The island city-state of Singapore, held up by many as a near-perfect model of prosperity, is facing a set of challenges that is beginning to plunge it into decline.
Immigration and cheap labor is at the heart of it, along with the new gig economy that replaces high-paying employment with temporary, low-earning piecework.
Unending growth … ends
Singapore’s authoritarian government has been dominated by the Political Action Party for over 50 years, long under the dynastic helm of Lee Kuan Yew, and now his son, Lee Hsien Loong.
Intolerant of dissent, the PAP is widely credited with helping Singapore achieve some of the world’s highest development statistics, from literacy and employment percentages to per-capita income.
Key to all this has been robust economic growth, decade after decade.
But as Donald Low, an expert on Singapore, told Nikkei, “the social compact is fraying.”
While the government provides a vast array of social services, these do not include a minimum wage, effective rights for laborers to organize, unemployment insurance, or significant government contributions to retirement funds.
Thus, Singaporeans may get a free public education and work hard, but they aren’t guaranteed upward mobility and a better life.
And while Singapore’s 3.5 million citizens are overwhelmingly still middle class or wealthy, the country now depends on labor from a half-million permanent resident aliens and 1.7 million guest workers.
Forty percent of Singapore’s population was born outside the country — an influx of skilled, semi-skilled, and unskilled workers in all sectors that has brought great challenges, including a large amount of nativist resentment.
On social media, images and videos of wealthy, foreign-born residents “acting out” are contributing to anti-immigrant sentiment.
Struggling, native-born Singaporeans see them as “entitled, overpaid and unwilling to integrate,” according to a recent article in Nikkei.
But not all migrants are so well-off.
Like many wealthier Asian nations, Singapore also depends on the low-paid labor of people from highly impoverished countries, such as Bangladesh and Myanmar.
The city-state’s iconic skyline, for example, was constructed by laborers making the equivalent of only US$15 for a 12-hour shift.
The construction sector in Singapore is worth well over US$20 billion per a day — but to stay alive, migrants work extra hours for overtime pay, and spend as little as they can on food.
A new life of debt
They are also victimized by caterers who sell them cheap food that spoils easily in the tropical heat.
A social worker told the South China Morning Post that migrant workers “have no choice but to spend as little amount as possible on their food if they want to send money back home.”
Food quality is not the only issue facing migrants.
They also must pay large fees just to get a job — thus, they begin their new lives in Singapore heavily indebted.
Meanwhile, a study produced by Singaporean academics found that around a thousand residents of the island are homeless on any given night, most sleeping somewhere in the downtown.
Around four hundred are unemployed, while others cannot afford housing or are without work.
And with so much cheap labor available, “gig” jobs and other non-permanent options are replacing traditional salaried employment.
Faced with the exposure pf Singapore’s many social problems on mass media, the ruling party has responded with attacks on its political opposition and on news media that present alternative views.
The government also seeks to prevent what it calls “fake news” from proliferating online.
The 2019 “Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act” has already been used to crack down on dissent.
Under the new law, social-media posts criticizing migrant policy, corruption and other ills are deemed “fake news,” and the posters are punished.