THE BLOG

Singapore: The next 50 years

02/23/2015 09:15 am ET | Updated Apr 25, 2015

Singapore celebrates 50 years of independence this year. In that half-a-century, the country has made significant progress especially on the economic front.

In the past, the economic prowess of the country was attributed to a highly disciplined workforce, aided by a populace that (purportedly) preferred economic growth over democratic rights, and enabled by a no-nonsense, autocratic style of governance. Ironically, such a regimented approach is undoing much of what has been accomplished.

Take the case of labor productivity whose levels have been languishing for the past decade, hovering at around 0%. And because wages must increase in tandem with productivity growth, income levels remained largely stagnant.

A workforce driven to working harder and harder at un-progressive wage levels will result in diminished happiness and, consequently, productivity. A survey conducted by the Randstad Group in 2014 showed that Singaporean workers were the least happy in Asia. One of the reasons the respondents cited for the unhappiness was working harder for less.

The Singapore government acknowledges the severity of the productivity problem. But instead of drawing up viable solutions, it resorted to importing large numbers of foreign workers in the hope that they would boost falling productivity and competitiveness so that the economy would remain attractive to investors from around the world. Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong admitted as much when he said in 2011 that "Without the foreign workers, we would not have attracted [investments]."

This has resulted in the number of non-citizens in the country increasing to 40% of a population of 5.3 million. Already one of the most densely populated cities in the world, the massive and sudden influx of guest workers has led to an escalation of social conflict, the most prominent of which was a riot involving low-income foreign workers from India - something the country has not seen for decades.

It has also exposed an infrastructure unable to cope with the increased demand as well as pushed prices of housing to unaffordable levels. Thus, in 2013 when the government announced that it was planning to further expand the population to 6.9 million, it unleashed a public outcry that was vehement but unsurprising.

Singapore's stringent political control has also resulted in a population feeling disengaged from the state. A survey conducted by a local academic institution showed that 37% of Singaporean youths between the ages of 15 and 29 indicated that they did not feel patriotic to their country and more than 50% said they would emigrate given the chance. It is clear that continued reliance on a rigid and paternalistic style of governance is retarding Singapore's progress.

We need a new outlook, a new political vision for Singapore - one that understands the strengths that an open and democratic society brings. For the economy, it means cultivating creativity and innovation, qualities much needed in today's technology-driven world. For the country, it means responding to the people's growing desire to live freely and democratically. Singaporeans, having attained a certain level of economic prosperity, aspire to a more inclusive form of governance including greater participation in the policy-making process.

This is no different from peoples around the world, including Asia. Indonesia, the Philippines, South Korea, and Taiwan, for example, have moved decisively towards democratic rule.

Likewise, the Singaporean people want the ability to hold their government accountable and, when necessary, change it. They seek, and deserve, a government that does not control the media; respects the fundamental freedoms of speech, association and peaceful assembly; and adheres to a genuinely free and fair election system. The employment of detention without trial, defamation suits and criminal prosecution of political activists must cease.

Unfortunately, there are few signs indicating that the ruling People's Action Party understands the urgent need for political reform. This is a pity because if Singapore continues down the path of authoritarianism, a slow but certain decline awaits.

On the other hand, a new and democratic direction will help Singaporeans - who have done remarkably well in the last 50 years to build up the island republic into what it is today - add to our achievement in the next 50 years.

Chee Soon Juan is Secretary-General of the Singapore Democratic Party.