SINGAPORE — Thousands of Singaporeans demonstrated Saturday against a government plan to increase the island’s population through immigration, saying the policy will erode the national identity and worsen quality of life.
Protesters gathered at Speakers’ Corner at Hong Lim Park at the edge of the city’s financial district in the rain, many dressed in black and carrying signs opposing the plan. Lawmakers from Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong’s ruling party last week endorsed a white paper that outlined proposals including allowing more foreigners through 2030 to boost the workforce.
The rally increases pressure on the government to slow an influx of immigrants that has been blamed for infrastructure strains, record-high housing and transport costs and competition for jobs. Singapore’s population has jumped by more than 1.1 million since mid-2004 to 5.3 million and may reach 6.9 million by 2030, based on the proposal.
That stoked social tensions and public discontent that is weakening support for Lee’s People’s Action Party.
“A 6.9 million population won’t be good for Singaporeans,” said David Tan, a 48-year-old who owns a garment textile business and attended the protest. “We have 5.3 million people and we can hardly cope. Even if the government can take care of infrastructure, it won’t help much in terms of quality of living.”
Organizers estimated as many as 5,000 people joined the demonstration at the 2.3-acre park that served as a venue for political rallies in the 1950s and 1960s. They sang patriotic songs and held signs saying “we want to be heard, not herded,” and “waiting for 2016,” when the next general election is due.
The Workers’ Party, the only opposition group with elected members in Parliament, said on its website the plan to spur economic growth through immigration isn’t sustainable and the proposal “will further dilute the Singaporean core and weaken our national identity.”
There may be as many as 6 million people in Singapore by 2020, and the government will boost infrastructure to accommodate a further increase in the following decade, according to the white paper published last month.
The government will take in between 15,000 and 25,000 new citizens and grant about 30,000 permanent-resident permits annually, according to the paper titled “A Sustainable Population for a Dynamic Singapore.”
“The size of the crowd shows people are angry,” said Tan Jee Say, a candidate in Singapore’s 2011 presidential election, who gave a speech at the protest. “It will send a signal to the government and I hope it will react in a sensible way and see that people are concerned.”
Protesters expressed unhappiness with the policy that could see citizens, including new ones, making up only one of every two people on the island smaller in size than New York City by the end of the next decade should the population reach 6.9 million. Singapore is the third-most expensive Asian city to live in and the sixth globally, according to an Economist Intelligence Unit ranking of 131 cities published this month.
“Instead of increasing the population of this country so quickly, maybe we should focus on those that have been left behind,” said Sudhir Vadaketh, author of “Floating on a Malayan Breeze,” a socio-economic narrative on Singapore and Malaysia. “A lot of Singaporeans are feeling a great sense of loss of identity. With continued high immigration, I worry about that sense of identity being diluted even more.”
Demonstrations in Singapore are rare as the government imposes strict controls on assemblies and speeches, limiting outdoor protests to locations such as Speakers’ Corner. Authorities say such laws help maintain social stability in a country that was wracked by communal violence between ethnic Malays and Chinese in the 1960s.
Protest organizer Gilbert Goh, who was part of an opposition party, said another demonstration may be held to protest the government’s population plans.
“5,000 people here is good testimony that this policy is flawed and unpopular on the ground,” Goh, who runs a non- government group to help unemployed citizens, told reporters Saturday.
The white paper was aimed at setting a framework to address Singapore’s demographic challenges of an aging population and a shrinking workforce. The island-nation’s first cohort of baby boomers turned 65 last year, and its number of elderly will triple to 900,000 by 2030, according to the National Population and Talent Division.
In a city with 3.3 million citizens and 2 million foreigners, complaints about overseas workers depriving locals of jobs and driving up home prices helped opposition parties win record support in the 2011 general election. Lee is under pressure to placate voters without disrupting the entry of talent and labor that helped forge Southeast Asia’s only advanced economy.
Ranked the easiest place to do business for seven straight years by the World Bank, Singapore is competing with lower-cost neighbors such as Malaysia and Indonesia for foreign investment.
Since the 2011 polls, Lee’s party has lost two by- elections. The government “paid a political price” with the infrastructure strains as a result of a bigger population, the prime minister said last month.
_ With assistance from Tanya Angerer in Singapore.