Densely populated Singapore embraces four national languages (English, Chinese, Malay, and Tamil); three distinct ethnic groups; and many faiths (Muslim, Hindu, Buddhism, and Christianity among them). The Chinese majority, while represented in all strata of society, dominates politics and state government. Malays work as policemen, servants, or laborers. Indians are often shopkeepers or laborers.
To upgrade living conditions and break down ethnic barriers, Singapore's new Housing Development Board builds high-rise apartment complexes and relocates low-income citizens. Integrated complexes feature schools, shops, and recreation areas. Many families use their compulsory contributions to the Central Provident Fund to buy apartments.
The government preaches cooperation, discipline, and austerity. But tension between the Chinese and the downtrodden Malay population boils over. Fomented by extremist groups from Kuala Lampur, race riots between Malay and Chinese youths kill 23 and injure hundreds. Lee Kuan Yew travels the country to restore calm.
New labor laws mandate longer hours and give employers more hiring and firing power, but workers see changes, too, and for the first time get sick leave and unemployment benefits. Birthrates rise, and the state forms the Family Planning and Population Board to offer clinical services, education, and incentives such as priority housing and education in exchange for voluntary sterilization.
A booming economy and the state's emphasis on education raise living standards, reduce poverty, and blur class lines. Most families occupy -- and many own -- government apartments. Command of English and technical or professional skills characterize the upwardly mobile. Interracial marriage is rare. Lower and working classes rely on extended family networks for support.
Good nutrition, sanitation, and health care produce long life expectancy and low infant mortality rates. To meet industry's growing need for manpower, the state expands vocational training and encourages women to work, which boosts household incomes and further lowers the birthrate. A pro-birth campaign offers tax rebates and day care subsidies for third children.
Following Lee Kuan Yew's resignation after 30 years in office, Singapore's government becomes more pluralistic. Its economy feels the drag of the global slowdown. Standard of living remains high, but more unskilled refugees from troubled Indonesia arrive, and members of Singapore's professional class depart. In early 2003, the deadly SARS virus claims lives despite aggressive containment measures.
back to top