Asia-Pacific News

British banker stirs up storm by mocking Singapore’s ‘poor’

Leslie Shaffer | Writer for
Singapore commuters on the MRT.
Paul Kennedy | Lonely Planet Images | Getty Images

A British expat in Singapore stirred up an Internet storm after his Facebook posts mocking the "poor people" using mass transit went viral, hitting on the city-state's touchy issues of anti-foreigner sentiment and a growing wealth divide.

The storm began after Anton Casey, a wealth manager at Crossinvest Asia, posted two photos of his son on Facebook. One showed his son on the subway and was captioned "Daddy, where is your car and who are all these poor people?" and the other showed his son in a silver Porsche with the caption, "Ahhhhhhhhh, reunited with my baby. Normal service can resume, once I have washed the stench of public transport off me FFS!"

(

Although Casey has since issued a public apology, deleted his Facebook account and hired a public relations firm, the Internet storm, which has included alleged death threats, has continued, even sparking a response from a government minister.

Many online commentators urged that Casey's permit to remain in Singapore be revoked and others urged that he be charged under the city-state's sedition laws, which prohibit promoting racial tensions.

Local media websites reported Casey's employer has said in a statement that the comments were in "poor taste," and that it is investigating the matter and "will take appropriate action."

"Like many Singaporeans, I am terribly upset and offended by what he has posted. Deeply offensive, wrong, and unacceptable," said K Shanmugam, minister for foreign affairs, said in a Facebook post.

(Read more: More money, more problems – Asia's unhappiest workforce)

"I am glad the community has come together to condemn what he has said," Shanmugam added. "At the same time, I hope that Singaporeans will not attack or flame his family because of his actions. We, Singaporeans, can be bigger than that."

Singapore workers are unhappiest in Asia: survey

Casey's controversy came as the city-state is already facing tensions over its future. Singapore has one of the biggest wealth gaps in the developed world and foreigners make up around 39 percent of its population, up from around 25 percent in 2000.

As the island-state has become more crowded - pushing up property prices and increasing waits for public transport - the government has faced growing opposition to its liberal immigration policies and it has announced a slew of measures over the past year to limit the influx of foreign workers.

Some tensions overflowed last month when a mob of approximately 400 foreign workers were involved in the city-state's first riot since 1969. Ten police officers and four civil defense officers were injured.

The government may already be planning to address the tensions sparked by the contrast between its wealthy, who often engage in conspicuous consumption at odds with thriftier local values, and its more ordinary citizens who feel squeezed by a rising cost of living.

In the upcoming budget, higher taxes on cars, property and possibly personal income could be on the agenda as the city state takes steps towards a greater redistribution of wealth.

In Singapore, the top individual income tax rate is 20 percent – much lower than in many other developed economies. In Japan for instance, the highest income tax rate is 50 percent.

Singapore sees rare riot after fatal car crash

Singapore's Gini coefficient – which measures the degree of inequality within a country where zero is complete equality and one is maximum inequality – rose to 0.478 last year, the highest among advanced economies, apart from Hong Kong.

(Read more: Higher wealth taxes on the cards for Singapore?)

It also ranks as the world's seventh most expensive city in Expatistan's Cost of Living index, which is compiled from prices submitted by users of its online cost of living calculator. High living costs are a major concern for the young, a survey published last week by Singapore Polytechnic found.

There's also likely to be supportive measures for those on lower incomes, analysts said. Earlier this month, Singapore, which has resisted setting an official poverty level, set its first minimum wage: an entry-level wage of S$1,000 a month for its cleaners.

—By CNBC.Com's Leslie Shaffer; Follow her on Twitter