The British did little to integrate the population, largely leaving each community to itself. Singapore gained independence in 1959 and joined the Union of Malaya in 1963 but was expelled in 1965. The next five years were marked by the "policy of survival." From 1945 until the early 1970s, the island had severe housing shortages and a poor infrastructure, high criminality and unemployment, racial riots, and communist uprisings. The "survival policy" was based on the attraction of foreign investment through low taxes, the development of an efficient infrastructure, a disciplined workforce, and strict political control. In thirty years Singapore changed from a rough trading port to a rich, orderly, industrialized society. The remembrance of social and economic difficulties influenced the development of a national culture with a focus on wealth and stability and the idea of multiculturalism.
There are wide income and wealth differences, but the country is more differentiated by ethnicity than by class. All the ethnic groups have experienced upward occupational mobility. There is an intense focus on education. Good marks are a sure path to good positions with good wages. In this respect, Singapore is a meritocracy. Singaporeans jokingly refer to their desire for the "five C's": car, condominium, credit card, club membership, and career. These are important symbols of wealth and status regardless of ethnicity. There is no national costume, but the orchid is used as a national symbol, and textiles with orchid patterns may be employed as a national symbol on formal occasions.
Singapore is a republic with a parliamentary system. The head of state is the president, who is elected for a fixed term of six years. The parliament is elected in a general compulsory election every five years. There are also six nominated members of the parliament. The cabinet is the executive organ of the state, and execution of government policies is carried out by ministries and statutory boards.
The People's Action Party (PAP) has maintained a large majority in the parliament since 1965, with only a few seats held by politicians from opposition parties. The road to a political position through the cadre system of the PAP lies in educational and professional merit as well as loyalty. The other parties are led by politicians with strong personalities.
The crime rate is low. The judiciary system is based on the British legal system. The death penalty is imposed for drug smuggling, and caning is still used as a punishment. In addition, there are fines or other penalties for a wide range of transgressions, such as throwing litter on the floor, urinating in the elevator, and engaging in politics outside registered political parties. Both military and civil defense are well developed, and the armed forces are equipped. Two and a half years of compulsory military service are required for males..
Social welfare is financed through the Central Provident Fund (CPF), a public savings scheme. Employees under age 55 and their employers contribute a fixed amount of a worker's salary into an individual account administered by the CPF. This account provides financial security for old age and can be drawn on for housing and medical and educational costs. Charity is an important aspect of the financing of social welfare. Care of the old, sick, and disabled is in the hands of families and relatives. Three different agencies provide some social services for members of the three ethnic groups. Independent social work units also carry out some social work. Many of the nearly five thousand registered societies are directly or indirectly linked to the government. Among the rest, very few can be defined as nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) in a strict sense, but they form the basis of the civil society. A pattern of division according to ethnic distinction exists, but there are many no ethnic associations and societies. Nearly 80 percent of men and about 50 percent of women are employed. Women have joined the workforce in large numbers but are underrepresented in leadership positions in all areas and institutions.
Polygamy is allowed among Muslim Malays, but otherwise monogamy is the rule. Interethnic marriages are not common. Divorce is becoming more common. The average age at first marriage has increased, and it is customary for young people to live with their parents until they marry. The basic household unit is the nuclear family, which constituted 85 percent of resident households in 1990. Close links with relatives on both the husband's and the wife's sides are usually maintained. The proportion of households without a family nucleus shrank from 26 percent in 1957 to 8 percent in 1980, reflecting the changes from an immigrant to a settled population. Males dominate as heads of households. Traditionally, sons inherited family assets, while daughters were expected to marry out of the family. This pattern is less common today.
Kin groups play a significant role in all ethnic groups, and people often move within wide networks of relatives. Privately, kin groups are important, but politically and economically, they play a marginal role.
Children are brought along in most situations except business and very formal events. Small children are showered with affection. Generally, children are expected to be quiet and obedient and may be physically punished for misbehaving. There is very little free space where children can play and few areas designed especially for children. Children are thought to hold the key not only to their own future but also to the future of their families, and education is regarded as extremely important. There is a range of private and public nurseries, kindergartens, and play schools. Children start school at age six. There is a great emphasis on higher education. Children spend six years in primary school and four years in secondary school and then go on to a vocational school or university, depending on their grades (a sure way to higher education in Singapore) or money (a university education abroad). Competition for entrance to the best schools is fierce.
Older people ideally are treated with respect, but wealth and status may supersede age distinctions. A social superior or an authority is treated with much formality. There are great differences between formal and informal events, situations, and places. In social interaction, a certain physical distance is kept, especially between men and women. Food rules of the ethnic groups are always respected. There is freedom of religion with some exceptions. Singapore has been described as one of the most religious countries in the world. The major religions are Islam (Malay), Hinduism (Indians), Buddhism, Taoism, and folk religion (Chinese), along with a substantial number of Christians of various denominations. Religious experts vary from formally installed priests and teachers representing the institutionalized religions to self-ordained shamans, healers, and sorcerers. The many Chinese and Indian temples, Malay mosques, and Christian churches are the main public arenas for religious activities. Much religious activity is also carried out in the home. There are different "street festivals" according to the ritual calendars of the different ethnic groups.
A well-developed modern medical system consists of private and public clinics and hospitals. Traditional medical beliefs and practices are also common. The national holiday is on 31 August and is celebrated with military parades and culture shows at the national stadium. The ethnic public holidays are divided nearly equally among Chinese, Malay, Indian, and Christian holidays. The most important ethnic holidays are the Chinese New Year and the Malay Muslim Rahmadan, both celebrated in January–February, and the Indian Deepavali or Festival of the Light, celebrated around September–October. A common complaint is that Singapore has no culture, and the fine arts have a limited public. The government subsidizes some art institutions and events, but generally there is little public funding. The different ethnic groups have their own artistic traditions and focus on arts. The contemporary generation is more focused on contemporary art forms. Singapore has well-developed scientific institutions. Priority is given to technology and applied science. There are two universities: The National University of Singapore, a full-scale university with all disciplines, and the Nanyang Technical University.
The total population of Singapore is 5.47 million in 2014 of whom 3.87 million are citizens or permanent residents. The three major ethnic groups within the local community are Chinese (74 per cent), Malay (13 per cent) and Indians (9.1 per cent). Singapore has four official languages: Chinese (Mandarin), English, Malay and Tamil. English is the language of administration and commerce and is widely spoken across the island. The schism between local Singaporeans and foreign workers marks something of a shift in Singapore's ethnic relations. Historically, social tensions were seen as arising from relations between local ethnic groups, with the 1960s race riots between the Chinese and Malay populations being the most prominent example. In an attempt to manage ethnic relations, the Singapore government implemented an official multiracialism policy which clearly defined Singapore's four official races – Chinese, Malay, Indian and 'Other' (read: Caucasian), or CMIO for short. It did so by reference to a combination of physical markers, languages and religious beliefs to which members of those categories are expected to adhere. For example, a person of Chinese descent is automatically perceived as someone who speaks Mandarin and adopts Chinese traditional spiritual beliefs, whereas someone of Malay descent is thought of as someone who speaks the Malay language, is a follower of Islam, and so on.
The state has aimed to show fairness to all four groups through policies that give equal rights to each. For example, each ethnic group gets the same number of religious holidays per year and equal use of official languages in public spaces. This is not to say that the CMIO system has been without criticism. Some argue that it is overly rigid and does not reflect the complexity of daily life in Singapore. For example, it does not account for people of multiple ethnicities or ethnic origins other than the ones acknowledged in this system. Others point out that the CMIO system gives unfair advantages to the more numerous and economically privileged Chinese Singaporeans (Singapore maintains a ratio of approximately 76% Chinese, 14% Malay, 8% Indian and 2% Other). For instance, publicly subsidized housing is apportioned based on the island's racial ratio, in effect making it easier for a Chinese household to buy and sell a flat than it is for other ethnic groups. Despite these frustrations, however, Singapore generally has managed to avoid a repeat of the ethnic tensions that flared up in the 1960s.
In other respects, ethnic diversity has been viewed not as a source of vulnerability, but as one of the city-state's most significant economic assets. Singapore is one of the only states created post-WWII to have officially moved from developing to developed country status. Especially since the 1990s, Singapore has worked to position itself favourably within an increasingly globalized knowledge economy by using the presence of Chinese, Indian and Malay populations, as well as the widespread use of English, to market itself as an ideal gateway linking Western countries with some of Asia's fastest-growing economies: Mainland China, India and Bahasa-speaking countries of Southeast Asia, such as Indonesia and Malaysia. Increasingly, Singaporean citizens are taking issue with the state's economic rationale for bringing in so many foreign workers. In February 2013, the government released its Population White Paper, which stated that of Singapore's 5.3 million residents, currently 40% are foreigners and foreign-born. Moreover, the government foresees this number increasing to nearly 50% of the population by 2030.
According to the White Paper, this increase is needed to support Singapore's aging population, to have the workforce needed to deliver the same level and quality of public services to citizens, and to maintain Singapore's economic growth. Many in the public, however, did not buy the state's argument. After the White Paper's release, approximately 5,000 Singaporeans organized in protest. Unlike inter-ethnic tensions decades earlier, this was an instance in which locals of all ethnicities consolidated themselves as Singaporeans in voicing their frustrations with a state policy that they viewed as favouring foreigners over citizens..
The "Singaporeans first" argument that has started to emerge is grounded in the feeling that Singaporean citizens, not foreigners, should be given priority in reaping the benefits of the city-state's economic success. For instance, in 2003, Singapore set up its Global Schoolhouse platform, which aimed to attract world-class universities and students. The move was a way for Singapore to profit from the business of international education by marketing the quality of its education while also promoting itself as a safe and secure environment for new education institutions and the brightest international students.
Originally, admission to local universities was based only on merit, regardless of the applicant's nationality. The result was that many admissions slots went to international students, many of whom were perceived as receiving more financial assistance for their education than did locals. Whereas state authorities saw long-term benefits to the economy in recruiting the next generation of global talent to study in Singapore, members of the public emphasized that Singaporean students should be first in line to benefit from the city-state's world-class education so that they can better themselves, their family situations and the country as a whole. In response, the government reformed the system to allow some national quotas for admission.
Another recent example of a local Singaporean-foreigner divide is the 2011 Cook Curry Movement. The incident arose when a Chinese foreign household filed a complaint about the smell emanating from a neighboring apartment where an Indian Singaporean family was cooking curry, a national food staple. The government, using the local mainstream media, attempted to publicize the 'success' of a mediation centre's decision, which was to get the Indian Singaporean household to agree not to cook curry when the complaining neighbors were at home. But locals interpreted this as the government siding with the foreign household. They quickly organized through social media the Cook and Share a Pot of Curry Movement, urging all Singaporeans to cook curry on a single day (August 21, 2011). Since then, National Cook Curry Day has become a yearly event that coincides with Singapore's National Day on August 9 to remind Singaporeans that it is necessary to limit the extent to which foreigners' concerns are accommodated, especially when such accommodations are seen as opposing national symbols.
Various government officials have interpreted local Singaporeans' reactions to migrant labour issues in a negative light, viewing them as xenophobic and anti-foreigner. However, public sentiments could also be interpreted as a reaction to the rapid internationalization of daily life in Singapore, and as a re-examination of what it means to be Singaporean in terms of rights, privileges and status as procured by the government to its citizens. It should be noted that these discussions have not excluded foreign workers and foreign students. In fact, some of these discussions focus on foreigners' lack of social integration and the failure of Singaporeans to fully recognize the contributions many of these workers make to Singapore's economy and society..