It is perhaps somewhat disappointing to see the initial media coverage that the foreign news media had thus far reported about the protest.
Yesterday, more than 4,000, or perhaps 5,000 Singaporeans protested at Hong Lim Park. Officially, the protest was intended to protest against the 6.9 million population figure that the government had projected for Singapore in 2030 in the population white paper that was recently released.
CNN had reported that, “Protesters on Saturday insisted they didn’t fear foreigners but worry about the loss of Singaporean jobs to foreigners, depressed wages and overcrowding that has taxed Singapore’s infrastructure, including housing and transportation. Protesters also say the government’s plans will make them a minority in their own country. “Imagine a place where you can be a stranger in your own home,” a protester said.”
According to BBC, “Many locals blame immigration for rises in property prices and living costs … (and that) many local people say the surge in foreigners in recent years has already put a strain on the small, wealthy island state’s resources, and has pushed down salaries while raising property prices.”
Bloomberg has also reported that, “Protesters expressed unhappiness with the policy that could see citizens, including new ones, making up only one of every two people on the island smaller in size than New York City by the end of the next decade should the population reach 6.9 million.”
What was disappointing was that the media coverage had, so far, been framed about the xenophobic sentiments that seems to pervade the Singaporean society. It is unfortunate that as much as the organizers and speakers had tried their best to frame the protest as one that isn’t about Singaporeans being unwelcoming towards foreigners, this was possibly the most consistent theme that had caught the media’s attention. It did not help that the day before, the organizer, Mr Gilbert Goh, had released an article which had described the characteristics of foreigners in Singapore. This caused an uproar among Singaporeans who were against such profiling and what they thought was xenophobic sentiment. Mr Gilbert retracted the article after the uproar. He also apologised at the protest.
Are Singaporeans Unhappy with Foreigners?
Yet as much as he might have shown seemingly xenophobic attitudes, the truth was that, there are also many Singaporeans who were adopting attitudes and beliefs similar to his in their arguments against the white paper or the 6.9 million figure, or about their unhappiness with the current state of Singapore. When the article on the profiling of foreigners came out, what it did was to put it in writing what a segment of Singaporeans had been thinking about all this while – the article put a mirror in front of Singaporeans and showed them how ugly they had turned the conversation into. As unfortunate as it was, it was a blessing in disguise. If Singaporeans had continued on the path of sidelining foreigners, simply because of their unhappiness which they have not thoroughly understood, there are dire implications. This should hopefully help put a check to their beliefs.
If we put aside our unhappiness for a while and think about Singapore for a second, we would remember that as the 4th largest financial centre in the world at the current moment, we would need to be open to foreign investment, being that we have no large MNCs on our own. We need to be open and welcoming to foreigners because they also partake in making our economy vibrant and progressive. Unlike South Korea, which is the 5th largest financial centre, there is perhaps lesser reliance on foreign investment, because of the strong presence of local companies. However, Singapore doesn’t. Now, what then is the problem? Is the problem because foreigners are coming to take our jobs away, or because we did not develop strong global companies to start with?
Then again, we do have global companies, if you could count Singtel and DBS Bank, as among some of the companies which have ventured beyond our shores. Yet, have they developed products which have an appeal such as that which Korea’s Samsung and LG, or Japan’s Sony has? Our companies merely invest in the telecommunications or banks of the other countries, and even when the money flows back to Singtel and DBS, they go back to Temasek Holdings and the government, where the people hardly receive the benefits of our local companies’ global investments. Back to the question, is it then a problem of foreigners or that we do not have global companies? Well, we do have companies with global investments, but definitely not comparable to the likes of Samsung, Apple, Google or even McDonald’s. Can we then blame foreigners for coming in, because of our lack of ability to create companies which can go global?
The Problem Isn’t With the Foreigners – It’s With the Government
Or, if we look deeper, we’ve heard from others how our government’s efforts to grow local companies seem to lack steam. But why is this so? There are many reasons, some of which we are not privy to because of their behind-the-scenes decision-making. But one big reason, as companies have continually cited, is the high costs – high rental and transport costs among others. And as I’ve explained, the high rental and transport costs are in the control of the government, which can decide how much they want to charge businesses. Now, the question then is, is our government interested to grow local businesses, if they continue to keep costs high, and price businesses out of the competition? It does seem that the government isn’t interested in creating local companies because their main agenda is to increase their own coffers and profits. If that is the case, we will always need to import foreign MNCs and wealthy SMCs into Singapore, to make up for what Singapore isn’t able to do for itself – build local companies.
And if you’ve been following my train of thought, you would know that the issue isn’t about putting our displeasure on foreigners, but directing our questions directly at the government – why do you insist on earning money that the sustainability of Singapore is put into question? Without our own local companies which are able to make their mark globally, Singapore doesn’t have a company which is able to help hinge Singapore in the global economy and solidify Singapore’s status as an innovation hub. And I’m not talking about companies like Singtel which identify investment opportunities. Singtel is acting more like an investment company, like Temasek Holdings, an not as innovating company. In fact, our major local companies and also owned by the government, seem to act as investment companies more so than anything. Otherwise, the closest we’ve come so far with, is Creative, which is no longer as influential and possibly Hyflux, which has developed an expertise in water destination.
The Problem Is That The Government Is Also The Business
So, to be very clear, our anger shouldn’t be directed at foreigners. That’s misplacing our anger. The problem is with a government which has learnt so much to rely on its rent-seeking behaviour that it has priced our own local businesses out of the market. Unlike other countries which enact protectionist policies to help their local companies grow in the short term, our government adopt a protectionist rent-seeking behaviour to protect their own profits, while side-lining even local businesses. The problem with this government is that it wants control.
In another country, very broadly, there is the government, and then there are businesses and there are people. So, the government relies on businesses to make money which uses the labour of the people and then pay the people. In turn, the government will obtain money from the businesses and people and redistribute wealth to equalize the society. In Singapore, the government wants to be the business. The government wants to be the one to make money and to then obtain the money. But what isn’t happening is that first, by right, the government should prevent businesses from paying the people low wages. Yet, because this government also owns 60% of the economy, this government wants to pay people low wages. Second, because this government is the business, it has thus not decided to redistribute wealth back to the people.
And therein lies the first fundamental problem for Singapore – a government which is a business which has decided that making money is of a higher priority and that taking care of the people’s needs is secondary, and of more lesser importance. When the government had decided to play such a controlling role in Singapore’s early years, if we could try to appreciate that they might have good intentions, it could be because they had believed that if they could control everything, that they would be able to make key decisions faster and implement them faster. Because they had wanted to grow Singapore as fast as they could, they might want to have control over key areas in governance and the economy. Yet, this very belief has overpowered them. Now, because they’ve institutionalised the control by making themselves as the business, they’ve assumed this role more pervasively than their role of government. Essentially, they’ve neglected their role of governance – of taking care of the people.
This Is Why The Government Wants To Increase More People
And this is why, when they had developed the population white paper, their mindset towards the white paper was based on this – on making money, and not on taking care of the people. And looking at how they’ve been thinking, they want to continue to implement high rents and costs on businesses. In doing so, they know that businesses won’t have enough profits in the short term to want to innovate to increase productivity. So, if they want to squeeze businesses in terms of costs, they would need to allow businesses to be able to take a breather for other costs not within their control – wages. And this is why they want to bring in people which companies can pay low wages for. And this is why the government wants more people – 6.9 million people.
Now, I’ve tried many times to explain this because it is essential that you understand this. Because once you can understand this, you will know where to direct your unhappiness at. On the surface, when we look at the 6.9 million people figure, we process this information to be – oh no, there will be too many people! If Singaporeans are not giving birth, then the additional people are foreigners. We should not let these foreigners in! These foreigners are here to take our jobs.
But wait a minute! These foreigners would go anywhere where there are jobs! So would you! So, it’s not about who is coming but why the policies are so lax that it does not cater to a balance in the number of people who are coming. And as I’ve described above, the problem is with a government which wants to earn money off the rents of businesses which has given businesses very little incentive to restructure their operations, and so without restructuring, they will continue to employ low-wage workers, which the government is very willing to give, so that it allows the government to continue to collect high rents from businesses. Now, you need to be very, very clear on this.
When we talk about protesting against the 6.9 million figure? What are we talking about? We are talking about the government’s profit-making motives and their bad policies to manage foreigner in-flow, rooted in their ideology in profit-making. And we are talking about a government which does not care about the people.
You can continue to read Part 2 of the article here.