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Immigration and economic development

I happened to be at an Apple store in the US when the iPhone 7 was launched. The store was certainly one of the busiest in town that day. I was there for an iPad, which was lucky because almost immediately after the new iPhones went on sale, they sold out.

Apple is a proud American company with strong brand loyalty and is one of the most valuable brands in the world. As a result, it can set a premium price for its iPhone and still account for nearly half of the smartphones sold in the US, and more than 230 million units sold globally in 2015 alone.

Despite its many problems, the US is still one of the most productive and competitive countries in the world, accounting for 15.8% of global gross domestic product (GDP) with only 4.4% of global population. It also has many brands that are valued highly worldwide. In fact, all of the Top 10 most valuable brands and nearly half of the Top 100 brands worldwide now belong to American businesses.

In the recently released 2016-17 Global Competitiveness Report of the World Economic Forum, the US ranks third out of 138 countries, just after Switzerland (1) and Singapore (2). Its major strengths lie in its unique combination of innovation capacity, large market size and sophisticated businesses.

It is also regarded as the second most creative nation in the world (after Australia) according to the Martin Prosperity Institute's Global Creativity Index, which is based on the "3T" measures of economic development: talent, technology and tolerance.

American success is largely due to the country's culture of openness, which means that everyone, including immigrants, has an equal right to freedom, happiness and opportunities.

The US is pretty much a nation of immigrants because it has the largest population of immigrants in the world -- it is home to more than 46.6 million or 19.8% of the world's immigrants and far more than second-ranked Germany (12 million). It is also a society with few barriers where virtually anyone can climb up the social ladder, regardless of ethnic group. Asian immigrants, for example, pursue higher education in great numbers and have higher household incomes in general, even when compared with the US-born population.

Many of America's most valuable brands and more than 40% of Fortune 500 companies were also founded by immigrants or their children, including Apple, Google, AT&T, General Electric, IBM and McDonald's.

Throughout US history, immigrants have played an important role in the US economy. Millions of people around the world have left their countries for an opportunity to start a new life in America. And despite stricter immigration policy in the 9/11 era, they continue to do so until today.

For me, every time I go to the US, I am impressed by American hospitality and friendliness towards foreigners. I am also impressed by how much the government has done for its people. My brother-in-law, soon to be a professor of medicine, has lived in the US for a long time. He said that although he has to pay high income tax, compared with people like me who live in Thailand, he thinks it is worth it given what the government has provided for him and his family -- excellent roads and biking paths, beautiful parks, high-quality schools, various recreational activities and a very high quality of life overall.

American prosperity provides some lessons for economic development. Its growth and innovation have been largely fuelled by a dynamic private sector regardless of ethnic and cultural groups, and supported by generous public investments in research and infrastructure.

As someone living in a developing country with an economic growth that has slowed down significantly, I think Thailand may consider a new supplemental way to progress. Our current circumstances, including a very low birth rate and rapidly ageing workforce, mean we should consider growing from the outside, in other words bringing in more talent and ideas from abroad.

Given the openness of Thai society (as can be seen from how we embrace the Chinese) and the relatively low level of immigrants (5.6% of the total population), compared with some other Asian countries such as Singapore (42.9%), Hong Kong (38.9%) and Malaysia (10.8%), Thailand should be well positioned to leverage immigration for development.

To do this, we need to rethink our immigration policy to attract more skilled professionals from other countries. Such a policy should be designed based on long-term objectives rather than a short-term response to the demand for a low-skilled workforce. Relying on the short-term benefits of cheap labour from neighbouring countries such as Myanmar, Cambodia or Laos could curb Thai companies' willingness to invest in research and innovation and in increasing labour productivity.

In Thailand, immigration policy has too long been framed in the context of meeting short-term needs or ensuring national security and hardly in terms of fostering economic development. The time is now ripe for a fundamental and urgent change in the way immigration is perceived and managed.

Dr Tientip Subhanij holds a PhD in economics from the University of Cambridge, and currently has a career in banking as well as academia. She can be reached at