|Disenchanted Hayatt Shah recently moved his family to Japan|
Singapore - Thirty-year-old Hayatt Shah made the most difficult decision of his life last month.
The Singapore native gathered his belongings and left behind his family and friends to begin a new life in Japan with his wife and six-month-old daughter.
High housing prices drove him to move from Singapore, explained Shah, who added he has no regrets leaving a country he no longer recognises. "I refuse to pay such a high price to live in a box that I have a lease on for 99 years. It's crazy that property prices here in Saitama [in Japan] are more affordable than properties in Singapore."
Like many of his fellow citizens, the musician and English instructor found it increasingly difficult to sustain a comfortable lifestyle in Singapore, where he was born and bred. "It is the simple fact that I don't feel like I am home anymore in Singapore," he said, which spurred him to move.
Singapore's success story is relatively well-known. Having transformed itself from a tiny island nation with no natural resources to one of the richest countries in the world, Singapore prides itself on its booming economy, sustained by encouraging foreign investment and migrant labourers.
But despite being the third-most densely populated country in the world, Singapore's government recently announced plans to increase its total population from 5.3 million to 6.9 million by 2030. The move caused a public outcry, with thousands taking to the streets on Saturday in protest.
An aging population coupled with dwindling birth rates, escalating housing prices, overcrowding, and caving infrastructure are just some of the factors responsible for the rising dissent among Singaporeans.
In January, Singapore's government - which has been led by the People's Action Party since 1959 - introduced two proposals. The first was its "White Paper on Population", which outlined a strategy to ensure sustainable population levels in the face of low birth rates and an aging society. Shortly thereafter, a plan to increase Singapore's land area by nearly 8 per cent was announced to accommodate the new population.
In addition to the number of foreigners, an estimated 30,000 new permanent residents - a status given to foreigners who live in Singapore for long periods of time - will also be added each year.
"The White Paper is about mitigating the problems of our aging population and low birth rates, so as to secure Singapore’s future," said Singapore's Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong in a post on his Facebook page. "Our priority is to maintain a strong Singaporean core by encouraging Singaporeans to get married and have children. We will reduce inflow of foreign workers, moderate flow of new citizens and maintain [permanent resident] population at about present size."
Lee added a disclaimer that the government was not aiming for 6.9 million population, explaining the figure "is just a basis for us to plan our infrastructure".
What shocked many was the report's prediction that the country's population will start to decline by 2025, with more than 900,000 Singaporeans - more than a quarter of the number of citizens - retiring from the workforce. The report noted the country's fertility rate has fallen for the past 30 years, and currently stands below the replacement level of two babies per mother.
In 2010, the World Bank estimated Singapore's fertility rate to be just 1.2 births per woman - among the lowest rates in the world.
Rising public anger
|"We are talking about an average increase of 100,000 people every year, so if you want to talk in terms of how crucial the impact will have on the next general election, I cannot exaggerate how important it is."|
- Chee Soon Juan, opposition leader
"It seems like anyone can just come into Singapore," said Shah. "So will having 6.9 million people make Singapore a happier place? Is the economy really that important?"
Cassandra Siew, a housewife, said she doesn't trust that the government will properly handle the population increase.
"The government has been singing the same song for years," she said. "They keep adding more and more numbers year after year and assure us that it will be for the best, but when will it end? I'm sorry to say that I simply don't buy into their promise of looking out for us anymore."
Another Singaporean, marketing executive Ron Chew, said: "Our country is rapidly evolving, but Singaporeans are not reaping any of its benefits. Why should a foreigner be entitled to the same, if not more, privileges than a Singaporean?"
Eugene Tan, an assistant law professor at Singapore Management University, described a "spatial and mental sense of being overwhelmed felt by large swathes of the public".
"Singapore is barely coping with the rapid influx of immigrants over the past decade, so there is the prevalent view that if we can't cope with 5.3 million, how are we going to manage with 6.9 million within two decades?" said Tan. "There is a sense that the immigration policy will not be of benefit to the average Singaporean."
But the public could be "reacting to a figure which they don’t really comprehend", said Chua Beng Huat, a sociology professor at the National University of Singapore. "Whether 6.9 million will be the steady state population is completely speculative, and one should not be fixated by it."
Many say a potential loss of Singapore's national identity is an even more pressing problem than overpopulation.
Dissent against the population plans has been widespread, and a rare public protest on Saturday claimed to have drawn close to 5,000 people - an impressive feat in a country where many protests and public gatherings are illegal, and a police permit needs to be obtained to hold one.
"I want to express this displeasure faced by many Singaporeans on a united and peaceful platform," said organiser Gilbert Goh, an unemployment counsellor who runs a support website for the jobless in Singapore.
"My greatest fear that arises from all this is the loss of our Singaporean identity, because it's been eroded so much already and with the heavy influx, it may be destroyed," said Goh. "And to add insult to injury, we are constantly being reminded that we could be the minority population figure in 17 years' time."
Singaporeans have become increasingly vocal about the high influx of foreigners in recent years, demanding changes in the government's relaxed immigration policies.
The opposition Singapore Democratic Party (SDP) recently launched its own population policy report, calling instead for a plan for businesses to favour Singaporeans when hiring and to tighten the screening of foreign professionals to wean businesses off of cheap foreign labour.
SDP party chief Chee Soon Juan said instead of moving towards a population of 6.9 million, the current population should be reduced "because of all the current problems Singapore is seeing".
|"I think political change is inevitable and controversial issues like the White Paper on Population might hasten the flight of support to the opposition."|
- Eugene Tan, Singapore Management University
Some think dissatisfaction with the White Paper could hurt the People's Action Party (PAP) in the country's elections in 2016.
"We are talking about an average increase of 100,000 people every year, so if you want to talk in terms of how crucial the impact will have on the next general election, I cannot exaggerate how important it is," said the SDP's Chee.
"Time is not on the side of the PAP," said professor Tan. "I think political change is inevitable and controversial issues like the White Paper on Population might hasten the flight of support to the opposition."The ruling party appears to have lost support in recent years. This was made clear in a by-election in January that the PAP was expected to win. Instead, unhappy Singaporeans delivered the party a devastating blow by voting in favour of the opposition candidate.
Political blogger Andrew Loh agreed. "I feel that the PAP government will see its share of the popular vote decrease further ... I do not see these things improving enough by the next general election for people to reinstate the level of trust in the government which they had in the past."
The Population White Paper Attacks Us in our Deepest Identity
Dr Vincent Wijeysingha's speech at the Hong Lim Park protest against the PAP Population White Paper on Feb 16, 2013 (source)
Two days ago, the Singapore Democratic Party launched its population policy paper. We made six recommendations that we hope are comprehensive and coherent, defended by international research. Our objective is not to target a particular population figure but to create the conditions, both economic and social, which will achieve a reduction in our population over a manageable period. I offer it for your consideration; please read it on our website.
But this afternoon, in this historic park, I have come to join you, my fellow Singaporeans, to share this platform with these distinguished speakers, simply because the White Paper on population attacks us in our deepest identity.
Not because of that number: 6.9 million; or because no sound research and international thinking supported it. Not because all the speeches made in Parliament on the PAP side did not seem to even begin to guess our concerns. But because the White Paper has revealed two things: That the government does not appreciate what it means to be an ordinary Singaporean struggling to get by in 2013. And two, that it appears to care very little.
That have been many reasons offered for why the government seems so intent on packing our island with so many people. Some people say it is for GDP. Some say it is to bolster its flagging electoral support. Others say the PAP is no longer capable of re-imaging the economy. And still others say that true leadership has left the party.
There may be some truth in each of them. But the most primary reason why population policy has affected us so deeply is contained in our national pledge. Our children make a commitment every day to it, to happiness, progress and prosperity.
In our first one hundred and fifty years, our ancestors came to these shores in search of a better existence for their children and their grandchildren. They fled from poverty, from famine, from war and destruction in their own countries. Why? Because the instinct of any human being - in fact of any being - is to maximise their wellbeing.
Our wellbeing is contained in three ‘Bs’: be safe, belong, be fed and clothed. In an immigrant society, the memory of poverty, of war and famine, has seeped so deeply into the bones and the blood and the sinews of our people that we built for ourselves, through formidable hard work, a home worth living in. A home we wouldn’t have to flee from; a country a peace with itself, even if we disagree with our government or with our neighbours. And we arrived, in the last 20 years, as a society able to provide for itself, able to articulate our deepest wishes for our people.
But even as we stepped into that new world, even as we settled into a better life, far away from the privations and punishments that brought our ancestors here, we are faced with a government which tells us that what we had worked for, what we had fought for, was not enough, that we had become lazy, complacent, and forgetful of the hard times. It seems almost bizarre that they should not know that it was precisely to leave the hard times behind that we worked so hard to build the home we built.
At this stage allow me to say something about the guest workers who live in our country. Many of us have reacted angrily to the population policy and have directed our anger at our foreign brothers and sisters. This is wrong. Foreigners are our fellow human beings and they deserve our respect and our friendship. To oppose the government’s population policy, which is our right and our duty, we must direct our dissatisfaction at the government.
But to the foreign residents in our midst, we must extend our traditional Asian hospitality. I lived abroad once upon a time. I know what xenophobia feels like. Let us not reduce our rightful anger to xenophobia. Let us be neighbours to our foreign friends. And, at the same time, let us oppose, wholeheartedly, the government’s population policy that is so badly considered and so poorly managed.
The fear of being displaced in our own homes is a fear as old as humanity itself. From the first time we took shelter in caves from wild animals and the elements, we learnt that the most valuable treasure is the treasure called home. But each day as we step out into our daily lives, we feel we are stepping into an alienation and apathy that makes our children wonder whether there is anything valuable left on our island anymore. We feel betrayed that those whom we trusted to govern us, those to whom we surrendered our rights in return for their good government, now appear to have closed their ears against our apprehension, against our fears, against our worries. And they have said that if we are not willing, they will put spurs in our sides and if we are still not willing, they will replace us with those who are.
This is why we came here this afternoon. Not because we hate foreigners. We do not. How can we? But because we worry for the soul of our homeland and because we grieve for what we have already lost in 10 years of a dissolute population policy that imagines that you can squander the loyalty of your people, that you can cast away the hard-won pride that we built for ourselves and our families and our neighbours, and that you can give away free-of-charge the wealth that our parents and grandparents built. That is not what we want.
It is the task of our generation to ensure that our home continues to be safe and secure and happy for all our people; that our national pledge continues to be meaningful. We want the government to know that that is what we want; and who will put the vast resources at their disposal at the service of us the people.
Because we are not machines and our neighbourhoods are not factories and our island is not a hotel. It is our home, where we care for our grandparents, where we raise our children, where we share the experience of being human with our friends and neighbours. You came here today to say this loudly and clearly and urgently to our government. I humbly join my voice to yours so that we can make it heard in Parliament and at the Istana Annexe. So that in 20 years from now, our hopes and dreams are not just memories in our dusty photo albums.
We cannot fail; we must not. We owe it to our children who depend on us. We owe it to our ancestors who built this land: like Cheang Hong Lim, whose park has become synonymous with our rights. If we throw away our right to speak cogently and bravely to our government, we will not be worth the respect we hope for from our grandchildren.
Go to your Meet the People Sessions, write in your Facebook, email the ministers, hold more and more forums, events at Hong Lim Green, form organisations to campaign and do research, donate your spare cash to the causes that fight for a better Singapore. But also, support the organisations that work with migrant workers: Transient Workers Count Too, Humanitarian Organisation for Migration Economics, Healthserve. They do good work to help our migrant brothers and sisters who struggle under our system. Do not set yourselves apart from our foreign guests. Change your mindset: it is not they who steal our jobs and lower our wages. It is a policy framework that has forgotten that we Singaporeans are, and must be, the first and last object of governance.
My friends, we must populate civil society, that space that is ours, between the individual and the state, and there, loudly, tell the government that we want them to change. Use every means at your disposal. Do not walk away from this park and wring your hands. It is the task of this generation.
Tell the PM that he governs in our interests, not in spite of them; that he governs by our permission. And when he sends our young men off to National Service, that they know what they are training to defend. Ultimately, they defend not our GDP growth, important though that is, but the happiness, prosperity and progress that their parents and grandparents helped to build.
|The Dutch are better informed than Singapore's mainstream (PAP) media audience|
AFP (Agence France-Presse), Feb 18, 2013 (source)
“PAP leaders seem to have lost their feel of the ground. Their technocratic decision-making style is no longer accepted, yet they persist in ‘we know best’ policies,” said Reuben Wong, associate professor of political science at the National University of Singapore.
Saturday’s protesters were rallying against government projections that the population could rise by a third to almost seven million in less than 20 years, with much of the increase resulting from immigration.
For years, the affluent but worker-starved city-state, built by mainly Chinese immigrants, had rolled out the welcome mat for foreigners, whose numbers rose drastically during the economic boom from 2004-2007.
Businesses hired construction workers from Bangladesh, hotel staff from the Philippines, waitresses from China, shipyard welders from Myanmar, technology professionals from India and bankers from the west.
Foreigners currently make up 38 percent of the population and the low Singapore birth rate means immigrants and guest workers will need to fill the manpower gap, raising that figure to 45 percent.
However, anger over the projections is causing Singaporeans to engage in something new — speaking out against the PAP in public and not just in social media
“I’m thinking about my children, who are going to have a big problem studying in a competitive society next time,” tax consultant Kevin Foo, 42, told AFP at the rally.
“Foreigners are going to create a lot of problems here, especially the rich ones who buy up all our property. Where are Singaporeans going to live?”