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 Saturday.
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, 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 candidate Nicole Seah (佘雪玲) 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 one of the youngest candidates in the polls.
Singapore has long had a steady intake of foreigners, but the government markedly liberalized the admission of immigrants during the economic boom from 2004 to 2007.
With a birthrate far below what is needed to maintain population levels, Singaporeans were told they needed “foreign talent” and young immigrant families to keep the city-state economically competitive in the long term.
Sentiment began to worsen when the global economy collapsed in 2008 and 2009, and not even the record 14.5 percent economic growth last year was enough to assuage Singaporeans’ fears of being swamped by foreigners.
“They never asked us whether we wanted a huge increase in our population,” 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.”
It’s an ironic turn of events for a city-state founded on cheap immigrant labor during British colonial rule, with most families tracing their roots to China, India, Malaysia and Indonesia.
Eugene Tan (陳慶文), of the Singapore Management University, said it was not surprising opposition parties were milking the immigration issue.
Kelvin Low (劉英榮), 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 globalization.
“These are populist strategies undertaken to attract the attention of voters,” he said.