Ecofriendly architectural wonders, a billion-dollar super park and a swell of world-class bars and eateries – Singapore is shining its way into the future. Yet the city-state's ascent from tiny shipping village to global powerhouse is not without its challenges. Driven by an influx of foreign workers, massive population growth is straining infrastructure, affordability, and the patience of many Singaporeans. Simultaneously, the gag on the LGBT community’s annual Pink Dot festival has a lot of people talking.

Sustainable City

With the opening of Gardens by the Bay in 2012, Singapore moved another step closer towards its vision of becoming a 'City in a Garden', a cutting-edge role model of urban sustainability and biodiversity. A planned 35% improvement in energy efficiency between 2005 and 2030 led the government to introduce a sustainability rating system for buildings – the Green Mark. Since 2008, all construction projects greater than 2000 sq metres (both new and retrofitted) are obliged to meet the Green Mark's minimum standards.

Singapore is steamrolling towards its target of 80% of buildings achieving Green Mark standards by 2030, with over 36% ticked off in 2018. Generous incentive schemes have encouraged an ever-growing number of buildings to incorporate sustainable design features, among them sun-shading exteriors, efficient water systems and carbon-emission-monitoring computers.

Among the best role models is Orchard Rd mall 313@Somerset. Its credentials include the use of non-potable water for 81% of its total water consumption, the recycling of cooking oil, and energy-saving escalators and elevators. Equally impressive is the newly built, mixed-use development Marina One, where the design incorporates energy-saving ventilation systems, external sun shading, centrally provided recycled water and a rain-harvesting system. All of this is encapsulated in a building teeming with gardens, including a visually dramatic and cooling internal ‘green heart’.

Foreign Frustrations

Singapore's population more than doubled from 2.4 million in 1980 to a smidge over 5.6 million in 2017, an increase driven in no small part by waves of foreign workers. Indeed, non-Singaporeans now constitute almost half of the nation's headcount. According to the ruling People's Action Party (PAP), large-scale immigration has been essential to the country's economic growth. For a growing number of Singaporeans, however, it's seen as the cause of numerous woes, from overcrowded transport to rising living costs.

Tensions between Singaporeans and imported workers have increased. Perceived government preference for 'foreign talent' is a common social-media theme, as is criticism of those at the lower end of the foreign-worker chain.

In 2014 a Singaporean citizen complained online that ‘Filipino maids’ on his bus were too loud, and requested the Public Transport Council provide a separate bus on Sunday (foreign domestic workers’ only day off) to avoid overcrowding and to contain the loud chatter. That same year, social-media comments posted by British banker Anton Casey, referring to MRT commuters as 'poor' provoked a massive backlash, with Casey receiving death threats, losing his job and fleeing Singapore.

Gag Orders

Freedom of speech has never been one of Singapore’s strong points and it seems the government, which basically controls all forms of media, would like to keep it that way. In 2016, for example, the already restricted rights of Singapore’s LGBT community (sexual relations between two males is still a criminal offence) were thrust into the spotlight. Multinational sponsors of the annual Pink Dot festival, which celebrates and supports the freedom to love, were warned by the Ministry of Home Affairs to cease event funding, claiming such support amounted to ‘foreign interference’ with domestic affairs.

Organisers of the festival (which celebrated its ninth year in 2017) had to register for a permit to hold the event in 2017, a step previously not required. Then conveniently timed changes to the Public Order Act decreeing that foreigners are no longer allowed to assemble at Speakers’ Corner, where the Pink Dot rally is held, meant Singaporean citizens and permanent residents were the only groups allowed to attend in 2017.

Despite the controversy, bans and rules that required the event to be fenced with security and identity checkpoints, Pink Dot 2017 was attended by over 20,000 Singaporeans and permanent residents. The festival also exceeded sponsorship targets by S$100,000 with the help of 120 local business sponsors.