As Singapore prepares for election, immigration remains key issue

Singapore's influx of foreigners remains a divisive issue ahead of the poll

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 09 September, 2015, 2:08am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 09 September, 2015, 6:04pm

"Turn off the tap to the immigration policy!" exclaimed blogger-turned-opposition politician Ravi Philemon on Sunday at an election rally.

The crowd, mostly seated on a field not far from the new National Stadium, cheered and clapped like they were in a sports arena. Some whistled in approval. The message was well- received.

Night after night, at rallies across Singapore, the issue of immigration gets almost compulsory airing by opposition candidates, railing against the authorities' openness to immigrants.

Watch: Huge rallies boost opposition hopes in Singapore elections​

The island nation has always been an immigrant society. But in recent years, the heavy flow from the tap, to use Philemon's phrase, has led to much unease among the locals.

And clearly, despite the blows the ruling People's Action Party (PAP) suffered over the same issue in the previous election in 2011, its rivals believe public anger has not abated.

As Singaporeans vote on Friday, the opposition parties are hoping the discontent can help chip away the PAP's 92 per cent dominance of parliamentary seats.

"All opposition parties profess not to be xenophobic but some see immigration as the source of all their woes from job competition to faltering infrastructure," said analyst Terence Chong from the Iseas-Yusof Ishak Institute.

"These parties believe stemming the flow of foreigners would suddenly alleviate all their domestic problems."

At the heart of the debate is probably the most famous numerical figure in Singapore these days: 6.9 million.

In a white paper released by the government in early 2013, it was cited as Singapore's target population by 2030.

The city-state has surged from 4.17 million people in 2004, when Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong came into power, to 5.47 million last year - a population rise of 32 per cent.

Most of the increase came from overseas-born people who now make up more than two million in Singapore. There has also been an average injection of between 15,000 to 25,000 new citizens every year.

As unofficial opposition leader Low Thia Khiang of the Workers' Party said in a rally speech: "We might even see the day when Singaporeans become the minority."

The projected population would mean more foreigners since local-born Singaporeans are notoriously low on reproduction. Last year, the total fertility rate was 1.25, a long way from the replacement rate of about 2.1.

Such rates are similar to major developed Asian countries and cities like Hong Kong, South Korea and Japan.

The 6.9 million target was met with almost immediate fury by the people, prompting the government to back down. It stressed the figure was a guide for infrastructure planning and not a population target.

But the opposition believes discontent remains. They blame the foreigners for problems ranging from depressed wages to job scarcity, from pushing up property prices to an overcrowded public transport system.

Two key events since the last election have kept immigration foremost on the minds of the voters. In 2012, a man from China ran a red light at a speed of 178km/h in his Ferrari, crashing into a taxi. He died, along with the Singaporean taxi driver and his Japanese passenger. The accident aroused much anger, drawing contrasts between a reckless rich foreigner and a law-abiding poor local.

A year later, Indian foreign workers rioted in Singapore's worst case of unrest in over 40 years. The violence left 49 security officers injured and 23 vehicles damaged.

"The lack of planning by the government was so bad that even the police were not trained to handle the unrest," said Singapore Democratic Party leader Chee Soon Juan during a rally.

The PAP has made changes to its immigration policies to assuage Singaporeans, including tightening the growth in the number of foreigners, sharpening the contrast between locals and foreigners in education and healthcare, and enhancing job protection.

But Singapore cannot shut itself off completely, Lee said last month in his National Day Rally speech.

"Whichever option we choose, it will involve some pain. But I believe I am doing what Singapore needs and what best safeguards your interests," he said.

Singaporeans will make it known on Friday if they agree with him.