SIM Report: Southeast Asia, Issue 3

SINGAPORE: Anti-immigration sentiment likely to remain a key issue, influence policy-making ahead of general election

In the city state’s upcoming parliamentary general election, which must be held by April 2020, immigration is likely to be a key issue. In 2011, the ruling People’s Action Party (PAP) suffered its worst election results since Singapore’s independence in 1965, primarily due to popular opposition towards the government’s policy of deliberately attracting high levels of immigration from China to mitigate the city state’s exceptionally low birth rate among its ethnically Chinese citizens. Currently, about 40 per cent of Singapore’s population of 5.7 million are classified as foreign, causing some Singaporeans to accuse immigrants of heightening competition for education, health, housing, and jobs. 

Anti-immigrant sentiment has gradually fomented in Singapore over the last few years, most recently sparked in October 2019 by a widely circulated video of a naturalised citizen of Indian descent. The naturalised citizen was caught on film verbally abusing an elderly, lower-income security guard at his condominium. His insults included boasting about how much he had paid for his abode. Internet users doxed the man, and a petition that garnered significant support called on the man’s employer, JP Morgan, to fire him. Singaporeans also widely believed the man to be an Indian migrant and told him to ‘go home,’ adding to a trend of rising anti-foreign sentiments. The incident and the public’s reaction to it indicates the significance of concerns around wealth inequality and rising anti-foreign sentiment as significant factors in the general election and a likely consideration in the ruling government’s upcoming 2020 budget. 

The resulting public outcry likely contributed towards what culminated into a rally attended by approximately 400 people on 3 November. The rally was held to pressure the government to make sure Singapore nationals are prioritised in employment over non-nationals. The rally was rare for Singapore, where the state treats any activism with caution. It was sanctioned and conducted at the so-called Speakers’ Corner in Hong Lim Park near the city-state’s financial district. Sentiments that may be perceived as xenophobic that were voiced at the rally are likely to have caused concern to the government ahead of the general election. The rally also coincided with several incidents of disharmony widely publicised in the media. The PAP government will likely seek to mend these problems prior to the polls. Possible measures include decreasing the number of foreign staff through increasingly onerous work visa requirements and heightening the cost of employing foreigners over locals. 

The government may also announce more favourable welfare benefits for locals when contrasted with immigrants when it discloses the annual budget in parliament on 18 February. If Singapore nationals view the government as not adequately addressing their grievances, then further outbreaks of civil unrest are likely in the medium-term. Though these are probable to remain small in scale, they will nonetheless highlight growing discontent and may give smaller opposition parties such as the Singaporeans First and People’s Power Party the opportunity to gain more support in the elections. Protests may intensify if voters deem the annual budget as making insufficient concessions that favour locals over foreigners.