Still a work in progress

Seah Chiang Nee
The Star

As Singapore prepares to celebrate its 45th National Day, public resentment continues to rise against the newcomers, threatening to rupture the social fabric of this multi-racial, overcrowded island.

Is Singapore a country or just a global city? Non-legally speaking, of course!

As its five million residents prepare to mark the republic’s 45th National Day on Monday, the question remains very much alive in the wake of the huge influx of foreigners.

During the past 10 years, one million foreigners have arrived, which has helped to create a stronger economy, but also diluted the proportion of local-born Singaporeans.

This was on top of another one million arrivals in the previous decade, most of them temporarily.

Except for some 20,000 a year who became citizens, the two million arrivals since 1990 have formed a big shifting, transient population that comes and goes – not an ideal ingredient for nation-building.

On Monday, many non-Singaporeans will join the locals to watch the parade and fireworks.

A few representatives from each major country will take part in the march-past.

The country or city question has been popping up more often with the increase in the foreign presence.

The total foreign element of the population is 36% (and still counting) and locals are becoming increasingly worried about its potential impact on national identity.

A recent think tank survey found that the majority of Singaporeans, while understanding why foreigners are needed, believe the vast number of arrivals would weaken unity.

Almost two out of every three Singaporeans felt the policy would “weaken Singaporeans’ feelings as ‘one nation, one people’,” said the Institute of Policy Studies (IPS) after interviewing about 2,000 people.

This was a huge jump from the 38% who felt the same way in an earlier survey done in 1998, a strong indication of spreading public concern.

However, the study found that loyalty and pride remained stable.

The dilution of the Singaporean population content is causing long-term concerns about its defence, which rests on the shoulders of young Singaporean males.

From age 18, they have to serve compulsory military training for two years before becoming part of a reservist army that will serve as front-line troops in the event of hostilities.

Foreigners are exempted from national service as are permanent residents; but their sons have to serve.

Even before the immigration wave hit its shores, the question of whether Singapore was a country or just a global city was occasionally cropping up.

The earlier anxiety was caused by the country’s limited size and vulnerability.

It also depended heavily on the outside world.

Last year, the controversy was rekindled by Law Minister K. Shanmugam in a speech in the United States when he was defending Singapore’s dominant one-party system.

Critics, he said, were unfairly judging Singapore’s political system as a country, rather than as a city like New York.

“This is where most people make a mistake.

“I have tried to explain that we are different.

“We are a city. We are not a country,” the Singapore minister added.

It created a furore among young Singaporeans who were proud of their city state, especially a number of servicemen, past and present.

They were livid.

At about the same time, Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew also touched on the issue but in a different context when he said that Singapore was still a work-in-progress when it came to nationhood.

“Are we a nation yet?

“I will not say we are. We’re in transition,” Lee said.

But, more than any of his younger ministers, the 86-year-old Minister Mentor realises the danger of having too many foreigners in the social fabric of this multi-racial, over-crowded island.

He said Singapore must cap the foreign content to no more than one-third of the population.

“… (we must) have a core – at least 65% of people born and bred here who understand this place”.

Lee is evidently aware of the potential rupture of society should public resentment continue to rise against newcomers in Singapore, one of the world’s most over-crowded cities.

There have been increasing cases of friction or conflict between locals and foreigners in recent months.

To put it in perspective, foreigners are not the only cause of the relatively weak national bonding in Singapore.

Singapore is only 45 years old, hardly a generation since independence – far too short a time for nation-building.

Another is the lure of opportunities in foreign countries.

On a visit to Qatar several years ago, Lee talked of the dilemma facing a globalising nation state: “(People) become citizens of the world.

“What does that mean? Lost!”

Lee said: “If more Singaporeans worked abroad and their children forget their roots, there will be no Singapore node to send them out.

“They dissolve and disappear and there is no Singapore.”

Last week Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said he intended to bring in another 100,000 foreign workers, indicating the likelihood that he still wanted to see a 6.5 million population.

Some commentators believe the mass arrival of foreigners may dilute the city’s sense of patriotism, as well as its roots and traditions over time.

As the Chinese saying goes, a country without patriotism is like a country without soul.

Despite the rising public resentment against the immigration policy, analysts expect the ruling People’s Action Party to win another five-year mandate if elections were held now.

What is not known is whether it will be strong enough to push back an increase in the opposition voice in Parliament (now with two elected MPs).

Elections are widely tipped to take place within the next 12 months.

Critics believe a strong indication of public sentiment is the relatively low number of national flags displayed spontaneously by individuals outside their homes.


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