(Updates Facebook group participation in second paragraph.)
Aug. 19 (Bloomberg) -- The four candidates competing to become Singapore’s next president are losing out to an unlikely rival on the campaign trail: curry.
As the contenders vie for the mainly ceremonial role before the Aug. 27 election, more than 57,000 people have pledged their support for a Facebook page urging citizens to cook curry this weekend. The online protest began after the Today newspaper said a Singaporean family was pressured by its migrant Chinese neighbors to stop cooking the dish because of the smell.
The furor generated by the incident reflects increasing voter discontent over immigration in the nation, where 35 percent of the population of 5.1 million people are foreigners. Complaints that a surge in foreign workers is depriving locals of jobs and driving up home prices helped opposition parties achieve record support in the May general election.
“I didn’t expect it to go viral,” said Flor Leow, a Singaporean of mixed ancestry in her 40s who started the “Cook and Share a Pot of Curry” page with friends and plans to make fish and chicken curries on Aug. 21. “We put up the event to say ‘let’s not argue, let’s not quarrel, let’s learn to tolerate, embrace and appreciate our multicultural way of life.’”
The Facebook sites of the four presidential candidates have attracted about a third the number of endorsements garnered by the curry campaign.
More than 2 million citizens in the former British colony will vote for a new president, providing an indirect test of support for Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong’s policies less than four months after his government returned to power with the smallest share of votes since independence in 1965.
The race, which will decide the replacement for President S.R. Nathan, has the most contenders since direct elections for the office were allowed in 1991. At least two of the candidates have spoken of the need to put “Singaporeans first” in policies.
“The theme of putting Singaporeans first will be a key feature of the candidates given the current political climate and the very salient unhappiness with the immigration policy,” said Eugene Tan, a political commentator and assistant professor of law at the Singapore Management University. “The candidate that can impress on Singaporeans about how he is going to use the office of the President to promote a Singaporean First mindset will gain traction.”
Of the candidates, Tony Tan, 71, is a former deputy prime minister who has served in ministerial roles under Lee and his two predecessors. Tan Kin Lian was chief executive officer of insurer NTUC Income, and Tan Cheng Bock was a member of parliament for the ruling party. All three were members of Lee’s People’s Action Party. The fourth is Tan Jee Say, a former civil servant and, most recently, an opposition politician.
Singapore’s president has the responsibility of safeguarding the national reserves and is given veto rights on government budgets and key appointments to public office. The successful candidate will hold the office for a six-year term.
The island’s government has encouraged hundreds of thousands of foreigners to take up citizenship or permanent residency to spur growth and arrest a declining birth rate. Of Singapore’s 3.8 million citizens and permanent residents, 74.1 percent are ethnic Chinese, 13.4 percent are Malay and 9.2 percent are Indian.
In his annual National Day rally speech this week, Lee said he would boost the supply of public housing and allow more Singaporeans to buy apartments directly from the state housing authority at subsidized prices. Singapore would also tighten curbs on some foreign workers by requiring better educational qualifications and higher salary thresholds, he said.
The housing measures may restrain demand for private residential property, Lock Mun Yee, an analyst at DBS Group Holdings Ltd. in Singapore, said in an Aug. 15 research note. Demand for private homes may fall as much as 10 percent in the “medium term” and housing prices may moderate over the next 18 to 24 months, Goldman Sachs Group Inc. said in an Aug. 16 report, citing a “more restrained approach towards population growth.”
Shares of CapitaLand Ltd., Southeast Asia’s biggest developer based in Singapore, have fallen 37 percent in the past year as of yesterday’s close, compared with a 3.2 percent decline in the benchmark Straits Times Index. City Developments Ltd., the island’s second-biggest homebuilder by market value, has dropped 14 percent in the same period.
“We remain neutral on the sector and see more risk to stocks with the greatest exposure to the mass market segment such as City Developments,” DBS said.
The opposition Workers’ Party argues that large numbers of foreign laborers have depressed local wages. The government reduced the inflow of immigrants last year and has increased levies imposed on companies such as Sembcorp Marine Ltd. and Genting Singapore Plc for hiring non-Singaporeans.
“Those days of abundant cheap labor are clearly over,” said Selena Ling, head of treasury research at Oversea-Chinese Banking Corp. in Singapore. “Companies have to tread nimbly if they want to operate here.”
The World Bank ranks Singapore as the easiest country in which to do business, and investors including Jim Rogers, the chairman of Rogers Holdings who moved to the city in 2007, say the Southeast Asian nation needs to maintain that track record.
“Singapore is the greatest success story in the past 40 years for a country,” Rogers said in an e-mail on Aug. 17. “If Singapore closes up, it’s the beginning of the end.”
The latest backlash against foreigners began when Today reported Aug. 8 on a migrant Chinese family’s complaint about the smell from curry cooked by their Singaporean ethnic-Indian neighbors. The case went to a community mediation center and the local family agreed it wouldn’t cook curry when the Chinese neighbors were at home, according to the second most-read newspaper published by state-owned broadcaster MediaCorp Pte.
Curry in its various forms is a popular dish in Singapore, from the Chinese curry-flavored noodles and fish-head soups, to Indian masala dishes and Malay pastries.
The administrators of the Facebook group have appealed for civility. Still, some of the postings turned the acronym for “foreign talent,” the government’s term for non-Singaporean workers in white-collar jobs, into “foreign trash.”
Emotions have “run high” after the Today newspaper article this month, Law Minister K. Shanmugam said Aug. 16, explaining that the case happened six or seven years ago.
Singapore’s population has grown about a fifth since 2004.
“We must always put the interests of Singaporeans and Singapore first,” Tony Tan, the presidential candidate and former deputy chairman of the sovereign wealth fund managing the country’s reserves, said July 19. “While putting Singaporeans first, we should not make it too difficult for international talent to come to Singapore.”
--With assistance from Jonathan Burgos and Ryan Woo in Singapore and Peter Hirschberg in Hong Kong. Editors: Stephanie Phang, Lars Klemming.
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