Singapore's Social Divisions Aren't So Clear Cut
(Bloomberg Opinion) -- Singapore has declared its intent to begin putting the pandemic behind it and rebrand as what the health minister calls a “Covid-resilient nation.” Dismounting from the carousel of closures and reopenings is going to be tough — the city state has had a few false dawns. Even harder will be papering over the social and economic divisions that have deepened because of the disease.
Lockdown-like restrictions began easing Tuesday, with dine-in allowed for groups of up to five, provided they are vaccinated. Work-from-home rules will be relaxed next week. Travel, vital to the republic’s standing as a hub, could become less gnarled by bureaucracy. In many activities, the fully inoculated will enjoy more freedoms, though the hawker centers and mom-and-pop coffee shops beloved by Singaporeans can seat groups of two regardless of shot status.
As welcome as lighter curbs are, Singapore is miles from being fully up and running. The new normal that politicians have been talking about for the better part of a year will require the country to strip out some of its old DNA. Long a haven for trade, finance and foreign talent, the government says it’s still keen on the first two, though appears ambivalent about the third. Discourse is becoming more sensitive to themes of equality and opportunities for the average citizen. Immigration is a particularly tender point.
While varying degrees of disquiet over the role of foreigners has long existed, the rhetoric has become sharper in the past decade. The number of permanent residency visas granted — roughly equivalent to green cards in the U.S. — has fallen dramatically since the global financial crisis of 2007-2009. Last year’s recession, the worst in the republic’s history, and an election that left a few bruises on the ruling party, made tightening criteria for work papers inevitable. Surveys this year by the Institute of Policy Studies, a Singapore think tank, showed people fretting about job security and opportunities for their children, while favoring strict limits on immigration. The government has responded to the political climate, raising salary thresholds and requiring that dependents who wish to work obtain their own company-sponsored visas.
Even if Singapore’s total foreign workforce fell to about 1.2 million last year from 1.4 million in 2019, it still represents more than 20% of the population. Employment passes, issued for professional roles that pay at least S$4,500 ($3,323) per month, fell 8.6% from the previous year. The decline is being felt across industries from manufacturing to finance, white- and blue-collar alike. Banks, frequently in the political cross hairs on hiring, are keen to emphasize promotions for locals.
In an Aug. 8 address, on the eve of National Day, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong foreshadowed policy changes that aim to balance the interests of locals and foreign workers. “We have to adjust our policies to manage the quality, numbers and concentrations of foreigners in Singapore,” Lee said. “If we do this well, we can continue to welcome foreign workers and new immigrants, as we must.” Lee also urged citizens not to take social cohesion for granted. A series of race-related incidents and violence have featured prominently in domestic media in recent months.
Expatriate professionals often complain about being watched and subjected to more scrutiny than local residents. But beneath the growing unease with foreigners is a sentiment that gets far less attention: class anxieties. In that light, there may be more common ground between expats and well-to-do locals than the prevailing narrative suggests. I know plenty of Singaporeans who are as frustrated with stop-go pandemic responses and disappointed by apprehensions about reopening as any European or American. They are also just as keen to travel abroad and feel equally targeted by Covid-fighting measures.
Class divisions also need to be seen in the context of Singapore’s long-term economic slowdown. The population is aging, while people are marrying later and having fewer children. The country has one of the highest levels of gross domestic product per capita in the world, but income inequality remains a persistent worry. Most citizens consider themselves working class or lower-middle class. Concerns about social stratification have also arisen amid booming property prices and the towering costs of education.
How the fourth generation of leaders, the cadre of lawmakers vying to succeed Lee in a few years, handles this mix of sentiments will determine whether Singapore continues its ascent as a magnet for business or succumbs to populist-tinged currents. Does the state, already a huge influence on the economy by determining land use, housing and shares in some of the biggest companies, become more redistributive? The head of the central bank last month gently floated the merits of a wealth tax and minimum wage.
While the pandemic didn’t create economic and social anxieties, it no doubt brought them to the surface. When the government banned dining-in and restricted social gatherings a few weeks ago, business owners felt they were scapegoated for lapses that allowed clusters to develop at seedy karaoke lounges and a fish market frequented by local seniors. While Singapore once considered tony restaurants a badge of sophistication, their owners describe a more complicated landscape. Some have observed the high level of scrutiny cosmopolitan spots downtown receive relative to the hawker centers and food halls that dot housing estates and suburbs. Safe distancing ambassadors — civilians with red shirts and ID lanyards known as SDAs — have become a constant presence in well-heeled parts of the city, peering through cafe windows and aiming their smart phones at patrons huddling too closely around their cappuccinos.
On the afternoon before the latest clampdown, which began July 22, I enjoyed a late lunch at a food center in Kallang nestled among industrial warehouses and near apartment towers erected by the Housing & Development Board. I saw no SDAs. Nobody asked for my temperature or checked I had signed in using TraceTogether, Singapore's contact tracing app. I struggled to even locate the barcode on a nondescript girder somewhere in the vicinity of the front of the hall. The only person taking photos as I tucked into a delicious nasi padang plate was me. (The government has since made TraceTogether sign-in mandatory at hawker centers, which makes one wonder why it took so long.)
Leaders concede the economic pressures faced by many Singaporeans. Lee’s speech acknowledged lower-wage workers are finding it tougher to make ends meet. Ministers warn almost daily of the risks of becoming too inward-looking and shutting off from the world. There is no easy solution at hand. In the meantime, officials are trying to provide a decent quality of life as best they can while living with a pandemic that is far from defeated — the high vaccination rates notwithstanding.
Few places will look the same as they did in January 2020, and Singapore won’t be an exception. Core assumptions about its perch as an avatar of capitalism have been challenged. The fissures revealed the past 18 months won’t close so easily.
Ravi Menon, managing director of the Monetary Authority of Singapore, gave a series of lectures in his capacity as a visiting scholar at the Institute of Policy Studies at the National University of Singapore's Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy. Menon said the content reflects his personal views, not those of the MAS or the government.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Daniel Moss is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering Asian economies. Previously he was executive editor of Bloomberg News for global economics, and has led teams in Asia, Europe and North America.
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