S’pore growth quandary: what’s enough?

Yaroslav Trofimov
Asian Wall Street Journal
11 Apr 07

Land Reclamation and Influx Of ‘Foreign Talent’ Risk an Internal Backlash

Singapore, a president of giant neighbor Indonesia once said, is nothing but a tiny “red dot.”

It isn’t so tiny anymore. A land-reclamation campaign has added two Manhattans’ worth of fresh territory to this tropical island in the last four decades, with new dredging under way all around its coasts. Meanwhile, as the government opened the gates to more immigrants, the city-state’s population has risen to more than 4.5 million from three million people in 1990.

While this growth has already made Singapore more populous than nations such as New Zealand and Ireland, the government says it wants even more people. The current population, it argues, just isn’t sufficient to fulfill Singapore’s long-standing ambition: To become an international financial, cultural and commercial hub on a par with cities such as New York and London.

“We need to have a critical mass, which is probably higher than 4.5 million,” Minister of National Development Mah Bow Tan said in an interview. “We have to have here a global city serving the needs of the region and the world. We still have room to grow.”

So, in planning for the future, the island’s authoritarian government now assumes the population will reach 6.5 million in the next few decades. Since native Singaporeans have one of the world’s lowest birth rates, such rapid growth would require flooding the island with legions of newcomers from countries such as China and India. The government admits tens of thousands of immigrants every year; foreigners on temporary visas already make up one-fifth of Singapore’s population.

Such dizzying transformation of the country’s physical and social landscape is beginning to cause a backlash. Even Parliament members from the ruling People’s Action Party have been expressing disquiet.

“With such limited land, surely something has to give. One only needs to visualize the cramped apartments in Hong Kong, the crowded streets in Chennai and the high property prices in Central London in order to get a sense of what it’s like living in an overcrowded city,” PAP lawmaker Ahmad Magad said in a recent Parliament hearing.

As property prices skyrocket and traffic jams become commonplace despite heavy taxes on car ownership, opinion pollsters report that 52% of Singaporeans believe the country already has all the immigrants it needs.

A recent commentary in the island’s Today newspaper described Singapore as a “revolving-door nation,” where foreigners come only because of materialistic concerns, without any desire to integrate in the native society.

Many Singaporeans are particularly sore about the influx of so-called “foreign talent” – the well-educated professionals whom the government is especially eager to lure. “There is a pervasive worry that the foreign talent will take middle-class jobs – and it’s a valid fear,” says Angelique Chan, associate professor of sociology at the National University of Singapore. “When the foreign talent comes in, it’s often at a higher level, higher pay and with better housing” than native Singaporeans, she says.

Government officials acknowledge these fears, moving this year to bolster social spending on its citizens and excluding foreigners from some education and health-care subsidies. But they also argue that large-scale immigration is the only way forward for Singapore, and that immigrants ultimately create more jobs than they take.

“We as Singaporeans, each one of us, we have to welcome immigrants,” Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong urged fellow citizens in a National Day speech last year. “We need the foreigners to come to add to our color, to make this a special exciting, diverse, cosmopolitan place.”

To accommodate the newcomers, Singapore is pushing ahead with huge new infrastructure projects. A whole new downtown is being constructed on what used to be the seabed next to Singapore’s current central business district, and the government has announced multi-billion-dollar plans to extend the public transport system. It is also pumping vast funds into the network of plants that turn sewage into potable water, dubbed here Newater. Singapore expects Newater – usually called recycled urine by snickering newspapers in neighboring countries, and imbibed at press-conferences by beaming Singaporean ministers – to fill one-third of its water needs by 2011.

The land-reclamation campaign is the lynchpin of this growth plan, creating physical space for the population expansion. One of the main areas where reclamation is proceeding full-steam nowadays is the Tuas peninsula, an industrial area that jags southwards from Singapore’s western edge. In contrast with Singapore’s tropical greenery, these newest bits of the country still present a desert landscape of sand fields covered by withered shrubs.

Just offshore, a large dredging ship sucks 10,000 cubic meters, or 13,000 cubic yards, of water and sand from the sea bottom every day, pumping it via a snaking pipeline to a nearby hill. As this brownish liquid flows from the hill back into the sea, painting the water in a pale yellow hue, most of the sand stays onshore, slowly but steadily pushing the coastline westwards.

Though Singapore says it’s using silt screens to limit any environmental damage from such work, its neighbors Indonesia and Malaysia aren’t convinced; the reclamation effort has become a recurrent point of contention in Singapore’s relations with both countries. While fast-growing rival hubs such as Dubai and Hong Kong also have massive land-reclamation projects with similar environmental issues, Singapore is unique in being hemmed in between two foreign states.

In 2003, Malaysia went to an international court, arguing that Singapore’s reclamation works have encroached upon its territory and destroyed its fragile sea life. While Malaysia lost that case in 2005, the chief minister of its southernmost state of Johor, which borders on Singapore, has rekindled the controversy by claiming that January’s devastating floods in the state were a result of Singaporean reclamation clogging the mouth of Johor River; Singapore rejected these accusations.

Apprehension is even more acute in Indonesia, where parliament speaker Agung Laksono in February called for the expulsion of Singapore’s ambassador to protest the “unfriendly” reclamation work. Citing environmental damage from reclamation, Indonesia also banned all export of sand and granite to Singapore, prompting the city-state to tap its strategic reserves and to use more distant suppliers.

Such environmental concerns are shared by some within Singapore, too. About 65% of Singapore’s own coral reefs have been destroyed by reclamation, and most of the rest are threatened by silt from the projects, says Leong Kwok Peng of the Singapore Nature Society. “Our reclamation is proceeding quite indiscriminately, ” he warns. As a result, he says, “the natural coastal habitat is gone.”

The Singapore government promises increasingly stringent environmental controls to reduce such damage. But it also insists that the reclamation program must continue apace. Current plans call for adding another 60 square kilometers, or 24 square miles, a Manhattan-size chunk to Singapore’s 700-square-kilomete r territory. “Our responsibility, ” says National Development Minister Mah, “is to make sure that the conditions are there for Singapore to continue to grow and to prosper.”

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