The changing face of Singapore – integrating our people

According to the Department of Statistics (Ministry of Trade & Industry) Singapore’s total population in 2006 stands at 4,483,900.

Resident population (S’pore citizens & S’pore PRs) is 3.6 million.

The ethnic composition is:

Chinese = 2,713,200 (75%)

Malays = 490,500 (14%)

Indians = 319,100 (9%)

In the same report, the resident population grew by 1.8% annually – on average.

Non-residents’ growth is much higher at 9.7% annually – also on average.

Singapore has 875,500 non-residents in 2006.

The government announced that they have revised the Concept Plan of 2001 – which catered to a population of 5.5m, to one which would consider a population of 6.5m instead.

Many Singaporeans have taken this revision to mean that the government is targeting a population of 6.5m – to be accomplished in 20 years. This means that another 2 million people will be added to our island.

(National Development minister Mah Bow Tan has since clarified that Singapore is not targeting a 6.5m population.)

But the lingering uneasiness among Singaporeans remain.

From a population of just about 1.9million in 1965 (Singapore’s independence year) to a population of 4.5million in 2006, and then to one of 6.5million in 2027, it is an ambitious plan indeed.

In a period of 60 years, Singapore will have increased its population 3 fold – if indeed the government is targeting a 6.5 million number in 20 years.

What does this mean for Singaporeans?

To be sure, adding people to the island is not just about adding people to the island. Things are not as simple as that. We will have to ponder on many issues which such a plan throws up. However, in this article the focus is on just one of these issues – integration of foreigners into our society.


Leaving all the other issues aside, including the fundamental one of whether raising the population size is necessary in the first place, the most important question we should pay attention to is the integration of foreigners into our society. For without successful assimilation, everything falls apart.

It is people or human interaction with one another that will make or break such an ambitious undertaking. One will have to commend PAP MP Cynthia Phua for bringing up an important point in parliament recently which illustrates, at the ground level, the presence and emergence of certain sentiments. To quote her:

“I walk the ground and I listen to the people. As it is, I hear people talking about: ‘Do you realise that the Kwan Im Temple is now beginning to be overwhelmed by Chinese nationals? Soon it will no longer be a gathering point for Singaporean worshippers.’ This is an innocent remark, but it says a lot about what’s happening around us as well as the inner feelings of the people who are used to niche areas where they are so used to call their own.”

As the Singapore population ages, it is of paramount importance that singaporeans have a genuine sense of belonging – to the places, cultures, sights and smells of the country they grew up in. We must avoid allowing sentiments of ‘xenophobia’ to take root which will truly make for uncomfortable living – both for locals and foreigners.

But at the same time, we should also understand why some Singaporeans would feel threatened by the presence of an increased number of foreigners, especially when – in the words of Ms Phua – “niche areas… where they used to call their own” are being “invaded” by foreigners.

Our past experiences

What we have on our side is 40+ years of peaceful co-existence between the races and the different cultures and religions. Hopefully, we have learnt much from these and use the knowledge and experience to live peacefully again with new immigrants – just as our own forefathers were immigrants.

But what we should be aiming for is genuine, comfortable living with those who are different from us, and not about tolerating them which was the government’s theme for Singaporeans of different races living together, in past years.

“Tolerating” somehow has a connotation of ‘limitation’ – until we run out of tolerance. This should not be so if we ourselves are genuine about embracing globalization.

The merits of globalization

Globalisation has its merits and not just economic ones. Globalisation gives us an opportunity to interact, learn and live with other citizens of this same planet we live on. And although we may be anxious about our economic prospects such as jobs and careers and business, to allow these to overshadow the positives of globalization would be a shame, really. For a people advances and progresses not so much because of the products they produce but the human interaction, exchange of ideas and understanding in living together.

In other words, it is how we treat others that determines how we ourselves are treated and the kind of people we are, or want to be – and the resulting society that we will live in.

How do we achieve genuine interaction

At the end of the day, the government can do everything they feel is necessary to integrate new immigrants but it is the man in the street, the heartland dwellers, the ordinary Singaporean who will play the biggest role.

At the moment, from news reports, the RCs are welcoming foreigners into HDB estates with gatherings and small welcoming parties. Although this is a good start, there is more which can be done. I am not sure how the RCs go about it but perhaps they could provide more publicity to such events and get more ordinary Singaporeans from the estates to take part.

I would suggest that instead of these parties being targeted at foreigners per se, perhaps they should instead be termed “community day” where all residents, and not just foreigners, are invited to participate. This way, locals won’t feel that the grassroots organizations are more interested in welcoming foreigners than caring for Singaporeans.

The government’s IRCC (Inter-Racial Confidence Circles) and Harmony Circles initiatives should also be expanded to include foreigners who may practise religions or beliefs which are different from singaporeans’ beliefs or practices. As an example, foreigners may not understand or appreciate why Chinese Singaporeans burn joss paper at certain times of the year within HDB estates or at their HDB blocks. Harmony Day in schools should also be practised in international schools in singapore – if they’re not already.

Educating the foreigners is as important as asking Singaporeans to welcome them. The effort should be two-way instead of just focusing on how to make foreigners comfortable. And so, the grassroots organizations (GROs) have a very important role to play in this respect.

We should avoid, at all cost, foreigners creating their own enclaves and insulating themselves from the local Singaporean – especially foreigners who live within HDB heartlands’ housing estates.

A fine balance

An important point to always keep in mind is that while the government (and Singaporeans) extend a welcoming hand to foreigners, Singaporeans themselves must not be made to feel “second-class”, or feel disadvantaged or worst of all, discriminated against.

Thus, the government can and must do more for Singaporeans – in terms of demarcating and making distinctions where Singaporeans are appreciated. For example, Singaporeans must always have priority in housing, jobs and the sharing of economic benefits.

Another area is male Singaporean feeling increasingly uneasy about serving National Service and the disadvantage (or perceived disadvantage) in doing so in terms of how doing NS can affect their careers and jobs prospects. The feeling is that as the number of foreigners increase, the question of being disadvantaged in serving NS will become more pronounced. The government must keep this in mind and see if there are ways to address this issue.

DPM Wong Kan Seng’s announcement in parliament of a Citizenship Day is also a step in the right direction in the effort to “celebrate their common identity as singaporeans” . (Straits Times, March 2, 2007)

Embracing globalization at the ground level

For all the talk and focus on the economic benefits of globalization, the real test of how this will be successful is at the ground level – the human-to-human interactions between those who come from afar and those who have called this place home all their lives.

Thus, globalization will only work if it is successful at the local level – your personal relationships with your foreign colleagues, in your heartlands and in your local community. We must always keep this in mind as we create and install new policies.

What we should not expect is that we will achieve integration, genuine integration in the short term. It will take some time before we see this, perhaps a few decades. In the meantime, there will be instances where problems will arise.

It will be a fine balancing act for the government in the years ahead – with Singaporeans at the ground level playing the most important part.

Read also: Can Singapore’s multi-racial fabric cope?

Leading photo from JVSS blog.