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More than 2,000 people attended Singapore's biggest protest in decades on Saturday to demand curbs on immigration amid growing public anger over an expected surge in the foreign population.
The peaceful three-hour rally at an officially designated protest zone was staged by a civic group after the government said foreigners could account for nearly half of the densely packed island's population in less than 20 years.
Organisers put the crowd, shielded by a sea of umbrellas from heavy downpours, at 4,000. Police said they were not monitoring the size of the crowd and AFP reporters estimated the turnout at more than 2,000 people, many of them clad in black.
"I think it's the largest protest in decades. It is also the first one where anger is directed squarely at the government," said Reuben Wong, an assistant professor of political science at the National University of Singapore.
"People are now more willing to air their grievances. They have been doing it on the Internet for the past few years, but it is new for them to physically come down in such numbers," he told AFP.
Rally leaders, who used Facebook and other online platforms to draw support, openly attacked the People's Action Party (PAP), which has been in power for more than 50 years and still controls 80 of the 87 seats in parliament despite losing two by-elections in the past year.
"The large crowd here shows the PAP government that they are not afraid any more, they don't want to hide behind a moniker on Facebook to show their displeasure," said chief organiser Gilbert Goh, a former opposition candidate for parliament.
"They are showing their deep displeasure with the white paper," he told AFP, referring to a controversial population projection issued last month.
The crowd repeatedly chanted "We want change" at the height of the protest.
No arrests were made and only a handful of uniformed policemen were seen around the rally venue, a grassy park where protests are allowed without a police permit at a spot known as Speakers' Corner.
A government policy paper last month said the population could range between 6.5 and 6.9 million by 2030, with foreigners making up 45 percent because Singaporeans are not producing enough babies to sustain economic growth and support a rapidly ageing population.
Citizens currently make up 62 percent of the current population of 5.3 million.
"Save Singapore -- Say NO to 6.9 million," said a banner at the rally
Protests are rare in Singapore, a wealthy island republic known for strict security and social controls, but Facebook, Twitter and other social media have set the tone for political debate in recent years.
Multi-racial Singapore has bitter memories of deadly riots in the 1960s.
Saturday's rally came less than two years after the May 2011 election when the ruling party suffered its worst ever performance, with immigration already a sensitive issue.
Foreigners have been blamed for stealing Singaporeans' jobs as well as straining housing, transport and medical services.
Goh, the rally organiser, ran unsuccessfully for parliament in 2011 under the opposition National Solidarity Party and runs an organisation assisting unemployed Singaporeans.