No more the most open

Seah Chiang Nee
The Star

As Singapore’s infrastructure groans under the weight of a five million plus population – more than a third of them foreigners – there’s rising resentment against the island state’s immigrant policy.

Bursting at our seams. This is a frequent phrase used to describe Singapore these days, after its population crossed the five million mark.

Hardly a day passes without a citizen or two complaining about overcrowdedness or shortage of amenities or rising costs associated with the mass arrival of foreigners.

With immigration continuing to rise, the controversy could become the hottest issue in the general election that is expected to take place within the next 12 months.

What is annoying Singaporeans is, not their presence, but the large number of people who have arrived to work and live in their overstretched city.

The sentiment is, however, not one way.

Support is coming from a section of society which is greatly benefiting from cheap manpower and the larger customer base that the foreigners bring.

For them, the newly-released statistics are encouraging. A new census report released last week shows the population reaching 5.08 million, with foreigners making up 36.4%, or more than a third.

The number of foreign workers has risen some 75% from 750,000 in 2000 to 1.31 million currently.

Adding to the overcrowdedness is the 1.1 million tourists who set foot on this 711 sq km island every month.

The immigration policy has expanded the population by 25% in 10 years, one of the highest rates in the world, surpassing even the traditional migrant societies.

Canada’s population, for instance, is 19.8% foreign-born, New Zealand’s 23% and the US 16%.

In Japan, one legislator recently suggested raising the foreign content of its declining population to 10% within the next 10 years.

Singapore’s record, as far as its citizens are concerned, is less than welcomed. The new arrivals have strained its infrastructure, creating a shortage in public housing that was once Singapore’s showcase to the world.

As a result, thousands of graduates who plan to settle down are compelled to wait for years – or jostle with foreign PRs to pay a lot more for a resale flat. Roads and shopping plazas are jammed during weekends, and hospitals as well as buses and trains are packed.

“People have to queue for a restaurant table and queue again to pay the bill,” one shopper moaned.

Timmy lamented: “I remember Singapore was not like this a few years ago.

“Now our standard of living is dropping every day.”

Many are complaining of spiralling prices in the wake of growing demand. Another Singaporean, Daniel, said: “I find it unsettling just to note how fast our society is being taken over by foreigners.”

Last week, a foreign correspondent based here wrote that Singapore is showing symptoms of urban stress as more immigrants and guest workers jostle for space with the locals.

He named some of them – “flash floods along posh Orchard Road; packed subway trains; traffic gridlock in the morning and evening rush hours and intensifying competition for public flats.”

They have affected Singapore’s image as a squeaky-clean, smooth-flowing city that has earned it the reputation as one of the world’s most livable, he added.

Businesses and motorists recently complained about road closures or diversions for major public events.

Motorists were asked to give way to buses transporting athletes taking part in the Youth Olympics; shops in the city centre were affected.

To cope with increasing demand and shrinking supply, property developers have happily been reducing the average size of flats, making buyers pay more to get less.

A 1,600 sq ft flat which was the average in the 80s is today regarded as a luxury. In fact, some under-300 sq ft apartment dwellings have made an appearance for S$500,000 (RM1.16mil) each – and sold like hot cakes.

Singapore architect Khoo Peng Beng, in a speech last week in Venice, said that urban planners who were bracing for a influx of people should look to Singapore as a “model compact city”.

The ruling People’s Action Party (PAP) is evidently concerned about the rising public resentment.

“It is fighting its biggest political battle in modern history,” said a company consultant. On the outcome will decide the long-term future of the party, he said.


Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong last week announced a number of important measures to improve sentiments, including:

  • Making it easier for first-time buyers by building a total 38,000 more government flats in 2010-11, as well as cutting down on owners having more than one such flat.
  • Spending S$60bil (RM139bil) over the next 10 years to double Singapore’s mass rail network to relieve over-crowding.
  • A top up of S$9,000 (RM20,848) to S$10,500 (RM24,323) over 12 years in their study grant and retirement fund for those Singaporeans who complete their 12-year national service cycle.

It is apparently aimed at convincing Singaporeans that they come first before foreigners.

The move to increase the chances of first-time buyers to get a subsidised flat is well received by some young Singaporeans, but few believe Lee has changed the overall political landscape.

For the estimated 1.8 million foreign residents here, the uppermost question is whether it will lead to any deterioration of public sentiments towards them.

In recent years, there had been increasing conflicts between locals and foreigners but rarely any violence. Political leaders have repeatedly appealed to citizens to help the new arrivals integrate.

Prominent blogger Lucky Tan said that until the arrivals turned excessive, Singaporeans were the most open people in the world.

“Nowhere else in the world can you find such a high level of acceptance of foreigners,” he noted.

It was only when they crossed the 25% mark and structural unemployment emerged that Singaporeans began to react, he added.

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