Same-same but different. That’s the impression I get when I think of Singapore in 1965 and Singapore in 2015. Singapore has gone a long way in the past 50 years. From colony to nation, harbour town to global trade hub, the city-state has reached a level of prosperity and progress many are envious of and few will ever attain. But as Singapore celebrates her 50th birthday today, I’m stepping back and wondering, where is Singapore going from here?

I’m not an optimist. I’m not going to wax lyrical about life in Singapore. I’m confident many other bloggers can write far more eloquently about this than me — and, more importantly, I’m not an optimist. Instead, I see challenges on the horizon, challenges that Singapore needs to face if we are to survive for the next fifty years.

Civic Participation

Singaporeans of the 1950s and 1960s were not Singaporeans. They were colonial subjects or immigrants who happened to share the same geographical location. They were Chinese, Indians, Malays and other people brought together in a small space, all of whom did not identify as Singaporean. The Singapore nationalist movement only really kicked off after WWII; outside of the intellectual elite, there was no coherent sense of a Singaporean nation among the people noticed by history.

The riots and turmoil of this era can be understood in context. People did not see themselves as Singaporeans. They saw themselves as Hokkien, Malay, Cantonese, Javanese, Bangladeshi, Taiwanese — as people of specific ethnic or national groups. Diversity of cultures plus competition for limited resources in close proximity equals conflict.

While the People’s Action Party took over from the British in 1965, they did not fundamentally change the way the British did things. They simply placed themselves in charge. They adopted British laws and Parliamentary customs, then altered laws and politics to solidify their grasp on power. The state grew and grew, becoming the all-present ‘Gahment’ that looms over Singaporeans and benevolently guides the country to greater heights. Like the British, the PAP placed itself itself in charge by becoming a powerful government that can ram through social engineering policies to enforce assimilation and diversity, stifle political opposition through laws and lawsuits, and crush all threats (terrorist and otherwise) with an iron fist.

For good or ill, this method of maximum government created an entity people from different identity groups could fear and respect, allowing them to put aside their differences and work towards a greater good. Given Singapore’s ethnic diversity and the conflict that stemmed from it, it could even be argued that such measures were necessary to ensure civil peace.

But 2015 is not 1965. My generation are born-and-bred Singaporeans. They have known no homeland but Singapore, no identity but Singaporean. They live alongside people of different races and religions, and for the most part do so peaceably. They have grown up in a time of prosperity, and generally do not need to worry about making ends meet. Further, many Singaporeans with higher education levels would be able to write their own check elsewhere, instead of staying in Singapore.

So why will Singaporeans want to continue to be part of Singapore? What will make them stay? The PAP’s traditional answer is that they have friends, family and homes here. But with public housing remaining expensive (the supply crunch is only beginning to ease), and technology allowing people to remain connected halfway around the world, why else should people stay here?

The only answer I can think of is that they feel they are part of Singapore, and for them to feel they are part of Singapore they want to get involved in running their country. That means participating in the civic process, to exercise the rights of citizenship. The government would not object to young Singaporeans joining the PAP, civil service or volunteer groups. But what about those who refuse to join in? What about those with different views, people who prefer to join an opposition group or run as independent candidates, people who want to take more action to be heard in Singapore?

This means freeing up the civic space for discourse. This means the government has to put away the velvet glove and unclench the iron fist. It means the government will have to talk to people and treat them as citizens. Not just people who don’t know any better, but citizens with legitimate perspectives. It also means the government needs to share information: instead of having private chat sessions to share confidential information with influential bloggers, they need to be as transparent as possible, making all the data available so Singaporeans can understand what is going on in their country, and help make Singapore a better place.

Diversity and Demographics

On the flip side of participation is diversity. The world is becoming an increasingly diverse place, and that is not necessarily a good thing. Singapore saw what happened when a country has diversity but no overarching identity. This has echoed throughout history: the fall of Western Rome to the Visigoths, when too few Romans would defend the empire; the breakup of the USSR after the collapse of communist rule, with the nations of Eastern Europe going their own way; the genocides of Africa, where tribe-on-tribe violence and massacres are a way of life.

I’m concerned the events of the 50s and 60s might one day happen again. Maybe not in as large a scale, but any such eruption would be devastating to our way of life. Singapore’s birth rate is falling, and the government’s answer is to encourage immigration from elsewhere.

The problem with immigration is that a country can only absorb so many immigrants at once before points of friction set in. If immigrants do not fully assimilate into a country, they remain outsiders. When people with different values, norms and customs interact in close proximity, friction tends to occur. A lot of angst aimed at immigrants tends to be rooted in the perception that these new immigrants do not think, behave, speak or act like Singaporeans.

And perhaps a measure of this is objectively true. Singapore’s bridging language is English, but there is no requirement for English fluency to become a Singapore citizen. There is also no requirement for immigrants to attend extensive courses to learn to become Singaporeans, and male immigrants not not need to serve National Service. Contrast this to places like the United States, which administers citizenship tests, and the road to citizenship usually takes years — or else requires service in the US military. When a Singaporean man looks upon a male new citizen, he does not see a fellow Singaporean; he sees a man who enjoys the rights of citizenship without having earned it. And service in the Singapore Volunteer Corps is nowhere near the same as National Service.

Exacerbating matters is the coming of the ASEAN Economic Community. Slated to come online in 2015, it remains a very low-profile matter in local media. Public discussion is almost nil, and the only people interested in it seem to be high-powered businessmen and governments. I think we will not see the AEC come to fruition this year, but I can’t say it won’t happen at all. One of the key components of the AEC is the ASEAN single market. Like the European Union, the single market aims to induce the free flow of goods, investment, capital and skilled labour.

The last is a problem. As the case of the EU has shown, the implementation of the ASEAN single market would allow workers from low-income countries to break into the Singapore market. They will undercut locals through demanding lower wages, knowing that it is still a small fortune when converted to their home currency. Or else they may choose to stay on as immigrants and bring their families over, faster than Singapore can assimilate them.

On the reverse side, there is also nothing stopping Singapore’s professionals from moving overseas. Singapore has one of the best education systems in the world, and that means an educated Singaporean professional can move to a country with a lower standard of living and write his own check. He won’t see a need to come home either, and may choose to bring his family overseas and settle down there.

Compounding matters, the rest of the world is fracturing along civilisational lines. Globalisation has erased national borders and reduced government control over their own countries; this means people will revert to smaller and older identity circles. This increases diversity and decreases proximity, but on the micro scale, at the level of neighbourhoods and cities as opposed to provinces and countries. This means that an increasingly diverse Singapore without an overarching identity, which equals greater potential for internal conflict.

What can be done about this? We can’t increase proximity. What we can do is decrease diversity, by enforcing greater controls on immigration and migrant labour, to ensure that Singapore can absorb the immigrants we do take in — and that these immigrants do indeed want to contribute to Singapore. Instead of classifying Singaporeans along the CIMO model, Singapore needs to start talking about a greater Singaporean identity. Instead of handing out new citizenships, the government has to ensure that would-be new Singaporeans have earned their place — and, in the long run, move away from encouraging immigration and towards boosting birth rates.

The Vicious Cycle

What Singapore faces is a vicious cycle. Without the ability to meaningfully participate in civil affairs, Singaporeans will see that they cannot avert the demographic bomb. They will switch off and revert to smaller identity circles, and maybe even move out of Singapore. People from elsewhere will move into Singapore and enjoy citizenship without being seen to have earned it, and would not necessarily be assimilated into Singapore. These people will likely vote for politicians who will benefit the people they identify with — not necessarily Singaporeans — further alienating local Singaporeans. The cycle continues until conflict breaks out, and something changes.

Going forward, I think Singapore needs to do three things. It needs to develop an overarching sense of identity, one that unites people regardless of race, language or religion. It needs to allow citizens to actually be citizens and participate in the creation of the country. It needs to lay out the responsibilities and rights of citizens, and ensure that only people who live up to the former get to enjoy the latter — regardless of where they come from.

I hope Singapore will get to celebrate her 100th birthday in continued peace and prosperity. And for that to happen, Singapore needs to start thinking about what it really means to be Singaporean: not just an inhabitant of this island, but a citizen of this nation, distinct from others.

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