Quiet Singapore, which rarely sees protests or civic disturbances, was hit by small-scale protests this past weekend. On Saturday, about 400 people took to the streets to protest rising transport fare prices. While a 400 person protest would likely not even raise eyebrows in the capital cities of most Western countries, in quiet Singapore protests of any size are a rare sight.
This protest follows December riots which were the most extreme civic disturbance in the city-state’s history. During the December riots, dozens of immigrants took to the streets, destroying vehicles and clashing with the police. The riots broke out after an immigrant was killed in a bus accident.
Protests are a rare sight in Singapore
The protesters gathered in Hong Lim Park, located in the center of Singapore, to protest a government-appointed panel’s decision to raise bus and rail prices by 3.2%. Many Singaporeans are feeling the pinch of rising rent and other living costs, while wages for many middle class workers have stagnated.
Beyond rising prices, Singapore’s public transportation system, especially the rail system, is becoming crowded. During rush hour many rail lines are so crowded that passengers must wait as full trains pass by. Conditions on the trains can be cramped with passengers standing shoulder-to-shoulder. Meanwhile, the rail lines have broken down several times in the recent months, causing further delays and aggravating conditions.
Singapore’s transportation system is dominated by the government-linked SMRT company and SBS Transit, which is owned by ComfortDelGro. Public transportation is heavily regulated by the government and both companies must seek approval before raising fares or launching other major operations.
Cars, meanwhile, remain well out of the price range for most working and middle-class Singaporeans. In an effort to combat road congestion, smog, and the other detrimental effects of cars, the government levies heavy taxes on cars and limits the number of private road permits given out each year. A basic car with a road permit, such as a Honda Civic, costs more than $100,000 USD.
Last year, thousands of Singaporeans turned out for anti-immigration protests. Many Singaporeans feel that the city-state itself is already crowded and that the government’s once lax immigration policies were straining the infrastructure. Many Singaporeans also believe that immigrants are keeping wages artificially low and are stealing jobs from foreigners.
Peoples’ Action Party coming under increasing pressure
Rising fare prices suggest that the Peoples’ Action Party may not yet realize the daunting challenges that it faces. Singapore’s citizens are becoming increasingly restless and demanding more from their government. The PAP’s approval ratings have been slowly dropping in recent elections, and are now at the lowest levels in the country’s history.
While the PAP has promised to restructure the economy to make it more inclusive, it has also stated that such a reformation may take several years. Raising fare prices at such a volatile time, however, is a risky move. While elections are still several years away, rising costs could quickly become a point of criticism from Singapore’s opposition parties.
Rent prices have also continued to climb, despite government efforts to build more subsidized housing. Across the board, rising prices have caused inflation to trend upwards. Headline inflation “eased” to 2.4% in 2013, from down from 4.6% in 2012. Food prices rose 2.8%, while accommodation costs rose to 2.9%.
With citizens increasingly being attracted to opposition parties, approving a raise in public transpiration prices is ill-timed. Many Singaporean citizens rely on the public transportation system daily and will feel the rising fare prices. Paying increased fares every day will be something that local citizens notice, and could quickly become a rallying point for the opposition.