Hot, small, and crowded, Singapore is having an identity crisis

Earlier this year the authorities revealed proposals to increase the population of 5.3 million by as much as 30 per cent by 2030. Citizens did not take them well

Share

Locals say that you feel it in the evening rush hour, pressing into the subway carriage at the Dhoby Ghaut station to discover there’s just a little less room than you’re used to.

Or parents face it when trying to get their children into the local school and find there are no places. Home-buyers sense it when they discover  that property prices have shot up to rates their parents would never have dreamed of.

The city state of Singapore, said to be the world’s second most densely populated nation, is becoming more crowded. And unless activists behind an unprecedented campaign force the government to change its plans, it is going to get more crowded yet. 

Earlier this year, the authorities revealed proposals to increase the population of 5.3 million by as much as 30 per cent, to 6.9 million, by 2030. The government said it wanted to introduce more foreign workers to offset Singapore’s notoriously low birth rate.

While the plan was broadly welcomed by business leaders, the proposals triggered a rare outburst of political anger in a country better known for quiet stability and political apathy.

Days after the government’s proposals were published in a White Paper, campaigners set up a Facebook page to oppose them, and between 3,000 and 4,000 demonstrators held a peaceful protest last month at the Speakers’ Corner of Hong Lim Park, the only venue in Singapore where such rallies are allowed. It was said to have been the biggest in recent history.

The man behind the campaign, Gilbert Goh, is now planning a another such event for 1 May. He told me he expects up to 10,000 people to attend. “By 2030, more than 55 per cent of the population will be foreigners,” he said. “We fear we will lose our national identity. I think it threatens the survival of our  culture, and Singaporeans are rising up.”

Much of the anger towards foreigners appears to be directed at people from mainland China

To those struck by the apparent harmony within a society comprised of Chinese, Malays, Tamils and Eurasians, Mr Goh’s comments might smack of unnecessary scaremongering, even bigotry. But there is little doubt that the 51-year-old’s campaign has struck a chord. Reports suggest that people are increasingly concerned about the rising cost of living, heavy taxes and property prices that have doubled since 2010. The cheapest new car now costs £58,000. People also complain that foreigners are stealing the jobs of local people.

The protests are an unusual challenge for the People’s Action Party (PAP). Founded by Lee Kuan Yew, the father of the current prime minister, the PAP is credited with transforming Singapore from a colonial outpost into a shimmering global business centre. But as Reuters recently reported, the PAP has been a victim of its own success.

Between the 1970s and 1990s, Singapore’s economy grew by an average of 8 per cent. While its citizens have become accustomed to stability and efficiency, many are finding it tough to get by on an average monthly salary of £2,125. In the 2011 election, the PAP suffered its worst ever showing and earlier this year was defeated by the Workers’ Party in the Punggol East constituency by-election.

Meanwhile, the opposition Workers’ Party suggests that the solution to the problem is to increase the fertility rate.

Much of the anger towards foreigners appears to be directed at people from mainland China. Feelings grew last year following an incident in which a wealthy Chinese expatriate killed himself, a Japanese woman and a local taxi driver when he crashed his high-end Ferrari after apparently jumping a red light.

I asked Mr Goh whether he thought his campaign was xenophobic or racist. He said he did not. Asked about the opinions of businessmen who welcomed the foreign workers, he replied: “It’s not just about economics. It’s about our national identity.”

Inequality purrs along

Given this heated debate, it was perhaps odd timing for the economist Joseph Stiglitz to praise Singapore for how it is tackling its worsening Gini co-efficient (a measure of inequality). Like the US, Singapore has one of the worst income disparities in the developed world. And the problem is getting worse.

But writing in The New York Times, the Nobel Prize-winning economist said the US had much to learn from Singapore. He focused on a handful of areas that could benefit the “Unequal US” – policies that had led to 90 per cent of Singaporeans owning homes and allowed proportional taxation, investment in education, and the arbitration of disputes between workers and employers. Singapore is said to be the third most expensive city in Asia and the sixth globally. My own experience of Singapore was that hotels and beer were expensive, but street food and (excellent) public transport were cheap.

And for sure, there’s economic disparity and the covetousness that goes with it. In a taxi one afternoon, a local journalist friend and I were overtaken by a man driving a convertible Rolls Royce. The driver appeared to be Chinese. “Look at that,” laughed my friend. “This is what I was talking about – this is what makes people feel angry.”

React Now

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Project Implementation Executive

£18000 - £23000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They work with major vehicle ma...

Recruitment Genius: Chiropractic Assistant

£16500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Chiropractic Assistant is needed in a ...

Recruitment Genius: Digital Account Executive - Midlands

£18000 - £26000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They work with major vehicle ma...

Recruitment Genius: Web Developer

£28000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company provides coaching ...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

When a small amount of desk space means the world

Rebecca Armstrong
It’s all in the detail; Ed Miliband with ‘Britain Can Be Better’ (AFP/Getty)  

General Election 2015: Parties must remember the 50-plus vote

Stefano Hatfield
NHS struggling to monitor the safety and efficacy of its services outsourced to private providers

Who's monitoring the outsourced NHS services?

A report finds that private firms are not being properly assessed for their quality of care
Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

The Tory MP said he did not want to stand again unless his party's manifesto ruled out a third runway. But he's doing so. Watch this space
How do Greek voters feel about Syriza's backtracking on its anti-austerity pledge?

How do Greeks feel about Syriza?

Five voters from different backgrounds tell us what they expect from Syriza's charismatic leader Alexis Tsipras
From Iraq to Libya and Syria: The wars that come back to haunt us

The wars that come back to haunt us

David Cameron should not escape blame for his role in conflicts that are still raging, argues Patrick Cockburn
Sam Baker and Lauren Laverne: Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

A new website is trying to declutter the internet to help busy women. Holly Williams meets the founders
Heston Blumenthal to cook up a spice odyssey for British astronaut manning the International Space Station

UK's Major Tum to blast off on a spice odyssey

Nothing but the best for British astronaut as chef Heston Blumenthal cooks up his rations
John Harrison's 'longitude' clock sets new record - 300 years on

‘Longitude’ clock sets new record - 300 years on

Greenwich horologists celebrate as it keeps to within a second of real time over a 100-day test
Fears in the US of being outgunned in the vital propaganda wars by Russia, China - and even Isis - have prompted a rethink on overseas broadcasters

Let the propaganda wars begin - again

'Accurate, objective, comprehensive': that was Voice of America's creed, but now its masters want it to promote US policy, reports Rupert Cornwell
Why Japan's incredible long-distance runners will never win the London Marathon

Japan's incredible long-distance runners

Every year, Japanese long-distance runners post some of the world's fastest times – yet, come next weekend, not a single elite competitor from the country will be at the London Marathon
Why does Tom Drury remain the greatest writer you've never heard of?

Tom Drury: The quiet American

His debut was considered one of the finest novels of the past 50 years, and he is every bit the equal of his contemporaries, Jonathan Franzen, Dave Eggers and David Foster Wallace
You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

Dave Hax's domestic tips are reminiscent of George Orwell's tea routine. The world might need revolution, but we like to sweat the small stuff, says DJ Taylor
Beige is back: The drab car colours of the 1970s are proving popular again

Beige to the future

Flares and flounce are back on catwalks but a revival in ’70s car paintjobs was a stack-heeled step too far – until now
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's dishes highlight the delicate essence of fresh cheeses

Bill Granger cooks with fresh cheeses

More delicate on the palate, milder, fresh cheeses can also be kinder to the waistline
Aston Villa vs Liverpool: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful,' says veteran Shay Given

Shay Given: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful'

The Villa keeper has been overlooked for a long time and has unhappy memories of the national stadium – but he is savouring his chance to play at Wembley
Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own - Michael Calvin

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own