At least 4,000 people have staged one of Singapore’s largest-ever protests, a further sign of discontent over immigration policies and growing income disparities under the long-ruling People’s Action Party (PAP).
The chief organiser of the rally, Gilbert Goh, said the protest on Saturday was a display of citizens’ unhappiness over a population plan, which was endorsed in parliament on February 8.
“They want to tell the government [to] please reconsider this policy. The turnout is a testimony that this policy is flawed
and unpopular on the ground,” he said.
Parliament in the highly regimented city-state had last week approved a white paper that said the island’s population of 5.3 million could grow by as much as 30 percent to 6.9 million by 2030. The influx is mostly foreign workers who will be brought in to offset a chronically low birth rate.
Critics say the island is already too crowded, with a population density exceeding that of rival Asian business centre Hong Kong.
“I think a lot of Singaporeans are concerned that the emphasis on growth is not putting enough emphasis on well-being and many of the social security safety nets in an ageing population,” Bridget Welsh, a professor at Singapore Management University, told Al Jazeera.
Uniformed police were all but absent at the rally at Speakers’ Corner in a park on the edge of Singapore’s glitzy financial district, an area exempt from strict controls on assembly.
“You cannot bring in foreigners to compete with your people when you do little to look after them,” said Leong Sze Hian, a financial planner, blaming lax immigration for stagnating real wages.
Tan Kin Lian, former CEO of Singapore’s largest insurance firm, told the rally that Singaporeans needed “adequate wages, dignity in employment for all sectors of the workforce. Wages must be enough to raise a family”.
Singapore, with a land area of 714 sq km, is one of the of the world’s wealthiest countries with a per capita GDP of $50,000.
It has been ruled since independence in 1965 by the PAP, the party credited with transforming the island from a British colonial outpost into a global business centre with clean streets, efficient civil service and the world’s highest concentration of millionaires.
Income inequality is among the highest in the developed world, however, and many Singaporeans struggle on an average monthly wage of about $3,300. The cost of housing has doubled over the past decade.
The PAP holds 80 of 87 elected seats in parliament despite recent electoral setbacks, including a dip in its share of the popular vote to about 60 percent in the 2011 general election.
Authorities remain wary of social upheaval. A wildcat strike last year by bus drivers brought to Singapore from China, the first such work stoppage since 1986, led to the deportation of more than 20 of the strikers.
The government says without new immigrants, the working-age population will start shrinking in 2020 while the total number of Singaporeans will begin to decline in 2025.
The paper has prompted worries that further immigration could alter the character of the island.
Singaporeans account for 62 percent of 5.3 million residents, down from 75 percent in 2000, and the government plans to give citizenship to between 15,000 and 25,000 foreigners each year.