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Balmy Singapore contends with rising protests

A man holds up a placard during the 'Return Our CPF' protest at the Speakers' Corner at Hong Lim Park in Singapore.
Suhaimi Abdullah | Getty Images
A man holds up a placard during the 'Return Our CPF' protest at the Speakers' Corner at Hong Lim Park in Singapore.

Singapore is synonymous with efficiency and order but rising discontent sparked a recent wave of protests, raising questions about social stability in the tightly controlled city-state.

The past year and a half saw numerous public rallies on issues ranging from immigration policies to a lack of transparency in the state-run pension system – marking a departure from the days when citizens held back from publicly questioning, let alone criticizing, the government.

"We have seen subterranean shift in the cultural and social mores within Singapore,now home to an increasingly educated population that has grown more confident in articulating its views in the public sphere," Alecia Quah, senior analyst, IHS Economics & Country Risk told CNBC.

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"Authorities will come under increasing pressure to accommodate a plethora of dissenting views, and to demonstrate strong leadership in successfully mediating between them," she added.

Unsurprisingly, social media has played a key role in empowering citizens in the city where public dissent is discouraged. Websites like Facebook and Twitter are widely used by activists to organize and spread awareness about protests.

In 2013, 169 events were registered at the Speakers' Corner – the only outdoor venue on the island where citizens can hold protests without permits – up from 98 in 2012 and 85 in 2011, according to the National Parks Board. Demonstrations, speeches, public performances and exhibitions are all classified as events.

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Last February, over 3,000 people gathered to rally against the government's plans to keep importing foreigners to address demographic challenges of low birth rates and a graying population. The influx of foreigners is a major bugbear for locals who believe they are responsible for driving up living costs and putting a strain on infrastructure.

Since then, public rallies appear to have become a more common medium for expressing political frustration. This year, citizens have staged rallies to voice their grievances on issues including increases to public-transport fares, pro-foreigner labor policies and the pension system.

In Singapore, citizens and permanent residents are required to contribute a portion of their monthly wages to a compulsory saving plan – the Central Provident Fund (CPF). Critics of the CPF say they do not know enough about what happens to money they place in the scheme and that it should be bringing them better returns.

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Growing grievances

29-year-old Singaporean Meera Jethmal, who recently completed a Master of Public Administration degree at a renowned local university, says government transparency and accountability is her primary concern.

"My biggest issue with the government is on the one hand, they say they are doing a lot for us, yet they often fail to tell us how exactly they are looking out for us. They offer things like cash handouts of a few hundred dollars around the time of elections, but this is nothing in the grand scheme and people aren't buying it anymore," she said.

"Also, Increasingly, people are demanding more explanations, and if the government isn't sufficiently responsive, how will they win our trust?" she added.

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Social activist Gilbert Goh, a 53-year-old unemployment counselor, who has organized six protests in the past two years, says while the government tries its best to respond to citizens' grievances, it may be too little, too late.

"Our government must be daring enough to make bold big changes or else people will also respond appropriately at the polls – it's the greatest weapon we have right now," he said.

Singapore's next parliamentary general election will be held by 2017, where the ruling People's Action Party (PAP) will seek to secure its 14th consecutive term in office since 1959 amid growing support for opposition parties. At the last general election in 2011, the PAP saw its share of the popular vote slip to around 60 percent from about 67 percent previously.

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The top three priorities for the government should be to temper the inflow of foreigners, boosting wages and ensuring the pension system provides adequately for retirement, said Goh.

Threat of civil unrest

As protests become more frequent it ought to be a concern for the government, said Goh.

"I think we have yet to hit the scale of those Middle Eastern countries that instigated their own political change through massive demonstrations. But it just needs something small to spark off and when people take to the streets despite all odds, we may have a situation on our hands," he said.

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Devadas Krishnadas, founder and managing director of Future-Moves, a Singapore-based risk consultancy, however, believes concerns of social instability are overstated.

"First and foremost the protests to date have been peaceful and lawfully organized," he said.

Orderly protests on issues of public significance are a sign of political maturation in Singapore, said Krishnadas, and the authorities have shown themselves capable of absorbing this protest phenomenon without overreacting.

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"This lays the guide rails for the future in that protests which are lawfully organized and peaceably conducted will just become part and parcel of a functioning democratic system in Singapore," he said.

"Singapore will always be a work in progress and the periodic adjustments to policies will be a source of social and political discomfort which the population and politicians are gradually beginning to accept as simply the operating conditions of normally functioning democracy," he added.

When asked whether the protests were a concern, the government said it had put in place certain regulations to manage risks.

"For example, the content of the events should not touch on matters related to religion or cause feelings of enmity, hatred, ill-will or hostility between different racial or religious groups in Singapore," a government spokesperson told CNBC.

She added,"More than a decade [since its opening], the Speakers' Corner has become more vibrant, used for a variety of purposes and provides an avenue for citizens to air their views on various issues openly and responsibly. The rules which were set in place to govern the use of the space has also proven to be useful.This is a positive development which the Government will continue to encourage."

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