Nonfiction

Singapore: The Merlion Stirs…

2 April 2015

“Singapore? It’s kinda boring. Bloody expensive. Good shopping though. Oh, and the food is amazing.” This is what everyone told me before I left for an internship in the “Lion City” and, at first, nothing suggested the reality was any different. Everything is bloody expensive – for a while I was paying $60/night to live in quite literally a cupboard – and the shopping centres make Emporium look like Northland circa 1995. The local food, hygienically corralled into convenient ‘hawker centres’, is magnificent, justifying a gastronomic obsession that makes even a Melburnian feel at home.

Superficially, Singapore is exactly what it incessantly, unashamedly advertises itself to be: a safe and impeccably well-ordered place to make and spend money. However, start talking to the locals and it immediately becomes apparent that there’s a storm brewing.

For visitors, the government’s incredibly comprehensive system of rules and regulations is largely a source of baffled amusement; I’m sure I’m not alone in sniggering at the threat of a $500 fine for taking durian on the train. However, this is only the tip of an iceberg of authoritarian policies making life for the majority of Singaporean residents increasingly difficult.

This is perhaps best exemplified by the regulations surrounding the government-owned ‘HDB blocks’ in which most people live. You can’t own more than one HDB flat; couples can’t buy one unless they’re married; if you do manage to buy one you have to own it for at least five years before selling it; you can’t lease it or any of its rooms for less than six months; and the government will refuse your application if selling to someone of your designated racial identity* would affect the geographic racial quota system by which it enforces its ‘harmonious multicultural integration’.

This last rule is particularly interesting (and illustrative): marketed as a well-intentioned effort to avoid ghettoisation, many Singaporeans feel that this is just another way that the government aims to control almost every aspect of its citizens’ lives. Indeed, investigate Singaporean policy at all and it seems that the government is happy to demand the sacrifice of a great deal of personal autonomy from its citizens. This sacrifice is both a means to cultivate a society conducive to the government’s goal of becoming the most successful Asian economy, and the fair price to be paid in return for a slice of that prosperity.

As a young, liberally educated Australian with an instinctive dislike for government, I struggled to understand Singaporeans’ acceptance of these intrusive policies and the simplistic ‘in the public interest’ reasons used to justify them. Many Singaporeans, in the same breath as complaining about policies like the HDB rules, will tell you that their life has been, by and large, pretty good, particularly compared with their less prosperous and more dangerous neighbours. However, it appears that the government has started to take a few too many liberties with its end of the social contract. Increasingly, Singaporeans faced with overcrowding and an extraordinarily high cost of living are questioning whether the bargain is still worthy of their cooperation.

Abdul, a real estate agent with three kids, has – along with many of his colleagues – gone from owning a BMW and a very nice condominium apartment to leasing a two-bedroom HDB flat and driving for Uber by night (which was how I met him, after missing Singapore’s unsurprisingly decorous final train).

Dai Yu, a nurse I met while investigating the admittance procedures of Singapore’s public hospitals (definitely in the name of research, not food poisoning), had not once been given a pay rise or even thanked for her work in seven years at the hospital.

Lawyers morally against the death penalty are resigned to discharging themselves from such cases. Unwilling to work in a system with which they profoundly disagree, yet barred from critiquing it by the very real threat of the (government-constituted) Law Society revoking their practising certificates for ‘professional misconduct’, they view this as the only route left. Similar risks attend acting for politically sensitive clients, such as migrant workers or opposition politicians. The High Court’s recent finding that a law criminalising male homosexual acts does not contravene an explicit anti-discrimination clause in the Constitution, generated widespread disappointment, no longer relegated to radical internet forums. Thanks to my creepy, eavesdropping ways I’ve overheard the frustration of everyone from newsagents to high school students.

A bill currently before Parliament would ban drinking in public and prohibit shops from selling alcohol after 10:30pm, justified by pointing out that people can still go to bars after this time (cynics have been quick to point out the enormous taxes placed on venue-sold drinks).

I’ve heard several anecdotes of university lecturers being stood down after having published works considered problematic by the government-run university boards. The trainee lawyers at my firm work 11-hour days and lament the fact that they won’t be able to afford to move out of home until their late 20s. No one, it seems, is very happy with their lot.

Unsurprisingly, young people and the activist community are most vocal in articulating these frustrations. However, there is no doubt that Singaporeans of almost every background are starting to do some serious questioning as everyone’s situation becomes increasingly untenable.

Western expats are recruited to the top-tier jobs, bringing the prestige of foreign investment in return for Singapore’s impressive range of luxuries. Poor migrant workers are trafficked in and paid next to nothing to work in primary industries and services. The average Singaporean is left stranded in the middle, facing no minimum wage restrictions, increasingly poor job prospects and a rising cost of just about everything.

In the words of one successful businessman, Singaporeans have long had a ‘complaints culture’, but they have not come together and ‘politicised’ these complaints. The People’s Action Party (PAP) has been in power for the 50 years since independence and, with unionism and protesting being illegal, the few instances of unrest have been confined to the most desperate migrant communities.

The government’s efforts to prevent this politicisation have ranged from distraction (viz: giant shopping centres and a manmade island with a bunch of theme parks plonked on it) to the inculcation of passive, economically productive behaviours via state media, education and advertising. This may have succeeded while people could afford to partake of the bounty and had no means to question the government line.

However, where the dearth of public debate used to be almost absolute, the so-far unregulated platform of the internet is providing new fora for discussion, and speculation is rife as to the outcome of the next general election, which must be held in the next two years. The PAP currently holds 80 of 99 seats in Parliament, with the largest opposition party holding seven. Without the means to research policy or a platform to disseminate findings, the opposition need to pin their hopes largely on novelty to attract votes.

This has not been enormously inspiring to most people with whom I’ve spoken, meaning that widespread political action – unthinkable a few years ago – is becoming a real possibility. Perhaps the government will decide to lose a few battles to liberalism in the name of winning the war for control. But, if not, it’s only a matter of time before a critical mass of everyday Singaporeans is sufficiently discontented for something to happen, even if no one’s quite sure what that something will be. It’s hard to imagine Singaporeans doing anything as unseemly as running about with umbrellas like Hong Kongers or sunflowers like the Taiwanese students. But one thing’s for sure: if awakened, the wrath of the merlion would lead to the most punctually attended and well-fed demonstration the world has ever seen.

* Each Singaporean resident is assigned a racial identity at birth.


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