Singaporeans can vote, but the opposition is kept in check. They can strike, but never do. They depend on disenfranchised immigrant labour. But are cracks beginning to show in the ‘Singapore model’?
‘We are rich because we have an underpaid foreign workforce’
Marina Bay Sands resort, Singapore, 11 October 2021
Roslan Rahman · AFP · Getty
High on the steel-and-glass skyscraper ‒ an unremarkable addition to Singapore’s imaginative skyline ‒ red letters read ‘NTUC’. They stand for National Trades Union Congress, the country’s only labour union, which owns the tower. ‘This building was given to us by Lee Kuan Yew [the father of independence],’ Patrick Tay, the union’s assistant secretary-general, said proudly. ‘He wanted workers to have a true place. There was almost nothing around here when it was built.’
The government’s gift was to anchor a financial and tourist district: Marina Bay, a super-hip hodgepodge of the public and private sectors, ready for multinational corporations and lavish hotels like the iconic Marina Bay Sands, which opened in 2010. The Sands’ three 55-storey towers are connected by a 200m-high swimming pool crown; the ground floor holds a luxury mall, as well as a sprawling casino for workers to unwind and for mainland Chinese bored with Macao.
The ‘NTUC building’, as locals call it, stands in good company, hosting the offices of businesses like Samsung alongside government agencies. Patrick Tay, a dynamic 50-something, greeted me, out of breath, on the ninth floor, having raced over from parliament – the union leader is also an MP for the all-powerful People’s Action Party (PAP). He sees no problem with this, no inherent contradiction. ‘It’s a way to carry the workers’ voice to parliament. And I’m happy that, as a legislator, I can draft changes that benefit them,’ he said. He shuddered at the idea of unions acting as a check on political power. ‘Our mission is to avoid escalation. That’s why there’s a consultation process. This ensures the stability that Singaporeans desire.’ Employers, union leaders, senior officials and even government ministers coexist and sometimes slip from one role to another in a game of musical chairs.
So go social and political dynamics here in Singapore: there’s been a ménage à trois between the state, employers and workers (or rather their representatives) since independence in 1965. It’s so successful because all barriers to collaboration have been eliminated; the trio is tied at the hip, if not incestuous. Michael D Barr (1), who knows the ins and outs of the city-state, describes it as ‘an elite’ which has taken over power, quoting a 1966 speech by Lee Kuan Yew, who remarked that ‘the government is running on the ability, drive and dedication of about 150 people’ (2).
Even without counting how many families run the island, one thing is certain: by 1963, Lee had purged the PAP of its progressive wing and its sympathisers (120 were arrested) in an operation codenamed Coldstore. He used the same playbook with Operation Spectrum in 1988, in which some 20 figures (political activists, trade unionists, lawyers, students, intellectuals, etc) were charged with ‘Marxist conspiracy’.
Any talk of these periods remains taboo: screenings of the 2013 film To Singapore, with Love – by the popular director Tan Pin Pin, who is highly regarded by her peers – were forbidden to avoid ‘undermining national security.’ Artist and writer Sonny Liew’s masterful The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye – a graphic novel offering an alternative history (3) – was not censored quite as harshly upon its 2015 release, but its publisher was forced to reimburse the grant he had received from the National Arts Council, which could have put him in dire straits.
In more than 70 years, Singapore has had just three prime ministers, including Lee Kuan Yew and his son Lee Hsien Loong. The latter, in power since 2004, has promised to retire soon, bringing a long-awaited end to the dynasty – but that wait goes on. Years before the expression (and the reality it describes) became widespread, Singapore established an ‘illiberal democracy’, which carries on to this day. People have the right to vote, but the opposition parties are kept in check; the right to strike is inscribed in the constitution but impossible to exercise – when bus drivers did so in 2012, their action was declared illegal and their leaders were arrested. There have been no strikes since.
Still, hardly anyone questions the system. This is partly because ‘we always feel like we’re in a battle for survival,’ says Wei Chen Tan, a former high official with a Chinese background, whose family arrived at the turn of the last century and ‘is nothing like the mainland Chinese’. Fear of immigrants, including wealthy ones from Beijing, Shanghai or Hong Kong, is high among the upper class.
The government delivers wellbeing. The state, the union and employers share a common objective: ensuring social peace and economic growth Stéphane Le Queux
What’s more, the government is not simply repressive, notes Stéphane Le Queux, a senior lecturer in employment relations at James Cook University. ‘It delivers wellbeing. The state, the union and employers share a common objective: ensuring social peace and economic growth.’ Indeed, in the 1970s and ’80s, this ‘red dot’ on the world map, as former Indonesian president BJ Habibie scornfully described Singapore, became one of the four Asian dragons – along with South Korea, Hong Kong (then under British rule) and Taiwan. Although their human rights records were less than dazzling, these dragons were a boon to the multinationals flooding the globe with low-end products. Over the following decade, Singapore would serve as a blueprint for Beijing as it built an export-heavy economy with its skilled and docile labour force, which would enjoy increasing quality of life and which will be replaced by immigrants in the future.
‘When China opened up, Lee Kuan Yew immediately saw that he should concentrate development on cutting-edge industries and leverage Singapore’s strategic location to make it an indispensable nexus,’ says Wei Chen Tan, who openly admires the ‘nation’s founding father’ for his foresight and focus on education. He neglects to mention that the island quickly took on the trappings of a tax haven to attract foreign investment, which came to nearly $200bn by 2022, the year Singapore became the world’s foremost financial centre; some call it the ‘Switzerland of Asia’, and it serves as a model for Dubai. Nearly half of the largest Asian corporations now keep offices there. Rumour has it (but no official would confirm) that many foreign companies active in Hong Kong have transferred their assets to Singapore. In any case, ‘family offices’ – wealth managers for the ultrarich from Hong Kong and China – have proliferated: the Monetary Authority of Singapore counted 700 in 2021, where there had been just a handful three years before.
But the city-state does more than just finance, banking and insurance. Singapore, at the end of the Malacca Strait and in the heart of bustling Southeast Asia, has become a commercial and industrial hub, partly because it boasts the world’s second-largest container port (after Shanghai) (4). Another colossal, fully automated port – being built in Tuas, at the island’s Western edge, on land reclaimed with sand from neighbouring countries – will subsume and augment the current one’s operations. This should keep Singapore near the head of the pack. Industry (refineries, chemicals, electronics plants etc) is expected to follow the relocation, newer technologies being primarily situated in the South and East. According to the World Bank, the two sectors currently represent nearly a quarter of GDP (compared to 17% in France) – no small change.
Together, the authoritarian state, which plans and finances development, the multinational corporations that benefit from it, and the unions that work for consensus have brought the country to new heights. Per capita income ranks among the world’s highest – US$77,000 – just behind Luxembourg, another tax haven. Everything seems to be coming up roses for this island no bigger than Paris and its close suburbs (729 sq km) and its nearly 5.5 million inhabitants – or at least for the two thirds who have Singaporean citizenship or permanent residency. These are the only people included in statistics (and in most social programmes). Others – immigrants – do not exist. And yet they are the country’s lifeblood, at 40% of the working population.
Finding somewhere to live
Businesses, universities, laboratories and the government select them as needed; those lucky enough to be chosen obtain a priceless piece of paper allowing them to remain for two to five years, sometimes more, according to an extremely rigid hierarchy. At the top sit highly qualified foreigners with an E (employment) Pass; just below are S (salary) Pass holders. Both can be hired only at wages at least equal to the highest-paid third of their field ‘to prevent social dumping,’ says the minister for manpower (formerly labour minister). They can bring family – if they have the means, as rent isn’t cheap. A young Australian researcher told me he pays around 10,000 Singapore dollars (US$7,300) per month for a four-bedroom flat on the city’s outskirts. Together, these rather pampered immigrants represent around 10% of the working population.
The other 30% of immigrants in the labour force are unskilled ‘work permit holders’ (WPHs). Their miserable living conditions are condemned by some lawyers, human rights activists and organisations like TWC2 (Transient Workers Count Too). The latter’s vice president, Alex Au, a retired business executive, received me at the group’s modest offices on the outskirts of the Indian district. He described the hellish life of these workers, without a minimum wage ‒ a concept foreign to Singapore ‒ and with no right to send for family. Even marrying a Singaporean is strictly prohibited (5).
Most work in construction, shipyards, oil and petrochemicals, and cleaning services, or hold menial jobs at cafés, restaurants and hotels. These natives of Myanmar, China, Malaysia, India the Philippines and Bangladesh put in massive amounts of overtime, mostly unpaid, and work seven days a week despite a law mandating one day off. Its shrewd phrasing allows the employer to reduce an employee’s salary if he agrees, but if he does not, he loses his job and is sent back to his country. This assumes that a migrant worker has the power to resist such a request from an employer, says Alex Au. ‘As if the two were equal.’
To complement their arduous, underpaid jobs, workers sleep in rows of barrack-like dormitories, sometimes stretching for hundreds of metres and encircled with barbed wire. That’s the scene in part of the centre of Tuas, a good half hour by bus and on foot from the last metro stop. Lodging (if that’s the word) is provided by employers. Employees end up on the street if they quit, making them subject to deportation. Small construction trucks, open to rain and scorching sun, typically drive labourers to jobsites where they work in construction, road maintenance or manicuring residential lawns to painstaking standards. As Stéphane Le Queux puts it, ‘People are cheaper than weedkiller.’
During lunch breaks they can be seen napping on the ground, in the shade when possible; late at night, they squat at the roadside, waiting for their ride. Nearly all Singaporeans find this perfectly normal. After all, any ‘proper family’ has at least one ‘helper’, a live-in housekeeper from the Philippines, Myanmar, Malaysia or China. These young women have no set work hours and can be freely exploited – and sometimes literally abused. Alex Au said, ‘It took years of fighting to get them just one non-negotiable day off a month.’
‘Immigrants steal our jobs’
‘Our system is quite simple,’ Alex Au continued. ‘We are rich not because we’re so productive, but because we have an underpaid foreign labour force that’s suffering. When Singapore tried to get an edge on China with improved manufacturing quality, it found itself competing with Japan instead. To keep labour cheap while betting on new technologies, the government turned to immigration, so that Singaporean men and women could work and live good lives, freed from household chores.’ Everyone, save a few activists and NGOs, accepts this dual system. The NTUC professes concern; its annual report, prefaced by the prime minister himself, mentions one employee who won compensation for his overtime and another who managed to qualify. He became skilled. That’s about it.
Neither of the two opposition parties has taken up the gauntlet (to put it kindly): the Progress Singapore Party (PSP), which has just two non-constituency MPs (6), simply suggests that ‘those we brought here should be received decently,’ to quote its founder, Dr Tan Cheng Bock. And the Workers’ Party (WP), which now boasts 10 MPs ‒ its largest contingent since 1965 ‒ would rather speak for young Singaporeans worried about semi- or highly skilled foreigners snatching up all the good positions. ‘These immigrants are stealing our jobs,’ complained one young bank employee, unhappy with her situation.
‘The flows of foreigners should create concrete benefits for Singaporeans,’ said Pritam Singh, the WP’s leader in Parliament, on 21 April 2022. A few days earlier, he had argued that ‘only foreigners who pass an English test’ should qualify for ‘permanent residency’ or citizenship. This demand caused controversy in a country with four official languages ‒ English, Mandarin, Malay and Tamil ‒ that works to keep ethnic (‘racial’, as they say here) demographics stable, namely at 74.3% with Chinese roots, 13.6% with Malaysian ones, 8.9% with Indian ancestry and 3.2% ‘others’, including those from mixed backgrounds.
‘Does a poor command of English make some of us any less Singaporean?’ two scholars, Mathew Mathews and Melvin Tay, asked in an op-ed (7). While the affluent and educated speak perfect English, ordinary Singaporeans use ‘Singlish’, a more melodious traditional dialect which is a blend of all four languages and has made a comeback in the public sphere, though it remains banned from newspapers, advertising and TV (each community has a channel). But the debate sparked by Pritam Singh looms all the larger because, as competition intensifies between Singaporeans, English proficiency is often used as a selection criterion.
Pressure of the ‘Singapore model’
This begins in school with the well-known ‘Singapore model’, feted in the West for its inclusivity, where the two first years of elementary school are spent learning English (reading and writing), mathematics and one native language of the student’s choice. Science and extracurricular activities are added over the two next years. But at the age of 12, students must validate their studies with the highly selective Primary School Leaving Examination (PSLE). Good scores mean good high schools, then good universities – and finally good jobs. Those with average results make do with ‘normal’ courses, either technical or academic. The rest get left behind.
Needless to say, students face significant pressure (‘insane’, says one parent). Some fear their kids will commit suicide – and rightly so. In 2022, the worst year on record, 125 young people (aged 10-29) took their own lives (8). ‘For children who don’t perform well in the PSLE, school is a nightmare,’ a young schoolteacher said in Yong Shu Ling’s documentary Unteachable (9). ‘I am unable to change the calculation mode, but I can reintroduce the desire to learn.’ This extremely selective educational approach saps the curiosity and creativity needed for new technologies as well as for culture (10).
Furthermore, it reproduces ‘class and race’ inequality, an unexpected turn of phrase coming from a hip Malay startup executive in her 30s, hair in a scarf, happy to speak her mind on condition of anonymity. She explained that using perfect English at home does not guarantee good results: one must also arrange tutoring at a private school whose tuition is pegged to its PSLE performance. Her parents, small shop owners who were ‘neither rich nor poor’, made painful sacrifices to ensure her success. Historian Thum Ping Tjin (known as PJ Thum), an activist against inequity, notes that the wealthiest 20% of families spend nearly four times more than the poorest families on their kids’ education (11). And 59.2% of Chinese-descended Singaporeans aged 20-39 hold a college degree, versus only 16.5% of those with Malaysian roots (12).
Officially, there is no discrimination and everyone is treated equally. The city does have some identity-based neighbourhoods – Little India, Chinatown, Kampong Glam (the Muslim district) ‒ but these are more places to gather and shop than self-contained communities. Eighty per cent of Singaporeans own their apartments (it’s technically a 99-year lease), most of which sit in large public housing complexes whose demographics must, by law, reflect those of the general population: 74.3% Chinese, 13.6% Malay, and so on, which means the island has no ghettos. That said, some are more equal than others.
Sensitive to rising anxiety among the middle class – which has thus far enjoyed relative security – and aware that the days of authoritarianism might be numbered, Lawrence Wong, Singapore’s deputy (and likely future) prime minister, launched Forward Singapore, a yearlong public engagement initiative, in June 2022. He doesn’t mince his words: ‘Students, for instance, feel pigeon-holed in a system where stakes are high from very early in their lives, while graduates and workers are anxious about their careers and being priced out of the property market’ (13).
Young people can’t afford to become homeowners like their parents, with whom they often end up living, even after marriage. Wealth may be spreading (half of Singapore’s inhabitants are among the world’s richest 10%) (14), but the deputy prime minister wishes success were ‘less about the pot of gold at the end of the road and more about our sense of purpose and fulfilment along the way’. He warns that ‘if our social compact fails, a large segment of Singaporeans will come to feel estranged from the rest of society, believing the system is not on their side.’
The ‘compact’ is being questioned
To be sure, this ‘compact’, a hybrid of conveniently reinterpreted Confucian values (respect for hierarchy, obedience, fairness) and adapted Western ones, is being questioned. One need look no further than the 2020 legislative elections: in spite of gerrymandering, opposition parties’ restricted access to media and a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it campaign (nine days), the governing party got its worst ever results – even if it still holds a majority that any French president would drool over (83 MPs to the opposition’s ten).
Will the future prime minister heed the results? It’s far from certain (15). Public debate, viewed as a potential threat to stability, remains throttled, including on environmental topics. The route of the eighth Cross Island subway line, which requires digging under the island’s largest nature reserve and clearing three hectares of land, has been heavily contested. The transport ministry advertised that six minutes would be shaved off commutes and promised a 15% fare decrease; the line is now being built.
Intense protests against the construction of the Marina Bay casino met with similar success, recalls Caroline Wong, vice-dean for teaching and learning at James Cook University, who knows the island like the back of her hand: ‘Singapore [often] seeks to achieve the greatest good for the greatest number … using economic justifications (attracting more tourists, creating more jobs, providing more entertainment options), thereby ignoring divergent viewpoints and opinions. Growth alone is not enough to measure people’s quality of life,’ and she questions the ‘sustainability’ of this approach.
For now, the government is keeping a tight lid on controversy. Singapore, where the authorities can directly appoint members to the executive committees and editorial boards of mainstream media, ranks 129th out of 180 countries and territories on the annual World Press Freedom Index compiled by Reporters Without Borders. Last year, for instance, Terry Xu and Daniel De Costa ‒ publication editor and writer, respectively, for news website The Online Citizen, which had been shut down a few months before ‒ received three-week jail sentences (later reduced to fines).
The state’s arsenal also contains the 2019 Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act. Since it took effect, any displeasing interpretation of a fact can be deemed a ‘falsehood’ by the government. Sanctions have begun to hit home, particularly on activists opposed to the death penalty, which continues as usual. On 26 April 2023 a Singaporean accused of helping import 1kg of cannabis (which was never found) was hanged; another met the same fate three weeks later for drug trafficking (1.5kg). Two more were hanged in July, including a woman sentenced for possessing 30g of heroin. Since March 2022, 15 people have been executed, typically after unfair trials. The most courageous human rights defenders face all sorts of harassment: surveillance, police summons, censorship of websites… Singapore is far from Beijing of course, but even the popular PJ Thum had to leave in the end. ‘It was becoming too hard,’ he told me. He still contributes to New Naratif, a dissident media site – from abroad.
(1) Michael D Barr, The Ruling Elite of Singapore: Networks of Power and Influence, IB Tauris, London, 2014.
(2) Having joined Malaysia in 1963 shortly after gaining autonomy from the UK, Singapore – under Lee Kuan Yew – then exited the federation and declared independence.
(3) Sonny Liew, The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye, Epigram Books, Singapore, 2015.
(4) See Philippe Revelli, ‘Singapore’s golden triangle’, Le Monde diplomatique, English edition, August 2016.
(5) See testimonies on the TWC2 website, twc2.org.sg/.
(6) MPs are elected through a hybrid procedure that combines voting for a single candidate and a list system. Some seats are reserved for the ‘best losers’, the ‘non-constituency MPs’ (NCMPs).
(7) Mathew Mathews and Melvin Tay, ‘Must you speak English to qualify as a Singapore PR or new citizen?’, The Straits Times, Singapore, 4 March 2023.
(8) Gabrielle Chan, ‘476 suicides reported in Singapore in 2022, 98 more than in 2021’, The Straits Times, 6 July 2023.
(9) Yong Shu Ling, Unteachable, Singapore, 2019.
(10) See Caroline Wong, Singaporean Film Industry in Transition – Looking for a Creative Edge: the Nature and Role of Intangible Resources that Shape an Uncertain and Changing Environment such as the Film Industry, Lambert Academic Publishing, printed on demand, 2010.
(11) Thum Ping Tjin, ‘Explainer: Inequality in Singapore’, New Naratif, 28 April 2023, newnaratif.com/.
(12) Singapore Department of Statistics, 2023,www.singstat.gov.sg/.
(13) ‘Lawrence Wong launches “Forward S’pore” to set out road map for a society that “benefits many, not a few” ’, The Straits Times, 28 June 2022.
(14) ‘Global wealth report 2019’, Credit Suisse, 2019, www.credit-suisse.com/.
(15) Éric Frécon, ‘Singapour: Des politiques et des efforts de transition, d’ajustements… ou de façade?’, in Gabriel Facal and Jérôme Samuel (eds), L’Asie du Sud-Est 2023: Bilan, enjeux et perspectives, IRASEC, Bangkok, 2023.