SINGAPORE – The red and white flags are everywhere. Military planes form the number 50 in the azure skies above the magnificent Marina Bay Sands. The Merlion proudly stands as tourists and locals snap the obligatory selfie on this special occasion. It is Singapore’s birthday, but not everyone is on party mode.
“We work, work, work. Very stressed. Everything expensive, nothing free lah. This island is for rich people, not poor people,” said one “uncle,” the term Singaporeans use to refer to taxi drivers and elderly men.
It is a creeping sentiment that contrasts with the splashy parade and fireworks on the city-state’s 50th independence day on Sunday, August 9. As Singapore’s government trumpets the third-world to first-world catchphrase, some of its citizens point to inequality, glitches in the train system, and the growing competition with foreigners for jobs and space. (READ: #SG50: Foreign workers less welcome in Singapore?)
Along with the celebration is an anxiety that the success that drove the Southeast Asian nation to the top of global economic rankings will gradually taper off.
While the late strongman Lee Kuan Yew’s Singapore valued economic growth, a younger, well-heeled generation of Singaporeans is questioning the same policies that brought the country prosperity, and the costs of its fairytale-like transformation. Where is this shifting Singapore headed?
The Singapore of the 21st century is often referred to as a victim of its own success.
After the immigrant city was expelled from Malaysia in 1965, its founding fathers headed by Lee led its transformation into a modern metropolis. Obsessed with vulnerabilities like the lack of land and water, a central, paternalistic government prioritized economic security by providing public housing, education, and infrastructure.
Yet this model focusing on material wellbeing led to more sophisticated demands.
Kenneth Paul Tan, vice dean at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, partly attributes the discontent to a generational gap.
“An earlier generation might have felt very grateful, maybe more compliant but younger Singaporeans did not grow up like that. They were born into more affluent situations. The efficiency, sanitation were there. They don’t compare ourselves to cities doing badly. They compare ourselves to cities doing very well. So expectations are high for this government.”
Despite being in a wealthy, high-tech metropolis, Singapore’s workers rank as the unhappiest in Asia, and have one of the longest work hours in the world. The hub for finance is also the most expensive in the globe, with a rising cost of living.
Economist Donald Low, also with the Lee Kuan Yew School, said that social mobility is a key concern as the population ages, and as export-oriented economies like Singapore stagnate.
“The questions that consume the minds of Singaporeans are: Do people feel their children have the chance to improve their standing in society? If I’m in the middle class, will my kids have a chance to be in the upper middle class?”
“It’s harder for us to achieve the same levels of social mobility that we achieved in the first 30 years when Singapore progressed very rapidly from a poor nation to a rich nation,” Low told Rappler.
Engaging while clamping down
Part of what observers call this “new normal” is a more contested political landscape.
While most political parties will celebrate getting 60% of the vote, Lee’s People’s Action Party (PAP) considered the result its worst setback in 2011. One of the world’s longest ruling parties, the PAP will vie for elections expected later this year or early 2016 where it might lose more seats to the opposition.
PAP’s Tan Chuan-Jin, minister for social and family development, said the ruling party is adjusting to a more active electorate. (Read and watch: #SG50: Rappler Talk: Singapore after LKY – legacy, leadership, and change)
“People appreciate the fact that ‘I had a role to play. I am not marginalized. I am not just a cog in this whole machinery that is Singapore but I have a stake.’ There’s a purpose. It’s a very different sense of being a citizen. That engagement is important. We definitely need to do a lot more of that,” he told Rappler.
Yet some things never change. In an effort to get students more involved in social activities, the minister said the government is requiring them to do “voluntary outreach work.”
He caught himself and quipped: “It’s kind of horrific if you think about it that way.”
Part of the government’s adjustment is dealing with social media. While it has direct or indirect control of mainstream media and sued opposition politicians and foreign news outlets, it does not have the same hold over Facebook, Twitter, and other platforms in one of the world’s most wired cities.
Singapore’s leaders tried to rein in expression online through lawsuits, and a licensing scheme for news websites.
The government often justifies harsh controls on free expression as essential to fostering economic growth and social cohesion in a multicultural, multiracial society.
The cost of censorship
Alex Au, a dissident blogger who has been forced to apologize and pay fines to the government for critical articles, said that the clampdown on free speech is counter-productive. He was convicted of “scandalizing the judiciary” for blogging about how the court handled LGBT cases.
Au also cited the case of 16-year-old Amos Yee, jailed for 53 days for posting a video criticizing Lee and Christians. Au said the government went “totally overboard.”
“A substantial number of Singaporeans has become restless, and are able to see through the relatively self-serving nature of these thin-skinned rules. There is a constant drumbeat of criticism on social media about these rules. The cost of self-censorship, the closing of minds far outweigh any benefit you could possibly gain from social harmony,” Au told Rappler.
Even in the arts, the government has stuck to old practices like prohibiting critical content.
To Singapore with Love, a film featuring political exiles made to mark the 50th anniversary, was banned.
Vice Dean Tan, also chair of the Asian Film Archive, said that censorship hurts the development of the arts as well.
“The real meaning of jubilee is forgiveness for past sins. If we took our jubilee in that spirit, it sets a stronger foundation for Singapore to go forward, and we should let the artists, people dealing with the soul of Singapore, contribute to that effort,” Tan said.
As the festivities die down and Singapore’s workers head back to their swanky offices, the future of the city-state is not as clear as the golden jubilee’s laser shows.
Experts said the government is right in stressing the importance of maintaining Singapore’s economic dynamism. Yet with a changing demographic and more critical voices, the Lion City must rethink how it achieves that.
“We have to reimagine various policies and institutions in Singapore,” said Low. “For a successful organization, creativity and innovation are not natural. My fear of the Singapore government is not so much complacency but failing to question the need to alter the very policies that have given us success.”
For Au, Singaporeans must also go beyond questioning the breakdown of trains and traffic lights.
“The engineering here will be good because people have no patience with poor engineering. But on the other front, when it comes to the environment, animal protection, human rights, poverty alleviation, treatment of migrants, there isn’t enough satisfaction.”
He said the changing sentiment does not necessarily signal Singapore’s decline.
“If you are not dissatisfied with the present, you can never progress or get to the next step. You have to be unhappy where you are.” – Rappler.com
This week, Rappler puts the spotlight on Singapore as the city-state celebrates its 50th anniversary on August 9. We take a look at the forces that shaped it, and what lies ahead.