Edwina Lin is 24-years-old and happily married, with a young son turning two this year. In Singapore, a prosperous city-state with a dismal birth rate, this is becoming increasingly rare.
But it’s not all smooth sailing. Lin, a financial planner, and her family are currently living with her parents- and brother-in-law; five adults and one child squeezed into a four-room flat in one of Singapore’s many public housing estates.
She and her husband, a travel sales agent, have applied to buy a five-room flat in a newer estate that will only be ready in 2016. Until then, there isn’t much to do but work, earn as much money as possible and save up. They‘re expecting to have to take out a 30-year mortgage to pay for their home.
It’s a common tale among many young families in Singapore. Property prices have skyrocketed in recent years, and citizens have yet to feel the effects of the “cooling measures” adopted by the government. It’s a bitter pill to swallow as wages stagnate and the income gap widens; all while the country continues to record positive economic growth.
Singapore has often been cited as a success story, the envy of governments around the world. But simmering underneath the gloss and the shine lies a much more complex story of a nation slowly outgrowing a patriarchal government and restrictive system.
Not long after losing a by-election, the ruling People’s Action Party (PAP) launched a White Paper entitled ‘A Sustainable Population for a Dynamic Singapore’. The paper outlined the government’s plans to sustain economic growth and deal with a rapidly aging population, but for the most part only one thing captured the public imagination: the projected population of 6.9 million by 2030.
It’s a very unattractive prospect, especially when strains have already begun to show with 5.3 million people crammed onto an island of only 714.3 square kilometres. Flooding and train breakdowns are only some of the problems that have begun to annoy Singaporeans used to taking efficiency for granted.
Despite the public outcry, criticism from expert economists and five days of intense debate in Parliament, the PAP was able to use its parliamentary majority to push the motion through.
In the past, Singaporeans would have probably just complained in coffee shops before going about their everyday business, but not anymore. For many, the White Paper was the last straw. A protest organized at Hong Lim Park – the only space in the country where citizens are allowed to protest without a permit – drew a crowd of over 3,000 people, all of whom were fed up with the government’s policy and lack of serious engagement.
“It’s a united show of displeasure by the citizens against the White Paper even though it has been passed in Parliament,” says organiser Gilbert Goh. “Singaporeans basically are not happy with the 6.9 million population target by 2030 and are dropping all preconceived fears to step out of their comfort zone.”
Lin, too, had wanted to attend the protest, but had to stay home to take care of her son. Like the protesters, she has many misgivings about the White Paper and the quality of life for future generations: “The most worrying is that my children and grandchildren will have harder lives – and no signs of getting better quality of life – despite hard work put in, unlike our parents’ and grandparents’ generation when opportunities were abundant.”
Placards seen at the protest showcase the people’s frustrations. “We want to be heard, not herded!” one proclaims.
“We are not your ‘sheeple’,” says another.
It’s a sign that the government’s efforts to launch a ‘national conversation’ are not quite going to plan. Despite the social media pages, the love-heart-filled website and the dialogue sessions soliciting citizen viewpoints, Singaporeans still don’t feel like they’re part of the decision-making process.
The protest is not without its controversy, though. Critics have accused Goh of racism and xenophobia, and many of the messages seen and heard at the protest were a little too nationalistic and protectionist for comfort. Among the many placards at the protest was one that read, “Singapore for Singaporeans”, echoing catchphrases of right-wing anti-immigration groups around the world. (“Britain for the British” is one of the favourite slogans of the far-right British National Party in the United Kingdom.)
This has alienated some, preventing them from participating in the protest despite also rejecting the White Paper.
“The framing of the protest as being about ‘immigration policy’ should ring alarm bells, especially when it mirrors the rhetoric of the far-right in Europe,” says an educator I spoke with, who decided to boycott the protest. “Concerns should be placed on issues like oppressive labor laws, the commodification of space, militarization and the policies of built environment. Also, civil society should recognize its responsibility towards immigrants by building a just society for all.”
Still, many civil society members went to the protest to ensure that anti-foreigner sentiment did not dominate. Migrants’ rights activist Jolovan Wham was one of them.
“I went to the protest because I was concerned that in our enthusiasm to oppose our government’s immigration policy, we might end up unwittingly bashing foreigners,” the educator noted. “I gave out flyers at the event to reinforce the idea that criticising our lousy immigration and labor policies should not degenerate into attacks on foreigners.”
Vincent Wijeysingha, treasurer of the Singapore Democratic Party, also attended the protest to counter potential anti-foreigner sentiments. “Do not set yourselves apart from our foreign guests,” he urged the crowd in his speech. “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.”
It’s clear that Singaporeans are angry, but it would be far too simplistic to pin it down to just one thing. The wave of dissatisfaction has been caused by many factors, from worries over bread-and-butter issues to a frustration over the lack of true democracy. And locals aren’t the only ones hit, either; migrant workers have also often been victims of government policy and the lack of welfare and protections.
“The problem with the White Paper is that it recommends an increase in the number of low-wage migrant workers in Singapore without providing information about how it would ensure that the rights and welfare of migrant workers would be ensured,” Whams explains. “For example, will there be sufficient decent accommodation for them? Will they end up living in slum-like conditions at construction sites like many of them do now, or in overcrowded quarters because there are insufficient dormitories? Are our social services equipped with the capacity to provide appropriate social support for them?”
Wham continues, “These questions are not being answered and unless they can show how they will ensure that the rights of migrant workers will be upheld, I reject the White Paper because we cannot just treat migrant workers as economic units to grow GDP.”
It’s not the most cheerful of situations, but Singaporeans seem to be waking up. Where this newfound motivation will lead remains to be seen; not all change is good. The hope is that people will be aware that change needs to come not just from the government, but also in mindsets long cultivated from years of rhetoric and “mainstream values” foisted on the populace. Fortunately, many young Singaporeans aren’t giving up.
“I'm concerned for my country and I'm not one who runs away when things get tough,” says Lin. ”This is my country and I take ownership.”
Kirsten Han is a writer, videographer and photographer. Originally from Singapore, she has worked on documentary projects around Asia and written for publications including Waging Nonviolence, Asian Correspondent and The Huffington Post.