years of the Balhae kingdom, it was wrecked by endless internal turmoils, ethnic strifes and civil wars between the various races in the empire and it was eventually conquered by the Khitan kingdom of Liao in 926 AD.
Like Singapore, Balhae was a country built out of nowhere. Though its southern portion was a remnant of Gorguryeo, its northern territory were entirely virgin lands not ruled by any state before.
The Balhae kings realized that their fledging nation would not stand a chance against its powerful neighbor China or its more populous Korean cousin Silla if it did not open its door to immigrants to increase its population.
Unfortunately, they failed to appreciate the fact that while immigrants may spur economic growth and increase a country’s military strength within a short period of time, social unrest and strife will ensue if the newcomers are not wholly integrated into local society.
Though Balhae was able to achieve rapid growth and prosperity a few decades after its founding due to the influx of immigrants, it sowed the seeds for its eventual demise.
Balhae was the largest and perhaps one of the richest states in the history of Korea, but also its shortest-lived, existing for barely more than 200 years when compared to other more ethnically and culturally homogenous states like Gorguryeo (700 + years), Baekje (700 +), Silla (900 +), Goryeo (300 +) and Joseon (600 +).
Silla (53 BC – 935 AD) was a nation of immigrants like Balhae and Singapore too, built by gradual conquest and assimilation of neighboring statelets and tribes but at a much controlled pace than Balhae which explained its political longevity of nearly a thousand years.
Being the weakest and smallest state on the Korean peninsula compared to Gorguryeo in the north and Baekje (百濟) to the west, the Silla kings had long realized the importance of immigration in order to survive.
Though Silla was able to grow and prosper by keeping its door open to immigrants, it practised a highly selective immigration policy unlike that of Balhae.
Silla welcomed only certain ethnic races which were closer to them in terms of language, culture and bloodline and not those who were further apart.
For example, when the Gaya confederacy (加倻) was conquered in 562 AD, its people who were closely linked to the Silla Koreans were completely accepted as Silla citizens and they eventually become assimilated into Silla society, one of whom became the great Korean general Kim Yu-Shin who conquered the other two kingdoms and united Korea.
However, the Japanese (Wa) and those with mixed Silla/Japanese heritage were evicted from their settlements along the southeastern coast of Korea and sent back to Japan as they were deemed “culturally distant” and “unsuitable” for permanent residence in Silla.
Furthermore, while Silla maintained an open-door policy to Korean immigrants from Baekje and Gorguryeo, Chinese, Khitans, Malgals and other races were deliberately kept out. They were allowed to trade with Silla, but could never become its citizens.
Such a targeted immigration policy enabled Silla to increase its population via immigration and ensuring the “ethnic compatibility” of its people at the same time.
Though there were many ethnic minorities in Silla, they were culturally and linguistically linked to the original Silla Koreans thereby maintaining a largely homogenous society.
There were few ethnic strifes or conflicts during Silla’s long history unlike Balhae whose fault-lines were exposed within a hundred years of its founding leading to political instability and its eventual downfall.
Balhae was the last Korean state to hold any territory on Manchuria. There are still a sizable number of ethnic Koreans living in northeast China and Russia’s Maritime province today, but few will remember the existence of Balhae.
Will Singapore end up like Balhae one day? We are now fifty years old. When Balhae was fifty years old, it was a major economic powerhouse in the region (northeast Asia) like Singapore (southeast Asia) and it was also the same period of time when it became swarmed by immigrants.
If a country the size of Balhae which was about the size of France could implode and destroy itself in only 200 years, why not Singapore?
Singapore should learn from the targeted immigration policy adopted by Silla and focused on getting immigrants who can integrate more easily into our society such as those from the southern provinces of China, Hong Kong and Taiwan of which a basic command of the English language is a must instead of accepting everybody indiscriminately like Balhae without studying if they are culturally, ethnically and linguistically compatible with native Singaporeans in the first place.
History has given us one important lesson of how uncontrolled immigration can destroy a nation. We must take heed before it is too late.
1. An English translation of the Samguk Sagi from Seoul National University