The problems faced by lower income Singaporeans remain a major headache for the PAP government, especially as the general election looms.
Singapore has always been a small and extremely crowded island. With a current population of 4.9 million (projected to rise to 6.5 million by 2020), the city-state is bursting at the seams.
Still, Singapore’s economy is on the mend. People are talking of a possible GDP growth of 13%-15% this year. At the same time, however, the economic turnaround has sparked off a dramatic escalation in property prices, tourist arrivals and living costs.
All of this has exacerbated the growing income divide and put pressure on the island republic’s all too limited resources.
While no one is accusing the city state of fostering poverty, there’s clearly a growing polarisation between the haves cruising around in their Lexus limousines and patronising expensive marble-lined hotels and the have-nots tucked away in their Housing Development Board (HDB) flats.
The latter’s feelings of deprivation and disenchantment has been made worse by a gnawing sense that foreigners are the main beneficiaries of Singapore’s prosperity.
Last week, I set out to explore the contrasts as well as the attendant strains that this growth spurt must be engendering in Singapore. Their political leaders and policy-makers are clearly watching these developments closely as elections loom on the horizon (expected in mid-2011).
The newly-opened Marina Bay Sands casino (dubbed MBS) represents one end of the socio-economic divide. It looms over the city, symbolising Singapore’s determination to re-invent itself as a services and tourist hub in the face of constantly shifting global trends.
As I approached the casino complex, with its three separate 55-storey hotel wings capped by a bizarre floating garden, I asked my taxi-driver if he’d ever visited the MBS. He shook his head, replying: “It’s only for high-class people.”
The casino itself was a revelation. I’m not a gambling man but its main gaming floor was huge and strangely enthralling. It was crammed with tables for countless games (including blackjack and baccarat) as well as the ubiquitous one-armed bandits.
Despite it being a Monday evening the casino was one-third full. Most of the patrons appeared to be from China or elsewhere. Indeed, Singaporeans must pay S$100 to get in, but foreigners enter for free.
The casino’s upper floors contain private gaming rooms and very high-end restaurants. These specialise in serving dishes with luxurious ingredients, like rare seafood and champagne.
What struck me as I passed through the casino on my way to the hotel was the constant noise. The mix of piped music, human voices and the electronic beeps and whirrs of machines resulted in a weird melange of sound, like ghostly organ fugue.
The next morning, however, I was shown a completely different side to Singapore. A young artist and friend Alecia Neo took me on a tour of her neighbourhood, Queenstown, a well-maintained, albeit distinctly working-class area to the west of the Central Business District (CBD).
Born and brought up in Queenstown, Alecia’s a proud local girl. Nonetheless she’s well aware of the difficulties many locals are facing. Indeed her photographs of the neighbourhood’s personalities are infused with a sense of belonging, tenderness and compassion.
“People here are generally cash-poor. Medical costs are high and property is so expensive. If there’s an emergency it can be very tough,” she said.
“My father has a small sundry shop, and elderly folk (well into their 70s) are always asking for part-time work. But the foreigners – especially the Chinese nationals – are always willing to work harder for less.”
While Singaporeans enjoy better health standards, the downside is that many blue-collar workers have found their retirement funds running out as they themselves grow old.
This is a serious public policy challenge anywhere. Singapore’s gentrification, however, has accentuated its growing socio-economic disparities.
Many Singaporeans are struggling to afford basic housing. For instance, an executive apartment in Singapore now costs around S$840,000 – far more than a two-room HDB flat at S$255,000.
Of course, wealthy non-Singaporeans are hardly deterred by such prices. These are the buyers sought out by private bankers.
This means that foreigners are competing with local Singaporeans for housing and jobs at all socio-economic levels.
Still, it must be said that Singaporeans of any class are generally much better off than their compatriots elsewhere in South-east Asia. Nevertheless, the problems faced by lower-income Singaporeans remains a major headache for the PAP government.
Interestingly, Singapore authorities have become far less generous in granting permanent residencies to foreigners, perhaps mindful of the backlash this policy has created.
Queenstown reveals that there are definite structural weaknesses in Singapore’s economic model. While the PAP’s control of the media allows it to manage these imbalances, the fast-approaching election means that more permanent solutions are needed.
On our part, we Malaysians must acknowledge that such disparities also occur in our own country. The socio-economic differences are equally stark. In the past race was the sole determinant of poverty or indeed wealth. That has changed. How we manage this divide will be a major test for Malaysia.