January 20, 2014 00:00 By The Star Asia News Network
Despite improved government efforts, Singapore and its people are still paying a heavy price for having too many migrant workers.
Even as it sped up the building of more flats and shortened applicant queues, two other problems related to overcrowding have popped up.
They had been around for some time but resurfaced with a bang in the first few days of 2014.
The first was reports that government hospitals had to place beds along the corridors and in a large tent to house excess patients.
Some sick outpatients also had to wait for months for a consultation date with specialists.
The 800-bed Changi General Hospital, for example, had to put patients in a big air-conditioned tent. The larger Tan Tock Seng Hospital (1,200 beds) had to set up beds along corridors next to overfilled wards.
There were just too many patients. It is not known how long this emergency situation will last.
At Changi Hospital, a patient was quoted as saying: “There was no shower room and I couldn’t bathe for two days.”
These reports surprised many people, who were repeatedly told by leaders that Singapore was a top First World country.
They also learned that Mass Rapid Transit trains had broken down on several occasions.
These mishaps heralded a bigger problem on the opening day of Singapore’s biggest, most expensive highway.
It links roads from the Central Business District to the East Coast, a crucial, busy artery that is heavily used by motorists.
As soon as it began operations on a Monday morning, the Marina Bay Expressway – the city’s widest, most expensive (US$3.5 billion) highway – became a traffic trap.
Many cars were stuck for hours.
The traffic improved on subsequent days. It was still heavy but without the gridlock, mainly because some of the motorists used alternate routes.
The population has grown by about 25 per cent or 1.2 million people in the last 10 years. In addition, some 15 million tourists arrive every year.
The huge foreign influx was not matched by the building of more public services, especially in housing, transport and healthcare.
The resultant public anger led to an unprecedented apology in 2011 from Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong with a promise to do better.
The expressway fiasco, however, unfairly masks the government’s earlier achievements in developing the city’s infrastructure like airports, harbours and reservoirs.
But the subsequent mass arrival of immigrants has created new shortages and overcrowding in almost every public service.
Forbes magazine last week described Singapore as having, among other problems, “a population bubble”.
Some 36 per cent of people here are foreign workers who came mostly for the money. If the jobs were to disappear, the vast majority would leave.
In perspective, the government began reducing the flow in recent years. Although more are still coming, the numbers are fewer.
It has reportedly created a manpower shortage, raising complaints from small and medium-sized companies.
The large presence of foreigners – ranging from skilled professionals to construction workers – is raising increasing concerns about potential friction.
After experiencing its first mass riot in four decades, some critics have warned that this overhanging threat could worsen.
By 2030, nearly half the population will be foreigners.