Taiwan Embraces Southeast Asian Immigration

The recent influx of immigrants from ASEAN nations dovetails with the Tsai administration’s New Southbound Policy.

Southeast Asian immigration to Taiwan is steadily rising amid deepening ties between the island and ASEAN nations. Between 2010 and 2016, Southeast Asian immigrants increased from 130,000 to 170,000, according to government data. Last year, for the first time since 2005, more Taiwanese married Southeast Asians than partners from China.

In addition to the brides of Taiwanese men, many of the arrivals from Southeast Asia are male laborers or female caretakers for elderly Taiwanese. The Taiwanese government hopes to attract more skilled professionals from the region in the future to counter the island’s chronic brain drain and stagnant population growth.

“The impact of immigrants in Taiwan is entirely positive,” Minister of the Interior Hsu Kuo-Yung said in an interview. He says that the steady influx of Southeast Asian immigrants is natural for Taiwan “because we have been an immigrant country since ancient times,” adding that Taiwanese can trace their ancestry to Austronesia and Japan as well as mainland China.

To be sure, Southeast Asian immigrants are becoming a vital part of Taiwanese society, contributing to economic productivity and diversifying the population. In some cases, they fill tough jobs that natives reject. Without Southeast Asian laborers, Taiwan’s construction industry would be far less efficient. Meanwhile, Southeast Asian caregivers ensure that many of the nation’s elderly enjoy a decent quality of life.

Yet for the Tsai administration, the outreach to Southeast Asia also has a strong political dimension. During Ma Ying-jeou’s presidency, Taiwan focused on building ties with China. Concerned with Taiwan’s heavy dependence on China, the Tsai administration has revamped former President Lee Teng-hui’s outreach to ASEAN as the “New Southbound Policy.”

The Tsai administration has deepened Lee’s initiative by focusing as much on the inbound side as outbound investment. Alan Hao Yang, executive director of the Taiwan-Asia Exchange Foundation and National Chengchi University’s Center for Southeast Asian Studies, notes that there will soon be 1 million “New Taiwanese” immigrants in Taiwan (including their children), a huge portion of them from Southeast Asia. In Taiwan’ K-12 schools, there are already 80,000 students with a Vietnamese parent and 20,000 with an Indonesian parent, according to the Ministry of Education.

The Taoyuan Public Library has added children’s books in Vietnamese, Indonesian, Thai, and Burmese languages and urged mothers from Southeast Asian countries to read together with their children. Photo: CNA

As Southeast Asians grow in number here, “Taiwan is no longer just the southernmost point of Northeast Asia, it’s becoming the northernmost part of Southeast Asia,” Yang says. “This is a significant paradigm shift for a society that has historically identified most with its Chinese heritage.”

Yang reckons that the number of Southeast Asian immigrants will steadily rise in the coming years. He points out that Taiwan’s minimum wage – while considered low by native Taiwanese – is higher than anywhere in ASEAN, even the region’s most developed economies of Malaysia and Singapore. As Taiwan ages, demand for laborers, caregivers, and other workers will only increase, he says.

In his research, Yang has found that Vietnamese spouses are especially industrious. After becoming established in Taiwan, they may set up small businesses of their own – including informal lending services – that serve the wider Vietnamese migrant community. “Some Vietnamese spouses even attain economic dependence from their husbands,” he says. “The fact that they are able to do so shows the strong business opportunities Taiwan offers to immigrants.”

At the same time, from a political standpoint, encouraging Southeast Asian immigration aligns with the Tsai administration’s shift away from China. Chinese immigration may entail potential national-security risks that Southeast Asian immigration does not, says Yang Lian-fu, a historian and expert on Taiwan’s demographic changes.

Attracting professionals

At the person-to-person level, Taiwanese have become accepting of Southeast Asian immigrants, observers say. However, from an institutional stand-point, there is need for improvement, according to several immigrants interviewed by Taiwan Business TOPICS.

Jenny Lu was born in the Philippines – but was not a citizen of the country –to a Chinese diaspora family. Lu’s parents sent her here to study in 1996 at the National Overseas Chinese Experimental High School. She later earned a university degree in Taiwan and now works as a high-school English teacher.

Lu says that after moving to Taiwan, she had a hard time acquiring Republic of China citizenship. After living in Taiwan for a number of years, she was issued an “overseas Chinese passport” that didn’t contain a national identification number. With that document, for instance, she was able to travel to Singapore and South Korea, but not the United States. “They told me to come back ‘when you have a country,’” she says.

Recent changes to Taiwan’s immigration laws allowed Lu to finally get her ROC citizenship two years ago, but she remains resentful about the drawn-out process. “I’m here by default at this point,” she says. “I do like the safeness of Taiwan and the work/life balance. I wouldn’t go back to the Philippines to live because of the corruption and pollution.”

But Lu still struggles with Taiwan’s conservative Confucian culture. “People are thin-skinned,” she says. “They’re focused on how things appear rather than their substance, which is very hard for me to accept.”

Still, she plans to stay here for the immediate future as she enjoys her work. “Teaching high-school English here is something I could do for a long time,” she says.

Andy Do, a Vietnamese national and permanent resident of Taiwan, is also enjoying professional success here. After earning a Master of Computer Science from Dayeh University in Changhua, he found a job with the Taiwan branch of Garmin International, an American GPS technology company. He says that the pay is good, the work is interesting, and the working hours are reasonable.

He credits the Taiwanese government with facilitating more opportunities for skilled professionals. In particular, he cites the recent change in alien residency card regulations that allows skilled foreign professionals to maintain their ARC – and by default, national health insurance – for up to six months when they change jobs.

“Before that change, if you were fired, you had to leave after two weeks,” he says. “And if you wanted to switch jobs, you still had to leave the country unless you were able to get all the paper-work done in advance with your new employer” before leaving the original job.

In his seven years here, Do says that he has seen a change in the attitude of native Taiwanese towards Southeast Asian immigrants. “Taiwanese society is now more familiar with South-east Asians,” he says. In the past, people assumed I was very rich to be able to come here and study because there weren’t many Vietnamese studying in engineering programs at the time. I actually received a full scholarship and a living stipend.”

Do urges the Taiwanese government to relax restrictions on foreign spouses’ ability to be employed. Although his wife, who is also Vietnamese, has a college degree, she cannot legally work in Taiwan; only the spouses of senior foreign professionals in Taiwan are eligible under current immigration law.

“My wife needs to wait five more years until she gets a permanent alien residency card to have the right to work in Taiwan, which isn’t reasonable,” he says.

At the same time, because both Do and his wife are foreigners, their child cannot easily gain entry to Taiwan’s public school system, which is typically open only to students with a Taiwan-ese household registration. “It’s really unfair,” he says. “I work here, pay taxes, and my kid can’t go to public school.”

Minister Hsu told Taiwan Business TOPICS that the government is making a comprehensive effort to help immigrants adjust to life in Taiwan. He says that the National Immigration Agency and various police departments have personnel with Southeast Asian language skills, including Vietnamese, Thai, and Bahasa Indonesian. Further, the government offers free Chinese-language classes to immigrants in locations throughout Taiwan.

A community service center in Kaohsiung teaches basic computer skills, including emailing, to spouses from Southeast Asia. Photo: CNA

At the local level, a New Immigrants Hall was established in Taipei’s Wanhua District during Ma Ying-jeou’s mayorship (1998-2006). The official English website states that the facility provides a support system to help immigrants adapt to life in Taiwan so as to “avoid isolation” as well as an “underprivileged image.” The Hall offers consultation services in English, Vietnamese, Thai, and Bahasa Indonesian, including advice on legal matters. Among the Hall’s recreational facilities are children’s reading materials, a children’s play area, and karaoke equipment to enable “all new immigrants to sing and enjoy their time with friends.”

Meanwhile, new economic immigration legislation is targeting professional talent and capital from Southeast Asia, Hong Kong, and Macau. Under the draft act, immigrants who invest at least NT$15 million in a “profit-oriented enterprise” or NT$30 million in government bonds, while creating job opportunities for five Taiwanese or more, will be eligible for permanent residency after residing in Taiwan for just three consecutive years. At present, one must stay in Taiwan for five years in a row to apply for permanent residency.

Some economists question the bill’s merits. “The legislation looks like an attempt to boost the population by offering permanent residency, and it may take jobs away from Taiwanese,” says Darson Chiu, an economist at the Taiwan Institute of Economic Research (TIER).

In addition to increasing competition for jobs, the law might “give rise to social problems if large numbers of immigrants are absorbed into Taiwan,” wrote Liu Meng-chun, a director at the Chung-Hua Institution for Economic Research, in a May commentary published in the Taipei Times.

Hank Huang, president of the Taiwan Academy of Banking and Finance, a financial-policy think tank, urges the government to carefully consider the impact of the legislation. “We are moving in the direction of welcoming more skilled immigrants – that’s for certain,” he says. However, the government should consider the social-welfare costs of easing restrictions on permanent residency, he adds.

New Coding Coming for ARCs

Minister of the Interior Hsu Kuo-yung informed Taiwan Business TOPICS that the current coding format for Alien Residence Certificates (ARCs) – two letters from the English alphabet followed by eight Arabic numberals – will be changed to mirror the coding format of Taiwan’s National Identity Card number issued to citizens. This change to one letter from the English alphabet followed by nine Arabic numerals is designed to provide greater convenience to foreign nationals living in Taiwan, providing another incentive for them to stay, the Minister said.

After the revision, foreign nationals will be able to shop online, book tickets, and register for medical care or various types of membership using the same procedure as Taiwanese nationals. The Ministry of the Interior said it will coordinate with other ministries and important industrial and commercial groups to help integrate the various information systems and facilities of the public and private sectors.