SINGAPORE – A HIGH-DENSITY CITY WITH SPORTING CHARACTERS
Chapter 9: Sporting affordability for all !?
In Singapore small-sized outdoor games courts and outdoor fitness stations, which are typically incorporated into the HDB-public housing estates, can be used for free. Entry to all city parks is free, too. And the stadium running tracks at the HDB-sports complexes can also be used at no extra cost. In contrast, moderate charges apply to all the other government-subsidized sporting facilities.
Given the virtual full employment and the continuously solid wage growth (the unemployment rate is at merely 2.8% and the median gross monthly income among full-time employed residents – a useful, although not perfect, point of reference – reaches S$ 3,276, according to latest official figures), however, most entry or utilisation prices for the public facilities appear fairly reasonable, with swimming being the cheapest sporting option (see chart below).
Going for swim in the hot and humid climate can be very refreshing. Fortunately, the subsidized public aqua complexes keep the entry prices very low for Singapore residents. With a $4.70 price tag (per person/h) tennis is the most expensive public sporting facility.
Yet the prices listed in this chart do not apply to all users. Prior to the latest 2015 national election the government introduced a new fees policy for the utilization of all public sports facilities, increasing the prices by 30% for the so-called ‘non-residents’ group. The implementation of this policy was possibly aimed at containing the growing public dissatisfaction with Singapore’s migration policy, as the Singapore citizens had voiced concerns over the rising numbers of foreign workers living in Singapore.
Although it is true that Singapore has experienced a relatively steady increase in foreign workers over the past 25 years, this political act of singling out a specific group of its population may appear to be unfair, mainly for two reasons.
For one, this large temporary foreign workforce is an indispensable component of Singapore’s socio-economic success story, accounting for 38% of the total workforce and almost 30% of the total population – according to latest official figures. A sizeable share of these 1.6 million temporary foreign workers is employed through a national guest workers program, which provides the critical labour force for the domestic low-wage industries and contributes significantly to the city’s wealth and development: for instance, more than 320.00 workers are employed in the construction sector and nearly 230.000 foreigners work in the domestic industry (mainly as housemaids in private households).
Secondly, the average monthly income for a full-time domestic helper, for example, is about S$500 (this figure is based on anecdotal evidence and local media reports, due to scarcity of economic, or any other, data on the city-state’s temporary workforce), which amounts to merely 15% of the median salary of a full-time employed Singapore resident. Although very basic accommodation and food are usually provided to this workforce, it is still very unlikely that these temporary foreign workers would spend their little disposable income on sports activities, as large parts of it usually gets send to their families in their origin country (remittance).
Street cleaners, construction workers and domestic helpers are all an essential part of Singapore’s low-income foreign workforce.
Spoilt for Choice! Maid agencies offering low-cost foreign workforce to Singapore residents in a shopping mall in the affluent district of Marine Parade
It is, of course, possible that the temporary foreign workers who are employed in middle- or high-income industries – and who are keen on exercising – can cope more easily with the recent 30%-price hike for the utilisation of public sports facilities. But such an assumption can not be verified, as the city’s temporary foreign workforce of 1.6 million remains somewhat of an enigma in Singapore: that is, data on their income, age, working hours, length of work permit, to name only few aspects, are hard to come by. Likewise, next to nothing is known about levels of physical activity or choice of sports activities among these so-called ‘non-residents’, as official surveys typically only include the 3.4 million Singapore citizen and the approximately 500.000 permanent residents (who are, by definition, foreigners, yet with a special residency status).
As no public reaction could be noticed after the implementation of the new ‘non residents’-price rule for the utilization of subsidized public sporting facilities, it remains unclear whether this public policy resonates well with Singapore voters. Recently, temporary foreign workers whose children visit public schools have, in addition, been confronted with a substantial increase in annual school fees. As for 2016 all ‘non-residents’ children originating from non-ASEAN countries, for instance, and attending a public secondary school will have to pay 23% more in annual fees compared with the charges in 2015, amounting to a total annual fee of around S$ 8,000 (by comparison, the fees for international students from ASEAN countries and permanent residents will rise to S$5,500 and S$1600, respectively. Singapore citizens will continue to pay a negligible amount of S$50).
In this regard, one needs to be reminded, however, that such dividing line between ‘locals’ and ‘non-residents’ or ‘us’ and ‘them’ could start creeping in into the mind-set of Singapore citizens. And eventually, demands for higher public transportation prices, among others, for ‘non-residents’ would also be made. (To be clear, the ‘non-residents’ category, by definition, also includes the city’s international visitors).
In principle, the so-called ‘non-residents’ could in future be charged for using public bicycle parking areas, too. Bicycle commuting to the nearest train station has recently become popular with low-income foreign workers, such as the Boon Lay train station in the outer Western district of Jurong West.
Nations and cultures across the globe are generally reluctant to assess their own xenophobic sentiments and attitudes. And as implied in Paul Chu’s thesis on “Migration and the politics of multiculturalism in Singapore”, published in the Singapore Policy Journal at the Harvard Kennedy School in November 2014, Singapore appears to be no exception. Due to the city-state’s multi-cultural harmony policy, official surveys and local media outlets, such as Channel News Asia or The Straits Times, rarely reflect on the possibility of latent elements of cultural superiority and cultural hierarchy. In particular, the socially acceptable disregard for various groups of foreigners originating from some parts of Asia – when expressed privately or in online forums (which, of course, is not representative of its entire society) – can at times be mind-boggling and paralyzing to humanists. To be fair, cultural hierarchy, exclusion mentality and nativism are persistent features of societies worldwide and Singapore is perhaps more culturally-inclusive than many other countries. Yet nobody knows it for sure, as insufficient evidence-based information is currently available.
Local residents would need to be reminded that the city’s temporary ‘low-skilled’ foreign workforce – typically originating from Philippines, Indonesia, China, Malaysia, Cambodia, Bangladesh, Nepal, to name a few Asian countries – have long been, and will continue to be, a critical component of Singapore’s socio-economic equation of becoming one of the world’s wealthiest places. Hence, the government would perhaps have to put even more effort into explaining to its citizens that, under the city-state’s past and current socio-economic model, its rapidly ageing population and its extremely low fertility rates, Singapore will remain reliant on large-scale labour migration. In short, the so-called ‘non-residents’ are here to stay and their proportion will continue to rise – unless, of course, more foreigners would be allowed to acquire permanent residence status (or Singapore citizenship), or the government would rather unexpectedly decide to implement structural changes to the foreign workers-dependent economy of Singapore.
The city’s foreign workforce has become an indisputable part of Singapore’s success story, now representing a large chunk of its total population.
Again, while asking temporary foreign workers to pay more for the utilisation of subsidized public sporting facilities may please some Singaporeans, this population-dividing measure appears to be rather uninspiring and unnecessary. If expanded to other public services, this would only widen the societal divide and foster an exclusion mentality within its own society by accelerating the marginalisation of a substantial portion of the city’s foreign population.
Time and again, the Singapore government has proven to be extremely skilful at redirecting the society’s views on the path of its choice by launching its well-established public-information campaigns. For decades this approach has certainly worked well for its own multi-racial society – according to the latest national figures, 74% of Singapore residents are ethnically categorized as Chinese, 13% as Malay, 9% as Indian and 3% as ‘Others’ (the 1.6 million ‘non-residents’ are not included in the official data on the city’s population make-up). The city-state’s societal evolution can rightly be hailed a success story, with only few countries worldwide being able to demonstrate such high levels of social cohesion and multi-racial unity and equality. One would only hope that this remarkable harmony policy could in the not-too-distant future result in greater levels of inclusion of Singapore’s ‘non-residents’. Time will tell.
Low-cost domestic helpers from poorer Asian countries play a vital role in looking after Singapore’s ageing society.
This report was first published in July 2016; updated in February 2017.
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