Singapore’s Mid-Life Crisis

In Singapore’s short history as a nation, promises of shopping discounts and giveaways have galvanized the masses more than any political cause ever has.  Singapore, after all, is the island-wonder that has excelled at pursuing the capitalist goals of the West while managing to hold on to its collectivist Asian values.  To this end, a greater national cause has often come at the expense of restricted free speech, and for those living in Singapore, this has long been accepted as an unchangeable reality.  This fixation on growth is seen in many facets of Singaporean society.  In local schools, children who show early capability in English, math, and science are streamlined ahead of those who do not.  Those who excel in publicly expressing themselves go on to do so in Singapore’s fabled Speakers’ Corner after they have obtained a police permit to do so.  On three occasions this year, however, a relatively large group of Singaporeans gathered at their Speakers’ Corner to protest what many locals have regarded as the final straw in the nation’s hyper-growth outlook: the Population White Paper.  The White Paper– largely a product of Singapore’s ruling party, the People’s Action Party– aim for a 30% population increase by 2030.  These goals shocked many Singaporeans into action.  Many in Singapore believe that these papers reflect more than just the city-state’s future population density.  This White Paper speaks to how many feel the government has neglected or even forgotten the prosperity and job security of its own citizens in favor of a burgeoning foreign work force.


Image courtesy of redsun81, ©2013, some rights reserved.
Image courtesy of redsun81, ©2013, some rights reserved.

At these rallies, locals openly admitted to what they often choose to never publicly admit: foreigners (who constitute 40% of Singapore’s population) are taking all the nation’s best jobs.  In a park where political rallies are few and far between, anti-immigration sentiment was surprisingly abuzz, with many of the rally-goers remarking, “we want to protect out quality of life for us and our children, and the best way to do so is to grow at our own pace” and “it seems to me [that] the harder I work, the poorer I become”.

Singaporeans already feel the strain on jobs in their economy with a population of 5.3 million people, and growth of 30% in just over 15 years which will not benefit most people.  Boasting a birth rate lower than even that of Japan’s, this increase in population will certainly not be a result of Singaporeans having more children.  Instead, the government will have to rely on even more foreign talent, many of whom will only move to the city-state after securing a job there.  By favoring foreigners, local Singaporeans will have a harder time finding jobs.  Local Singaporeans are also finding that with this influx of foreigners, housing market prices have gone through the roof– so much so that some government housing units cost upwards of USD $1 million.  Nevertheless, the government has taken prudential measures to avoid a crisis similar to the mortgage crisis in America through capping debt to 60% of borrowers’ incomes.  The aforementioned measure has increased the fee that foreigners pay when buying property in Singapore.  Various other “cooling measures” have also been implemented by the government.  Despite all these measures, the White Paper suggests that the government wants to somehow balance a stable housing market with a sharp increase in population over the next couple decades.

Unlike most controversy surrounding Singapore’s government and ruling party, this is not an issue that can be swept under the rug and allowed to be forgotten once the next Great Singapore Sale comes around.  Ex-Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong called these protests Singapore’s “mid-life crisis”.  However, the People’s Action Party barely has majority support in the country, and the White Paper is representative of larger grievances that Singaporeans have had with their government for a long time.  However, these grievances are measured since the PAP is the party of Lee Kuan Yew, Singapore’s first Prime Minister.  It is in large part due to the PAP’s leadership that there has been large economic growth since independence.  However, this unquestioned success was a long time ago and the party no longer has the stronghold on leadership that it once had.  In Parliament, the largest opposition group, the Workers Party, holds six of the 87 seats, constituting the largest faction of non-PAP seats to ever be held in a single Singaporean Parliament.

Yet, for Singapore today, there is no better option for governance than the People’s Action Party.  While the Worker’s Party has long been an enticing alternative for Singaporeans– many who believe they have never had a democratic choice in their lives– these parties are enticing simply because they are not the PAP and often survive simply by making a point of it.  After all, for parties that have not been involved in governing Singapore for as long as the People’s Action Party has, it is easy to be critical of their policies.  Yet, minority parties in Singapore flourish on heavy, easy-to-incite issues like these ones; issues where they can adopt far-right, anti-immigration policies with little regard for how they will actually influence the course of the city-state.  After all, in the past, these parties would have never had a hope of actually influencing immigration policy.

The Population White Paper will likely be a turning point in Singapore’s governance, in which the PAP will concede more to the demands of its people or face a possible loss in majority rule.  While this may make Singapore a democracy reminiscent of the West, Singaporeans must not focus on voting away the PAP, but instead, should pay more attention to the country’s legislative and governing processes.  To be shocked into action by seemingly absurd government policies will not leave positive, lasting effects for the people of Singapore.  Instead, if Singaporeans want a democracy of the Western-variety, they must hold up their end of the bargain and build a political culture that does not merely react negatively to unfavorable government plans.  Singaporeans who want to fight for democracy must promote honest political discourse and strive for regular interaction with their legislators.

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