Singapore faces growing pains as setbacks pile up

“There is an unleashing of frustration and everything is becoming a focal point of the frustration,” said Bridget Welsh, an associate professor of political science at the Singapore Management University.  “A lot of people in Singapore feel that they have to speak out to make Singapore brighter. This is actually something Singapore needs to go through to become stronger.” 


Senior officials arrested in a corruption investigation. Subway commuters trapped underground without light or proper ventilation. Flooded roads in the financial district. 

It may sound like Indonesia or perhaps the Philippines, but this is Singapore — the wealthy island state that has long been the envy of those neighbours for its ruthless efficiency, clean government and high standard of living. 

The city-state remains a relative paragon of good governance but a succession of embarrassing setbacks is damaging its reputation and heaping pressure on the long-ruling government as it faces an unprecedented erosion of public support. 

The problems highlight a growing gap between Singaporeans’ expectations of their government and the administration’s ability to deliver as it grapples with an influx of foreigners, a yawning wealth gap and strained infrastructure. 

Those are all problems of success, but they have fuelled perceptions that the government is out of touch with Singaporeans’ concerns at a time when public debate is flowering as never before in the tightly controlled state. 

That became starkly clear in elections last year when voters handed Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong’s People’s Action Party (PAP) its lowest ever share of the popular vote. 

“There is an unleashing of frustration and everything is becoming a focal point of the frustration,” said Bridget Welsh, an associate professor of political science at the Singapore Management University. 

“A lot of people in Singapore feel that they have to speak out to make Singapore brighter. This is actually something Singapore needs to go through to become stronger.” 

The PAP, which has ruled Singapore since independence in 1965, responded to its election embarrassment with a series of government measures aimed at addressing citizens’ worries. 

It tightened the flow of foreign workers, who make up 36 per cent of Singapore’s population of 5.2 million, up from about 20 per cent a decade ago. 

It has also pledged to strengthen a flimsy social safety net in a country that has the world’s highest proportion of millionaires but where there is no minimum wage and some jobs pay less than S$1,000 (RM2,400) a month. 

In December, the government took new steps to cool surging property prices, with the toughest measures aimed at foreign buyers who have become increasingly visible in the residential sector. Most dramatically, Lee and his ministers agreed to slash their hefty seven-figure annual salaries by more than a third in a nod to growing discontent over wealth inequality. 

“We must uphold inclusive growth and social mobility as pillars of a united Singapore,” Lee, who remains the world’s best-paid premier, said in his New Year message. 

But the government’s perception problem took a further hit last month with the arrest of the chief of civil defence and the head of its police anti-drug unit on corruption charges, the highest level graft investigation in two decades. 

Rather than an official announcement, the news was broken by a Chinese-language daily which felt bold enough to run the story without confirmation from the government. 

A few hours later, the Home Ministry confirmed that both officials were being investigated by the anti-corruption watchdog for “serious personal misconduct”. It later emerged that the first arrest had been made a month earlier but not made public. 

P N Balji, a former editor of Singapore’s New Paper, says the government’s handling of the case highlighted its inability to communicate well with an increasingly demanding public. 

“This is not a stupid government, it has done a lot of good things for its people, it is respected overseas and its model of governance is highly sought after,” he wrote in a commentary. 

“Yet, one of the basic attributes of a smart government — squaring with its citizens and carrying them along — seems to be missing.” 

The government regularly points to its world-class infrastructure and the top marks it scores in global surveys on the ease of doing business and low corruption levels. 

Many Singaporeans still count their blessings compared with more unruly, poverty-scarred neighbours and the crisis-hit economies of Europe. Gerald Toh, a graduate student in New York back in Singapore for the Chinese New Year holiday, said unhappiness with the authorities partly stemmed from high expectations. 

“In terms of delivery of services, Singapore’s is definitely one of the better governments in the world,” he said. “When you live overseas, you learn to appreciate Singapore better.” 

But Tan Jee Say, an opposition politician, said such global accolades often had little bearing on the lives of Singaporeans, many of whom who have seen their incomes stagnate over the past decade. 

Inflation at three-year highs around 5.5 per cent is also hurting their pockets and the government has warned that slowing the flood of immigrants will mean slower growth for the economy, which likely expanded by 4.8 per cent last year. 

“In other developed countries, there is a big safety net. In Singapore, the net is very small,” he said. “For the poor, having the best airport in the world doesn’t affect them as they rarely travel.” 

Rapid population growth fuelled by immigrants, combined with under-investment in infrastructure have fed complaints about over-crowding on buses and trains and increased competition for jobs, schooling and housing. 

Multiple train breakdowns have become a political headache for Lee. In December, hundreds of commuters were trapped underground without light and ventilation for more than an hour before they heard from train operator SMRT Corporation Ltd . The financial district has been hit by flash floods up to ankle level, threatening to damage the Louboutin and Gucci shoes favoured by many bankers. 

“Singapore has developed very fast, but the economic development was too fast and so the cost of living is too high,” said 59-year-old food stall helper Ng Hwee Tiang as she cleaned the cafeteria where she works. 

In a spate of announcements aimed at shoring up public confidence over infrastructure, the government said last week it would spend millions of dollars to upgrade its network of trains and water facilities. 

The government, together with SMRT, is investing about S$600 million to upgrade its signal system and add trains. Authorities are also spending about S$750 million over the next five years to bolster flood defences. 

Singapore is already breaking with the past. Founding father Lee Kuan Yew, prime minister of the republic for 25 years followed by 21 years in the cabinet as senior minister and “minister mentor”, stepped down from government last year. 

Welsh said the setbacks and gradual democratisation of Singapore were forcing the government to become more responsive to voters’ demands to avoid further election setbacks in coming years. 

“They have gone from being a government of arrogance and overconfidence to a government on the defensive. They are starting to adopt different forms of engagement with the public,” she said.