By Derek John Potter
I feel qualified to make some comments, albeit subjective, being a sixty four year old English-born permanent resident, who has enjoyed spending half his life, living and working in Singapore. I have a strong interest in Southeast Asia and after retiring from the oil industry I returned to university and graduated with two master’s degrees from the NUS Department of Southeast Asian Studies.
Looking back over my time in Singapore I feel that the quality of life improved up until about the early 1990s, but since then has gradually declined. It is now clear to me that the main causes of this are the stress and unhappiness resulting from too-rapid change, together with the inexorable reduction of physical living space.
Specifically, the main issues are: cultural change brought by hurried large-scale immigration; a noticeable rise in inequality; and overcrowding reaching a psychological tipping point. I would also like to emphasize that for twenty four years I was married into a well-established Hokkien Chinese family, and as such did not live most of my life in an ‘ex-pat cocoon’. Instead I would like to think that I became reasonably well versed in the culture and thinking of the majority of Chinese Singaporeans.
Any reasonable person who reads the recent White Paper would have to agree that in pure economic terms, it makes perfect sense. In the long run Singapore’s negative demographics will in one way or another cause the eventual collapse of the state as we know it today. The problem is that most Singaporeans have existential day-to-day needs that do not resonate with such a long time frame. They and their families have to live their lives now, today, at the present moment.
When I came to Singapore in 1981, it had a strong Southeast Asian culture, where most people could speak basic Malay along with their mother tongue, and there was a sense of the region’s history and its inter-connectedness. Now the culture has changed to one that seems much more mainland Chinese oriented, where you need to speak mandarin to communicate with most service industry people. The resentment of Singapore citizens to such a rapid influx of culturally different people is entirely understandable. It is no wonder that so many now feel alienated in their own country.
However, one can also appreciate the government’s dilemma, when realising that they urgently needed immigrants, as well as maintain a Chinese majority, they were forced to turn to mainland China. While Overseas Chinese, particularly from Malaysia or Indonesia, would have been much more suitable, there were obviously insufficient of them willing to settle in Singapore and make u the shortfall. Caucasians could have also been enticed to come in sufficient numbers, but once they had built up a critical mass, would have become problematic politically, and begun agitating for greater freedoms.
Similarly if Indians or Malays had been brought in large numbers, they would have begun to lobby hard for their own communities and challenged the present Chinese ruling establishment. In this respect one could also point to Singapore’s limited political space in causing resentment, but providing its economy continues to grow steadily and the rewards are better spread around, this should not become a critical issue for years to come. A severe economic downturn would of course test the present structure of government to the limits.
The problem of rising inequality is something the government has recognised and rightly decided to prioritise before the mood in the heartlands gets really ugly. Judging by the present number of expensive shops and restaurants, Singapore would seem to have an abundance of rich people. This creates much peer pressure and envy. With its mega-casinos and F1 motor racing, Singapore i now a ‘World City’, and the startling rise in conspicuous consumption by the wealthy flies very much in the faces of ordinary citizens. And while most people are now resigned to never owning a car in Singapore, for them to never own their own homes would be too much to take. It is well within the government’s capability to redress the problem of inequality and make everyone feel they will share in Singapore’s prosperity.
A much more intractable problem is the psychological effect of overcrowding, which has resulted in a feeling of living in a concrete jungle, despite the government’s valiant attempts at greening wherever it can. We now have MRT trains arriving every few minutes, packed to the gills with people, even in the middle of the day.
Singapore now feels like there are simply far too many people living here. There seems to be nowhere to get away from them all, even for just a few hours. And yes, one could tackle the causeway traffic or take a flight or ferry to a nearby country, but not on a regular enough basis to make a lasting day-to-day difference. There is now the feeling of being trapped in an urban nightmare and the knowledge that the population is set to rise even further is obviously going to trigger more anxiety.
I freely admit to being nostalgic for the lifestyle of the 1980s, before so much of Singapore changed and when the population was half of what it is today. In those days you could easily drive around the island and visit many different and distinct neighbourhoods. It was still possible to roam through large areas of jungle and coastline to find traditional kampongs, and visit inhabited offshore islands such as Pulau Seking. One could even sail into Malaysian waters without having to check in and out of immigration. I was reminded of this during a recent visit to the village of Kong Kong in Johor, where we used to boat to regularly.
There was water skiing at Pulau Ubin, and afterwards delicious seafood to be enjoyed at the Punggol waterside restaurants. It was nice to feel contented eating good Asian food in local eating places and not be pressured into spending a fortune in the hundreds of international high-end bars and restaurants one finds nowadays. There is obviously no going back to those days, but it is sad that most Singaporeans will never get to do any of these things in their new ultra-modern country. So much of the former sense of space and unique character has been lost.
Now everything feels too controlled and that vital psychological perception of at least having a little autonomy has gone. Cultivated parklands are fine but do not satisfy a deeper longing for freedom The fact that there is almost nowhere on the island that you don’t have to pay for parking is just one aspect of this sense of constraint. It is now clear that the majority of Singaporeans have satisfied most of their basic material needs, and have now moved on to seeking fulfilment and self-actualisation, as was predicted by Maslow’s well known model of human aspiration.
But unfortunately for the government, this poses a problem that has no quick and ready solutions. These higher human needs require space and freedom, both physical and mental. And this is very difficult to satisfy in the pressure cooker, hot-house that Singapore has become, where the treadmill feels as if it is turning ever faster.
Unable to satisfy these emerging desires, citizens are going to continue to feel unhappier as the years go by, even though they live in the safest, best organised and most efficient city in Southeast Asia. It is going to be very difficult, but the government must find a way of improving the quality of life with acceptable population densities, in the way countries like Switzerland and Scandinavia have successfully done.
This, as the government has recognised, will require massive improvements in levels of education and productivity for virtually the entire working population, and needs tackling on a unprecedented scale. Because they must now realise that bringing in more and more immigrants is creating very serious problems.