Agony
Over core values
Even leaders have disagreed on how much foreigners to allow in before the country’s identity begins to erode. By Seah Chiang Nee
Dec 28, 2013

(Synopsis: As Singapore reaches middle age, citizens are worried about the dwindling number of ‘born and bred’ citizens.)

LIKE a person stuck in mid-life crisis, Singapore is planning a grand 50th birthday celebration in 2015.

The government has formed a 29-member national committee comprising Cabinet ministers, top civil servants and ordinary citizens to plan it.

Measured by gross domestic product, Singapore continues to be a success story, having climbed to one of the 10 richest countries in the world.

But for the average worker, it is not the best of times, nothing like the golden era he once lived in.

In fact Emeritus Senior Minister Goh Chok Tong recently said Singapore is “stuck in mid-life crisis”.

To get out of it, Goh said that policies need to be updated or overhauled.

The external environment has become more competitive and uncertain, while internally, Singapore faces rising costs, slower growth and a less cohesive population.

For once, at least, Goh is reading the mood of his people accurately.

Middle-age crisis is used to describe the emotional transition of a person aged 40-60, who realises half his life may be over.

It normally reflects negative feelings he has at this stage of life that include boredom, unhappiness and even confusion about where he wants to go.

Goh’s reference to mid-life crisis, I presume, applies to citizens as well as the leaders.

Last year, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong apologised for his government’s lack of 20-20 foresight to predict the population increase.

A serious impact of increasing the foreign content of the population to nearly 40% has been a dilution of Singapore’s cohesion and national identity.

(A Population White Paper, which has been approved in Parliament, calls for a 6.9million people by 2030 – nearly half of them foreigners).

Nowadays Singapore’s leaders seem less keen to promote nationalism among their citizens than they did in the past.

In fact, several leaders have begun to describe Singapore as a city rather than a country.

Last year, the controversy was rekindled by Foreign and Law Minister K. Shanmugam in the United States when he was defending Singapore’s dominant one-party system.

Critics, he said, were unfairly judging Singapore’s political system as a country, rather than as a city like New York.

“This is where most people make a mistake. I have tried to explain that we are different.

“We are a city. We are not a country,” the minister added.

It created a furore among young Singapo-reans who were proud of their city state, especially national servicemen and reservists, past and present.

Earlier former prime minister Lee Kuan Yew also touched on it in a different context when he said that Singapore was still a work-in-progress when it came to nationhood.

“Are we a nation yet?

“I will not say we are. We’re in transition,” Lee said.

Fifty years is not an awfully long time in any nation’s history. In fact most neighbours have a much longer period of independence.

The founding leader himself has frequently poured cold water on the tiny island’s future existence.

Emphasising threats from many directions has long been a hallmark of Lee’s Singapore, but the new generation isn’t really too bothered by such talk.

Several years ago Lee asked whether Singapore would be around in 50 years’ time or disappear like a number of small, independent city-states (Venice, Athens) that once lined the ancient Silk Road.

One by one, they were taken over, merged, or simply withered away into the dustbin of history, he noted.

He wasn’t just talking about warfare, but threats of a non-military nature, including chemical attacks, SARS and global warming, including tsunamis.

For young Singaporeans, these are old fears they gradually see as less worrying than the social and economic impacts of over-population.

Kuan Yew: Worries over too many foreigners
What will become of original Singaporeans in the next 50 years?

Ironically, as the former PM Lee weakened with failing health in recent years, this was his publicly stated concern.

Going through some of his past speeches, I discovered that he had voiced his worries about having too many foreigners.

In early 2008, the then Minister Mentor said he was not quite sold on the idea of a 6.5 million population here.

“We need open spaces for comfort”

Lee projected an optimum population size of 5 to 5.5 million.

“I think there’s an optimum size for the land that we have, to preserve the open spaces and the sense of comfort,” he added.

Later that year, Lee said the city needed a population with 65% “born and bred” here so that they could be steeped in the local culture and instincts.

“(They could then) slowly influence the migrants to become like us,” Lee added.

And in 2009, Lee expressed concern about an excessive intake of foreigners diluting Singapore’s sense of identity.

“... I’m a little bit unhappy that in 50 years, or even in 30 years, the born and bred Singaporean, a good number will be from parents not born and bred here.

“I was born and bred here for three generations, third generation, so we are completely rooted here,” said Singapore’s first Prime Minister.

I think it was an indication that Lee felt the foreign influx should not be allowed to inflict any long-term impact on the politics in Singapore.

Lee appears to be warning of the danger of a newly naturalised citizen becoming Prime Minister and changing the future course of the country.

(This article was first published in That Star, Malaysia)