One of Sun Tzu’s most important teachings is the art of diversion, and Singaporean politicians have become masters of its use. Throughout the past summer, the local media frenzy was all about the Lee family, Singapore’s ‘Kardashians’. No, the Lee family does not have a reality TV show, nor are they known for their outrageous outfits. Their late father was Lee Kuan Yew, who is considered by most to be the father of the nation, and whose son, Lee Hsien Loong, is the current prime minister. The affair was quite uneventful: a quarrel between siblings over the future of the family home. While his sister and brother want to see the house destroyed, as per their father’s last requests, Mr Lee H. L. wishes to turn it into a monument. Accusing Mr Lee of using their father’s heritage to improve his political image, his siblings have taken to social media to fight his plans, using Facebook as their political battleground. Nothing shocking or vulgar, but the affair has become quite the scandal, and has made headlines of countless local newspapers. One might ask: why the spectacle? Singapore, known mostly for forbidding the sale of chewing gum and harsh penalties on drug use, at first glance looks like a capitalist utopia, and a system that many current politicians are trying to emulate. However, looking in depth, Singapore’s fabric is more complex, with an interesting mixture of multiculturalism, social inequalities and domestic politics. Once again, one might ask: what is Singapore so desperately trying to hide?
So expenisive lah
Singapore has topped every list recently: best touristic spot, finest food destination, most welcoming city, to name a few. But it has also been named the most expensive city in the world, a title it deserves. With high inflation, seen by many as the result of the large amount of expats welcomed into the country, inequalities in the population have risen.
Nearly 400,000 Singaporeans survive on only $5 a day, after paying for rent, bills, schooling, and medical treatments. This is hard in any city, let alone in one with such a high cost of living. Locals have even created the ‘$5 Challenge’ to highlight how difficult it is to survive on such a low income in Singapore, and to show support for the poorest in the country. Local discontent has been growing, and citizens have taken to the ballot to show it. In 2011, the People’s Action Party (PAP), Singapore’s longest running party since its independence from Malaysia, recorded its lowest ratings in the elections: a mere 60% of the votes, but enough to secure the majority of the parliament’s seats. While this result would have been congratulated in many Western countries, the party’s leaders saw it as a defeat, and a signal for change. This is why Mr Lee reformed the British-inherited current system, for example by extending the number of non-voting seats the opposition is guaranteed to have in the parliament, and increasing racial representation. The jury is still out on whether Mr Lee has won his bet, as he has allowed Singapore’s opposition, the Workers’ Party, much more of a platform, but has still very much kept the power in the PAP’s hands. Tackling rising inequality is also unlikely to be a key issue for Mr Lee, who is a firm believer in trickledown economics. However, with the rising prices of real estates and the lack of HDB units (government housing which host 90% of the local population) available, he will have to find a solution to settle discontent Singaporeans.
Another issue that has plagued Singaporean politics is that of race and ethnic relations. 74% of Singaporeans are of Chinese ethnicity, while 13% are Malay and 9% are Indian. Tensions between the groups began to escalate in 1964, back when Singapore was still a part of the Federation of Malaysia. Residents of Malay ethnicity rioted against the Chinese majority, and the ruling PAP party. This incident created a rift between the two countries, and was one of the major causes for their separation. Since then, the PAP’s phobia of violence grew, and the party instigated numerous policies to appease racial tensions: HDBs are now subject to ethnic quotas, and any threats of ethnicity-related violence are swiftly and harshly dealt with. Racial stereotypes are very much censored from the media and other sources of entertainment. Even some elections are designed to present an image of harmony between ethnic groups. In 2017, the presidential elections, a largely ceremonial role, was reserved to Malay citizens, much to the dismay of Tan Cheng Bock, an independent Chinese Singaporean politician, who was deemed ineligible to run, and who had lost the previous presidential election by a slim margin. This left current president, Halimah Yacob, running unopposed and seemed to reinforce the idea that the race was used largely to give the illusion of peaceful social relations. This veneer of social harmony has played in favour of the PAP in the past, acting as an excuse to avoid public protests, as public demonstrations are subject to approval from the police before they take place. While not ostracised from the community, Malays, Singapore’s largest ethnic minority, do face some challenges, especially during the mandatory two years of military service, where they are discouraged from serving in certain sectors. This leaves some of the Malay Singaporeans reluctant to vote for the PAP, and, in return, the PAP fears they will strengthen support for rival parties.
Land of Milk Tea and Honey Glazed Satay
So far we have failed to mention the most underprivileged residents of Singapore: work permit holders. While some are rich expats, here to have the full experience of the ‘Singaporean dream’, the majority are workers from less developed Asian countries, here to contribute to the low-skilled labour force, including constriction and domestic help. Sometimes working conditions can be harsh, with many permit holders sleeping in overpopulated dormitories. It is also not rare to see stories of maids being abused by their employers in the news. Their situations are unstable; they can be sent home without any justifiable cause, and their work pass holds no longer than two years, subject to change in governmental policy. Crippled by the outrageous fees they have paid to the work agencies most use to get into Singapore, their life once in there is not what they imagined it to be. Many arrive with fantasies of beautiful high rise buildings and luxury apartments, but it quickly becomes apparent that this is a glimpse of a life that they will only get to see from afar, and not touch
This leads to a growing feeling of anger and resentment, as well as a sense of alienation from the rest of the population. In December 2013, the predictable happened: a riot in Little India after a migrant worker was run over by a bus, in the only place that vaguely resembles what they use to call home.
To end on a positive note, while we have been critical of the Singaporean government, as is the role of the media for any administration, let us remember that Singapore is, for all intents and purposes, a democracy. Its citizens have the freedom to vote in fair elections, and opposition parties are present and vocal. The Singaporean model has made grand advances in racial relations, and could serve as a model for Western countries to emulate. We are simply stating the obvious here: there’s no such thing as perfection (except for Beyoncé).