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

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.”

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