Singapore stands apart from its neighbors, in terms of physical appearance. You could be forgiven for thinking that the skyline of Singapore, if it weren’t so noticeably Singaporean, is the same that demarcates most American cities. The transformation of Singapore has been stratospheric. In fact, it has changed more in the post-WWII period than almost any other of it’s South East Asian counterparts.
Immigration has soared. The city is full of not only professional workers and expats carving a living in the many financial institutions that have made the city home but there are also plenty of unskilled workers looking to take advantage of the low-tax, high-wage environment that Singapore provides. The vast majority of these immigrants are from mainland China or Bangladesh, and many of them find work on enormous and rapidly growing construction sites owned by Chinese and Indian investors. It is widely acknowledged now that many graduates from the Philippines, Indonesia and Myanmar seek work in the ever-expanding sector of customer service in the myriad of call centres that have sprung up all over the city.
Of course, no matter where you are in the world, if there is an influx of immigration, the results are soon felt politically. Many were left shocked when in 2011, the PAP (People’s Action Party, which has never been out of power) only won 60% of the vote. This was their poorest performance in history since Singapore declared it’s independance. Despite the opposition being notoriously weak and poorly organised, they won six seats in parliamant. If this election was the poorest on record for PAP, it was the opposition’s best. What was the reason for this?
Many political commentators claim that it was immigration. Average Singaporeans began to feel tired of the endless competition for jobs, higher living costs and social services that were fit to burst. However, by 2016, this tide of feeling had somewhat receded and PAP had managed to regain must of it’s lost ground. Even after the death of Singapore’s founding father Lee Kuan Yew in 2016, many predicted chaos, upheaval and even revolution.
It didn’t happen. However, much like most of the Western world, there is an undercurrent of resentment. Bloggers have coined the phrase ‘gah-men’ to express distrust of how the bankers are handling their money. There was a short but disruptive bus drivers’ strike, largely attributed to unrest regarding immigration. The sizeability of the immigrant workforce itself means that things can often turn dangerous, resulting in a well-publicised night of violence in Little India. Several migrant workers have been arrested in previous years, under suspicion of involvement in Islamic extremism.
Singapore itself is remarkable. It has all the benefits of a multicultural society, resulting in a vibrant city which has the well-preserved and popular zones of Chinatown and Little India. The problems which have emerged this side of the millennium throughout South East Asia have made it difficult for many countries to embrace multiracialism. Immigrants are viewed with suspicion throughout Indonesia for example. Extremism prevails in many islands, culminating in the shocking terrorist attack in Surabaya, where a family launched a suicide attack against a church. Freedoms are being regularly curtailed in the Philippines, with the quasi-dictatorship of Duterte in full flow. The political landscape in Thailand is still uncertain. Therefore, despite certain tensions, Singapore remains largely afloat in a sea of changing tides and turmoil. Whether Singapore remains one of the ‘freer’ cities in South East Asia remains to be seen, but for now, it remains strong in the face of widespread political unrest and dissatisfaction.