Social tensions amidst boom times in Singapore?

Updated On: Jan 16, 2007

As the world gets fascinated by the rise of China and India, it is easy to miss smaller-scale success stories like Singapore’s.

Singapore grew a blistering 7.7% in 2006. In fact, Singapore did so well that it was featured in a United Nations report that showed the island state as enjoying one of the highest growth rates in Foreign Direct Investments (FDIs) in the world.

It is boom times in Singapore. One of East Asia’s smallest countries is also one of its most dynamic.  Inflows to Singapore rose 58.8 per cent to US$31.9 billion - the most in South-east Asia. To put these numbers into perspective, Indonesia attracted some US$6 billion of last year's FDI inflow into the region, coming a poor second to Singapore. Chalking up fantastic growth, Singapore seems to be doing everything well. There are many secret ingredients to Singapore’s success. Some argue that new emerging industries are powering this growth, from life sciences’ pharmaceuticals to private banking. These new industries seem to have shakenSingapore off the shackles of over-dependence on the electronics industry in its non-oil industrial sectors.

However, while all these economic figures are dazzling, in a recent conference organized by the Institute of Policy Studies, some speakers have warned of the emergence of a dual track economy with one track plugged into globalization and the other track languishing in stagnancy.  There are also concerns that middle-class incomes have actually stagnated and have not risen in the last five years.  There are some grumblings by those earning $2,000 to $4,000 a month who are too well-off to receive help from the government but do not benefit as much from tax cuts as the new rich.  Singapore has not been spared the problems of increasing income gap, a problem prevalent in so many other countries.

There are also worries about foreigners competing with locals for jobs. Citigroup economist Chua Hak Bin expects 100,000 new jobs to be created this year, of which only 40,000 to 50,000 will be filled by locals entering the workforce. Not all consider this to be an issue. In terms of the New Economy, Singapore also seems to be doing the right things in terms of immigration policies. While post-911 Fortress US is shutting out talented migrants, Singapore is heartily embracing them for its New Economy. New, highly-motivated migrant workers are said to be at the forefront of Singapore’s economic revolution.

Other than income gap perceptions and unsatisfied aspirations, Singapore is also quick to tackle another potential source of social disorder, especially in the island state’s carefully manicured social fabric. The Ministry of Home Affairs has noted that research indicate a growing trend of religiosity among Singaporeans which the authorities worry may pose a threat to harmony between different faiths. There are also concerns that these local trends of religiosity may reflect global currents of religious tensions. Lost in the senseless violence are the neglected commonalities of many religious values. Church leaders are urged to emphasize such values instead of differences.

The solution proposed by both the authorities and religious leaders to preempt this development is honest and open interfaith dialogue. However, individual religious leaders and religions flocks can only do so much intra-religiously-wise. Dialogue should also be located at the grassroots level which is institutionalized in a government-funded program known as the Community Engagement Programme (CEP) launched by Singapore’s Prime Minister in February 2006. Such community engagement programs are important for the message of tolerance to permeate the ground level and diffuse outside the walls of religious buildings.  Religious leaders are also encouraged to participate in the Inter-Racial Confidence Circles (IRCC), another initiative of the government in response to the events of 911. First formed in 2002, the IRCC is supposed to play a quiet but vital role in maintaining racial and religious harmony.

Amidst the boom times, when many are celebrating, the typically pro-active government has not rest on its laurels and is keeping a close watch on some of these issues, thinking of tackling them before they become entrenched problems.


Supply crunch to raise housing prices further (Straits Times, 15 Jan 2007)

Challenge for IRCCs: Rope in more religious leaders, build ties.

Mind the middle-income gap (Straits Times, 12 Jan 2007)

Economists discuss downside of strong growth (Straits Times, 11 Jan 2007)

S'pore likely to be busiest container port again (Straits Times, 11 Jan 2007)

Foreign direct investment hits $1.8 trillion (Straits Times, 11 Jan 2007)

Speech by Mr Wong Kan Seng, Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Home Affairs at "The World Religions and the Search for Peaceful Co-Existence" Forum, 2 January 2007, 10.00 AM at University Cultural Centre, National University of Singapore

7.7% growth for 2006 caps a glowing year (Straits Times, 1 Jan 2007)

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