Singapore opposition taps anti-immigrant sentiment

Singapore is a nation of immigrants but its opposition parties are tapping into growing anti-foreigner sentiment.

Last Updated: May 01, 2011, 10:47 AM IST

Singapore: Singapore is a nation of immigrants but its opposition parties are tapping into growing anti-foreigner sentiment among voters to win more parliamentary seats in general elections on May 7.

Foreigners are accused of stealing jobs, depressing wages and straining housing, transport, schools, hospitals and other public services, putting the ruling party on the defensive for easing immigration rules in recent years.

The People`s Action Party (PAP), in power since 1959, is widely expected to secure a comfortable majority but its opponents are hoping to win far more than the two seats they held in the recently dissolved 84-member parliament.

"Now every time I take the train, it feels like I`m in a different country," 24-year-old opposition candidate Nicole Seah of the National Solidarity Party told a public rally on Thursday to boisterous cheers.

"It is like taking a holiday. I don`t even need to bring my passport!" added Seah, an advertising professional who is the youngest candidate in the polls.

Singapore`s population numbered 4.03 million in 2000, with 760,000 foreigners and the rest citizens and permanent residents, according to government statistics.

Last year, the population soared to 5.08 million with foreigners hitting an all-time high of 1.3 million.

Singapore has long had a steady intake of foreigners but the government markedly liberalised the admission of immigrants during the economic boom from 2004-2007.

With a birth rate far below what is needed to maintain population levels, Singaporeans were told they needed "foreign talent" and young immigrant families to keep the island economically competitive in the long term.

Sentiment began to worsen when the global economy collapsed in 2008-2009, and not even the record 14.5 percent economic growth in 2010 was enough to assuage Singaporeans` fears of being swamped by foreigners.

"They never asked us whether we wanted a huge increase in our population," another opposition candidate, Vincent Wijeysingha of the Singapore Democratic Party, said at a rally on Thursday.

"They never asked us if we expected such large numbers of people working for such low salaries so that your salaries will also be pulled down," he added.

It`s an ironic turn of events for a city-state founded on cheap immigrant labour during British colonial rule, with most families tracing their roots to China, India, Malaysia and Indonesia.

Reform Party secretary general Kenneth Jeyaretnam said the poorest Singaporeans were the most affected by the presence of cheaper foreign labour.

"The incomes of the poorest 20 percent of the population have probably fallen by between 10 and 20 percent and this is all due to the fact that we have an open-door immigration policy with no minimum wage," said Jeyaretnam, who was a London-based financial executive before plunging into politics.

Eugene Tan, an assistant professor of law at the Singapore Management University, said it was not surprising that opposition parties were milking the immigration issue.

"It works up people very, very easily and it is something that you encounter on a daily basis," he said.

Kelvin Low, an assistant professor in the department of sociology at the National University of Singapore, said the anti-immigration card was not unique to Singapore in the age of globalisation.

"These are populist strategies undertaken to attract the attention of voters," he said.

In reaction to the backlash, the government slowed the intake of foreigners and reduced their social benefits, such as hospital and school fee subsidies, while insisting that Singapore can never survive without them.

"By allowing in a controlled number of foreign workers, far from disadvantaging our own people, we have created more good jobs for Singaporeans and more opportunities in our economy," Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said before the campaign began.

Bureau Report