Singapore marks its 50th anniversary tomorrow celebrating a remarkable transformation from colonial backwater to regional powerhouse. There’s much to celebrate for the city-state. As a global hub for finance, trade, travel and shipping and with its mix of languages, which include English and Mandarin, Singapore has become the perfect gateway to an economically resurgent Asia.
The nationalistic celebrations are the high-point of a year of jubilee events and will be marked with a huge military parade, fireworks display and video tribute to late founding father Lee Kuan Yew, whose death in March prompted a national outpouring of grief.
More than a quarter of a million people are expected to take to the streets to attend the commemorations, reflecting the widespread pride felt by many residents at the city-state’s achievements over the past half century.
But behind the celebratory events, the opposition is keen to tap into voter anxiety ahead of elections expected in September and pressure the government to ease strict political controls credited with keeping the ruling People’s Action Party in power.
Singapore’s birth as a nation state came on August 9, 1965, when it was ejected from the Malaysian federation following a stormy two-year union.
It has since gone on to surpass far larger neighbours Malaysia and Indonesia in terms of development and military power.
Analysts have widely predicted that Lee’s son, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, 63, will call snap elections for September 12 in the hope of harnessing the celebratory mood and extending the PAP’s uninterrupted five and a half decades in power.
But the party, which suffered significant losses in 2011 elections, will have to contend with a series of voter gripes, including the high cost of living, immigration policy, rising healthcare costs and one of the widest incomes gaps in the world.
Singapore’s low birth rate, coupled with its rapidly greying population, prompted the government to liberalise immigration policy in the mid-2000s, with the population surging from 4.17mn in 2004 to 5.47mn last year - 40% of them foreigners.
But an influx of skilled and educated migrants has caused significant tensions. Educated, middle-class Singaporeans feel the newcomers are taking jobs and housing.
Immigration policy was blamed for the PAP’s weakened showing at the last election, when the opposition Workers’ Party wrested a five-seat constituency from the PAP for the first time.
It was the PAP’s worst-ever electoral performance, securing 60% of all votes cast, although a system of electing MPs in teams ensured it kept 80 of the 87 seats.
The opposition later extended its gains with two by-election wins.
Lee has since taken steps to arrest the dip in his party’s popularity. The government has invested billions of dollars in building new public housing flats and metro lines, while curbing the intake of foreign workers.
The government hopes the outpouring of grief over Lee’s death and the nationalistic fervour surrounding the anniversary celebrations will give it a boost at the polls.
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