As we move towards 2015 and our 50th year of Independence, there will be a flurry of books and articles recalling the challenges overcome since 1965 and the destiny which awaits Singapore. The bigger surprise has been the number of efforts at crystal-ball gazing, attempting to look 10, 25, and even 50 years into the future.
What is striking is how much our imaginations are prisoners of the present. Even though we want to look beyond today and aim to conceive of a world which will unfold in the years ahead, we are shaped by our experiences. Linear projections are common. We struggle to grapple with the possibility of discontinuities, of changes which break existing moulds.
At the same time, our natural optimism leads us to plot a future which highlights our role at or near the forefront of nation states, a beacon of economic development and political stability. When we discuss the possibility of changes, the tendency is to think in terms of incremental shifts.
But the possibility of paradigm shifts should not be ignored. The emergence of unexpected issues which become the focus of attention by policymakers can be seen in the current debate over the population challenge.
Singapore is an ageing society, with a total fertility rate of 1.19 last year, well below the replacement level of 2.1. In retrospect, high levels of economic growth over the past two decades resulted from increases in capital and foreign labour deployed, not from significant productivity increases. However, the unsustainable sharp influx of foreigners granted permanent residence, as well as employment permits, in recent years has resulted in a backlash, making the issue of immigration politically toxic.
It is not just younger Singaporeans concerned about competition for university places or preferred jobs. Older Singaporeans worry about the changing environment around them, as they have neighbours with alien languages and different lifestyles. While some welcome the influx of new ideas, different cuisines and fresh faces, others are concerned by the disappearance of comfort foods and familiar styles of behaviour.
Although ethnic ghettos in HDB estates have disappeared, as legislation has ensured an ethnic balance, condominiums are beginning to see such ghettos, as new immigrants and expatriates from certain nationalities congregate in preferred locations.
The past year has seen rising anti-immigration sentiment in Singapore. The views of the general public have been influenced by the pressure placed on Singapore's infrastructure because of the sharp increase in the number of people residing in Singapore. MRT trains are crowded, hospital beds always full, traffic jams occur frequently, once-quiet parks are filled with foreign workers on weekends. The rapid pace of the foreign influx resulted in growing criticism and an undercurrent of resentment reflected in social media sites.
The opposition to immigration has led to the tightening of government policy on foreign workers in recent months. Now that restaurants, offices and department stores, for example, cannot rely on cheap foreign labour, we see Singaporeans employed for such jobs. One wonders where these people were employed before the restrictions were imposed.
The ease with which foreign labour was recruited has resulted in depressed wages for a segment of our population with minimal educational qualifications, unskilled and often in their 50s and 60s. This has led to calls for the introduction of a minimum wage, a move resisted by the Government over the years.
But the reality is that immigration will continue and there will be more foreign labour employed, if low birth rates continue.
Attitudes need to change. We should welcome the presence of new Singaporeans and encourage their integration into Singapore society. We should revise our laws to permit dual citizenship, which benefits some who are permanent residents but do not wish to give up the citizenship of their land of birth. It would also allow the growing numbers of Singaporeans working abroad to retain their links with Singapore.
We should be prepared to adopt a minimum wage policy to protect vulnerable groups in our workforce and to ensure that cheap foreign labour does not displace Singaporeans in their twilight years eking out a living.
The pace of change over the past 50 years has left us with a pioneer generation lacking the education and skills to benefit from the transformation that has taken place in Singapore. Ensuring a basic living wage will do more to retain their pride and sense of purpose than handouts as part of a pioneer generation package.
At the same time, despite the growing reliance on foreign labour to do menial jobs, Internet chatter suggests that many in our community are unwilling to recognise that even temporary workers have rights and should be protected. Do we retain Third World attitudes towards manual labour even as we proclaim ourselves a First World society?
The Little India riots last December highlighted the risk of outbreaks of social unrest. A minor dispute in Geylang or Beach Road on weekend nights involving Singaporeans and foreign workers could easily turn nasty. As large self-contained dormitories are built, dissatisfaction on trivial issues could spark a destabilising wave of riots and public commotion.
The litany of issues arising from Singapore's population challenge suggests that even as we want to focus on big ideas and grand plans for reimagining Singapore, reality will intrude.
Dealing with such challenges should not be seen as a distraction, but as part of the core test in remaking Singapore to meet the needs of the next generation.
The writer is Distinguished Fellow and Bakrie Professor of South-east Asia Policy at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technological University.