It’s taken me a while to think of a theme for this end-of-year post. Just in time, I have it: Space. Or rather, the ever-tightening amount of space in Singapore. The space I speak of is not just physical space, but also expressive space.
The year 2013’s first big surprise was the groundswell of support for Transitioning’s protest against the White Paper that envisaged a 6.9 million population. Whilst throughout it was tinged with unapologetic xenophobia, which made many, including myself, keep an arm’s length away from it, it unarguably tapped into widespread dismay among Singaporeans (including Permanent Residents) that we are being crowded out. Waiting lists for public housing flats had been lengthening and their prices rising. Public transport has become a squeeze. But most of all, people felt being crowded out of jobs as our open-door policy brought in virtually unlimited numbers of S-Pass and Employment Pass holders.
The latter groups competed directly against Singaporeans for jobs, and had a wage-depressing effect. (Singaporeans, by my observation, tend to be a lot more understanding about the need for Work Permit holders, since they largely do essential jobs that Singaporeans don’t want to do.)
In response, the government began to tighten up on S-Passes and Employment Passes and introduced the Fair Consideration Framework, which required employers to give locals a bit of a headstart when jobs are advertised. It’ll take time to see whether the measure sufficiently addresses public concern.
But this response is entirely typical of so many other government responses through 2013: A refusal to think deeply about structural issues, reaching instead for quick fixes. In some areas, e.g. regulation of online media and taxi fares, there are multiple quick fixes that only lead to total confusion and deep distrust; in other areas, there are (or will be) unanticipated side effects, which then call for more patching.
A higher population (it was touching 5.4 million in June 2013) meant pressure on rental rates. Last Sunday’s newspaper told the tale of woe of cake shop Kki and its co-tenant in a ground-floor shop space, indie retail shop The Little Drom Store. They had opened only four years ago in Ann Siang Hill, but the landlord is demanding a whopping rent increase of 140 percent. Worked backwards, it is equivalent to an annual escalation of 24 percent, compounded.
So, why move out when business is good? Rental there is set to increase by about 140 per cent.
Kki’s co-owner Delphine Liau, 36, says the landlord wants to up the rent on the 990 sq ft shop space from $6,300 a month to $15,000 a month. The owners have decided not to renew the lease, which ends on Tuesday. Ms Liau’s husband and Kki’s co-owner Kenneth Seah, 41, adds: “It is becoming harder and harder to run a business when rentals increase by such sharp amounts.”
— Sunday Times, 29 Dec 2013, Rentals up, business out
Plenty of businesses are struggling with the same problem. Eventually, Singapore will sink because of it.
We want to develop a creative, entrepreneurial economy, but this cannot be done in an environment where it is too costly to fail. High fixed costs like rent make it impossible for start-ups to have enough time on the learning curve to eventually succeed. High costs demand instant success, which is incompatible with experimental approaches. There will be huge pressure to stay risk-averse, and stick with copy-cat, proven business models — imported labels, please — rather than try anything new.
There are many structural reasons for the steady increases in rent. Chief among them is the reserve price that the government sets before it sells land, and the Development Charge it levies on land owners when they want to redevelop a plot. The government speaks of “free market”, but it is nothing of the sort when it is itself such a major landowner that withdraws land parcels from the market unless the price is above a base price, or as a regulator disallows redevelopment unless a ransom is paid.
Moreover, as I have pointed out before, there is a concentration of commercial developments among a small number of players. These property companies have disproportionate market power over renters. This too has a tendency to drive up rents.
There is no sign that the disease has been diagnosed; certainly no sign of any better prognosis.
The same Sunday, I happened to chance on a property website, advertising a new condominium called Hills TwoOne. I landed on this page and saw floor plans of various apartments. Here is that of a two-bedroom unit that’s only about 52 square metres:
You can barely walk around the beds, and I can’t imagine where I might put a comfortable-sized desk. The washing machine has to be in the front balcony and you can forget about inviting any friends over for a sit-down dinner. I’m not even sure where travelling luggage can be stowed.
We all know the reason why apartments are getting tinier. Developers’ costs are rising, and to keep the price of an apartment affordable, they just have to shrink them. But what about the emotional toll this is going to take on people who live in these shoeboxes?
$2.50 nasi padang
You have to wonder if policy makers are even aware of such space and cost pressures. After member of parliament Baey Yam Keng Facebooked a $2.50 meal, consisting of an Indonesian rice dish (nasi padang) with a good-sized piece of chicken, he was met with disbelief. The ordinary bloke would be asked to pay twice as much, said many in unison. When Baey tried to explain further that $3.00 was what he was charged (for the rice dish and the bandung drink, for which he thought the standard price in Singapore was only 50 cents) — disbelief turned into derision. Where in Singapore does one find a bandung for 50 cents? What kind of cloud-cuckoo land does he inhabit?
It’s a small incident, but it feeds into a widely-held view that policy makers are out of touch. To the average guy all sorts of pressures are building up — of which crowding and rising costs are high up on the list — but ivory-towered officials seem to think that Singapore is doing fine. This in turn generates an attitude in the halls of power that anyone who complains is not representative of the people but one who is out to make trouble: a dissenter, a political opponent, a trouble-maker. With that deafness, they accuse internet sites that carry the public’s views of engaging in “distortions” of the truth — not the “right things” that people ought to be reading.
Little India riot
The government’s response to the small riot that took place on 8 December 2013 can also be characterised as a contestation over space too. Although the state only lost control of the situation for a mere one hour, its heavy-handed reaction suggests that its was far more traumatic for the government than for Singaporeans. It banned all alcohol sales for a weekend and continues to restrict it on subsequent weekends. It shut down about half the private bus services that bring workers from dormitories to the area. On a typical weekend, about 250 – 280 buses would ferry about 23,000 workers into Little India. But this has been halved. Moreover, where they used to run all the way to midnight, buses must now stop by 9 pm. The bottom line is a frenzied rush to stamp the government’s authority on the district’s space.
It’s completely unnecessary, punishing the vast majority of workers who had no part in the riot. It gives the strong impression of a government feeling its pride wounded and taking it out on any and every outsider.
It also reveals a complete lack of understanding about social and cultural behaviour, including people’s social and cultural response to the government’s own behaviour. It failed for example to anticipate that fair-minded Singaporeans would speak up against deportation of those whom the government itself said was not guilty of participation in the riot. This ignorance of how the public feels echoes the lack of understanding it has about the social and cultural impact of immigration and rising costs.
Workers from India and Bangladesh like Little India. The precinct provides a variety of amenities that they need and which they can’t get anywhere else. There are shops that sell food and groceries that suit their tastes, cheap phones and phone cards for calling home, and gifts that are suitable for sending to their families. Best of all, it is an environment where retailers speak their language and is a central spot where friends and relatives from other parts of Singapore can come to to meet on a day off.
You can’t just tell dorm operators to keep the men confined within dorms and screen a couple of films. People do what they want or need to do, not what the state tells them to do. If any dorm operator tries to confine the men by force, another riot will occur.
Even with these measures, within weeks there will be side effects. If workers insist on gathering in Little India, yet ferry bus services remain restricted, they will just crowd into public buses and trains. Singaporeans will howl louder. On the other hand, if retailers decide to spread out to the suburban neighbourhoods to serve workers in far-flung parts of Singapore, and they succeed in attracting workers to new foci, then Singaporean residents in those neighbourhoods will soon feel the spillover impact of shutting down Little India.
This kind of knee-jerk response by a government that acts more and more from its own sense of insecurity, unable and unwilling to re-examine its biases, is beginning to typify Singapore. Cascade after cascade of quick-fixes with unintended side effects will be the norm.
Human rights group Maruah organised a forum to discuss the situation in the wake of the riot. It booked a function room in Syed Alwi Road but the government intervened and arm-twisted the venue owner to boot Maruah out. In a last-minute change, Maruah found a room in the North Bridge Road premises of the Marketing Institute of Singapore. However, in the days following, the government made angry noises at the Institute, saying they should not have allowed “political” activity within their premises.
Intimidation, to deny others space for discussion and organising, is a old strategy of the ruling People’s Action Party. Casting the label “political” broadly to silence anyone with an interest in civic issues is an old tactic. In the last ten years there was a little softening, but this episode suggests a desire to turn back the clock.
Intimidation of those wanting to use online space is also in evidence. More interestingly, the methods all look totally ad hoc, quick fixes depending on the day of the week. In 2011, the government put the screws on The Online Citizen by declaring it a political association. Then in May and June this year, it created with little warning the “Individual Licence” framework requiring Yahoo! to put up a $50,000 good-behaviour bond. But when The Independent news site came onstream, an older rule was resurrected — the “Class Licence”, which people thought had fallen into disuse after the epochal pie-in-the-face case of Sintercom. In 2001, the government asked Sintercom to register under the Class Licence, but the fledging site chose to shut down rather than submit.
The Independent was accused of seeking foreign funding. Fierce denials by the backers of The Independent appears to suggest that the government’s claim was just a red herring to justify asking them to register. Even so, the Independent said it would register though it appears that due to bureaucratic chopping and changing of forms, the process has not yet been completed.
However, when the government tried the same with Breakfast Network, it chose to shut down instead, like Sintercom did. Then like a spurned lover insisting on killing the pet dog and pet cat, the government went after Breakfast Network’s Facebook and Twitter accounts.
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All these different events lead to the same sense of crowdedness. People feel there is less and less room for manoeuvre — in business, creativity, careers, housing, socialising and expression. Partly it is the result of the government’s economic growth-at-all cost dogma, partly it is the whiplash from this government’s deep fear of the future and its desperate attempts to turn back the clock.
(I think: If the government is afraid of the future, does it mean it knows it has no future itself?)
Increasingly this city feels like a concentration camp. The “social peace and order” that the government constantly extols is the shuffle of regimented feet and the deathly quiet from the abandonment of hope.
Power-hungry governments don’t always fail in keeping control and forcing a country down the political and developmental path it wants. Some succeed in doing so. But if there’s any lesson from history, it is the inverse relationship between their top-down success and the health of a society. The latter depends a whole lot more on spontaneous, organic flowering. A good dollop of perceptive leadership helps, yet little of that is now in evidence. I think Singapore is beginning to fail.