A Dynamic Population for a Sustainable Singapore – WP MP for Aljunied GRC Pritam Singh
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Thank you Madam Speaker.
The government ‘s population white paper has been met by a barrage of criticism from ordinary Singaporeans. The government in the last week and Deputy Prime Minister Teo in his opening speech on this motion have been at pains to stress that 6.5-6.9 million is not a target. I, like many Singaporeans who have grown up with the PAP, find this very hard to believe.
It is hard to conceive of a PAP government resisting the temptation of opening the doors to immigration, and then turning back at Singaporeans to say the PAP has brought high economic growth to Singapore and that Singaporeans should be thankful. As the last few years have shown us, GDP growth means little if Singaporeans are not the ones that benefit from it. GDP growth means little if Singaporeans can’t afford cars, and houses are out of reach. What this population white paper ultimately highlights and what it will be remembered for, is how out of touch the PAP government has become with ordinary Singaporeans.
Madam Speaker, I oppose the motion, and urge the DPM to take this white paper back to the drawing board but only after the views of ordinary Singaporeans are prominently represented in it. But before that, I would like to present some perspectives for the government to consider as it ruminates over the overwhelmingly negative public feedback on this white paper.
The government has already admitted that it did not plan ahead to prepare infrastructure for a larger population. As we have 5.3 million people on our island home today, the government should make clear how many more MRT lines, hospital beds and housing units, amongst other indicators have to come on-stream to bring infrastructure in line with – our current population size. This will give Singaporeans a better idea and feel of the future, and what the PAP government means by a high quality of living in 2030, and what Singapore will be like with another 1.6 million people.
A critical plank of the white paper deals with raising our TFR. But in this regard the white paper has not gone far enough to ask why Singaporeans are having fewer children. Madam Speaker, in my view, a large part of this is down a compendium of factors linked to our work culture, cost of living especially for the low and middle-income, and the sense of reducing physical space in Singapore. In the final reckoning, there are a confluence of factors, but rather than just look at more paternity leave and financial incentives, the white paper was an opportunity for the government to bite the bullet and introduce far reaching changes to address our TFR problem for the long-run.
Like both the property cooling measures which is in its seventh instalment with no moderation of prices in sight, and the marriage and parenthood package which is now into its fourth instalment, I am sceptical about the likely effects of these policy changes as they are not radical enough and do not address the root causes of our low TFR.
What the government should do is to table a comprehensive white paper on increasing our TFR with a corollary plan on getting our non-working population into the workforce. Instead, by introducing a narrow set of measures, the government has gone for a half-hearted approach, one that ultimately threatens a self-fulfilling prophecy. A less than vigorous attempt at raising TFR like what is currently presented in the white paper will lead the government to open the tap to immigration, on the grounds that measures to raise TFR have failed.
In Tuesday’s Straits Times, there was a piece about some Punggol residents fighting to save a small knoll from development. Last month, another group of residents in Pasir Ris were fighting to save a wooded area two football fields in size from being chopped down for the construction of an international school. Think about it, not a big cemetery like Bukit Brown or the railway corridor, but we are now talking of small knolls and football fields. And this sort of bottom-up citizen driven campaigns are already taking place with 5.3m population size.
Singapore is already a very small place. Ordinary Singaporeans have seen their flats shrink over the years. Now their public spaces for recreation and more importantly, rejuvenation, will also shrink whatever promises are made about the quality of life. There is a heart-warming picture of a family having a picnic on page 17 of the white paper. I wonder how the family will come to the beach in 2030, picnic basket and a happy family in tow. Did they take the MRT? Perhaps some will. Whatever the case, I hope they don’t choose to go to the beach over the weekend for it is simply too crowded today. Be that as it may, it is an inescapable reality that if one has a big family, one needs a car or some form of transport in Singapore – to bring to kids to and from childcare, to take them out over the weekends, to meet their extended family, and for little excursions around the island. The MND Minister has come out to say that cycling should be encouraged. But it still does not change the fact that most families need a vehicle. It is my belief that the quality of life that is outlined in the white paper with 6.5-6.9 million Singaporeans will not deliver the high quality of life promised.
A regional mall in Seletar, Tampines North or Tengah will probably look exactly like Tampines Mall and Jurong Point, including the brands on show. Housing estates are also likely to be crammed in line with the higher plot ratios in newer HDB estates, and yes, the rooms in our flats will continue to be small – on this account, I would like to ask if the government had factored in the future size of our flats in this white paper, as any increases are likely to go some way to creating a better sense of home and promoting larger families especially since the justification for smaller flats has been smaller families.
Another central plank of a relook at the government’s TFR strategies should have been the workplace. It is a known-fact that culturally, many Singaporeans work late hours, effectively ridiculing the notion of an 8-hour workday. Shirley Sun, an academic at NTU in a 2013 publication titled Population Policy and Reproduction in Singapore: Making Future Citizens, opined that “encouraging childbirth among citizens is not solely a matter of providing economic resources or parental leave from work but in the construction of ideal citizens, and that if “individual competitiveness” reigns, particularly in the face of scarce resources, parents and prospective parents are likely to limit childbearing.”
Employers and middle-managers, being businessmen and careerists, are unlikely to have an overriding reason to ask their staff to go home on time. Far from becoming productive, these employees, in the national schema, are singularly unproductive, spending time that could have been better spent with family. I know of many in various professions who fear they will receive an adverse grade if they leave before the boss. Numerous calls have been made for work-life balance but the work culture remains a problem and the softly-softly approach of the government will not make much headway. Private employees are bound by shareholders and the structural reality of unlocking shareholder value making the call for work-life balance in Singapore a shallow one. It’s time for the government to step in aggressively. Lets consider going back to basics – would the government consider legislating the 8 hour workday after which an employer is expected to pay OT across all professions, and not just limited to those earning below $4500 as under the Employment Act currently?
It is a radical proposal, deserves deeper study for sure, but it is the sort of radical thinking insofar as employer and employee attitudes at the workplace that the government should be proposing, to raise the quality of life of Singaporeans with a view to boost TFR rates aggressively. Along with more productivity incentives and wage and rental grants for companies especially SMEs and exempt private companies that hire Singaporean workers, we need to think out of the box to ensure that Singaporeans do not end up becoming a minority in their own country of birth.
There will be those who ask where the money for more productivity incentives and measures to help SMEs etc. will come from. In light of the existential challenge ahead of us, we should not rule out a deliberate and planned drawn-down of our reserves. Madam Speaker, the rainy day is upon us and we need to really address the TFR problem far more aggressively than we have ever done before especially since our future of the Singapore, as we know it, is on the line.
This brings me to the point about how successful the government has been so far at integrating new citizens. On this account, the jury is still out but Singaporeans remain uncomfortable at the thought of more foreigners coming on board even as new citizens slowly integrate into our society. This slow pace of integration should not come as a surprise to anyone. It’s is not the fault of Singaporeans or new citizens. Integration takes time and if we have not been able to do it over the last 20 years with our population rising from 3 to 5 million, it inevitable that this government will only increase the insecurity to Singaporeans if it proceeds with the population projection numbers set out in this white paper.
Some months ago, DPM Tharman noted that the government could be more transparent about how it approves PR applications. This would be of great benefit as Singaporeans would be able to understand who our neighbours are, where are they from and on what basis they were selected – akin to the transparency standards of immigrant friendly countries like Australia and Canada. Again, this was another odd omission from the White Paper, even though a DPM no less spoke of the need for greater transparency on the selection criterion for PRs.
Probably the most obvious proof of the how underwhelming the white paper has been was highlighted on page 28. While mention was made of communication in a common language to better ingrate new arrivals, no real direction was made to ensure new immigrants can effectively communicate in English, even though this feedback has been repeatedly put to the government in light of our previously liberal immigration policy. A very telling sentence stated that there are ample opportunities for these wishing to learn English, such as through courses run by, PA and NTUC. Why not encourage the economically inactive like the former teachers in our population to teach English and get them in the workforce, with the appropriate regulatory standards in place? Surely the government can take the lead in and encourage greater labour force participation through simple initiatives that promote private sector business participation instead of relying on quasi-government entities.
Where the white paper and the land use paper have been sorely lacking has been in academic rigour on quality of life indicia. Over the years, many advances have been made in this field of social science.
Madam Speaker, I refer to a 2013 publication by two Singaporean academics at the NUS Business School, Siok Kuan Tambyah and Tan Soo Jiuan titled Happiness and Wellbeing: The Singaporean Experience. Their research covers a large scale survey of 1500 citizens conducted between May and June 2011 that provides insights into Singaporeans’ satisfaction with life and living in Singapore, happiness, enjoyment, achievement, emotional wellbeing, psychological flourishing, economic wellbeing, overall wellbeing, personal values, spirituality, value orientations, national identity, rights, and the role of government. The survey also dovetails with similar work done in 1996 and 2001 and is part of a field of study known as subjective wellbeing research, which focuses on measuring an individual’s cognitive and affective reaction to his or her while life as well as to specific domains of life.
Their 2011 survey showed that Singaporeans were generally satisfied with their lives in general, but less so with living in Singapore. In the words of the authors, Singaporeans had achieved quite a lot but Singaporeans did not necessarily feel happier or enjoyed life more. Apart from calling for a more inclusive growth model, the future Singapore would be one where its citizens feel that they have a stake in and where their voices are heard and appreciated. There should have been a big section in the white paper for such details and in the accompanying land use paper – these omissions are stark and incongruous especially since the government promises a high quality of life going forward.
Derek Bok, the long-time President of Harvard University wrote a seminal book in 2010 titled the Politics of Happiness: What Government can learn from the new research on well-being and happiness. He too identifies the evolution of social science research and the doubts researchers have raised about the value of growth and how it should not necessarily override other aspects of life that can contribute importantly to well-being. He calls on government officials to draw upon new research to rethink priorities and make a more balanced effort to promote wellbeing. How is this to be done? Bok identifies strengthening the family and marriage, encouraging active forms of leisure, cushioning the shock of unemployment, universal health care and a more secure retirement, improvements in child care and pre-school education, treatment of mental illnesses, focus of education policy and other broader goals. Such a progressive approach, in line with raising the quality of life as defined in the land use supplement to the white paper is sorely missing.
Madam Speaker, we have heard many local and foreign business federations and chambers of commerce raise their objections to the white paper. This should not be surprising. Companies are answerable to shareholders, not the people of Singapore. But the white paper needs to take views of Singaporeans first and get that aspect of the equation right. The Workers’ Party is ultimately answerable to the people of Singapore first.
Nimble businesses and intelligent business folk will adjust and restructure businesses taking into advantage of the workforce that is currently unemployed, especially since the government has announced the foreign worker tightening strategies for some time already. Some companies may well relocate to Iskandar, but isn’t that what the Government has been subtly encouraging?
Far from throwing SMEs under the bus with our proposal, we envisage the government significantly reducing the prospects of unpredictability for SMEs with our proposals, not just with productivity and tax incentives, but also with rental grants, and other costs indicia that severely affect SMEs. But industries like construction need to appreciate that the old days of massive foreign labour influx are well and truly over. They have to make do with what they have, and Singaporeans must accept a slower pace of construction as a result. Some businesses may well be spooked by the prospects of this, but this is one bullet we are better off biting now because of our strong fiscal position. When the bosses of these SMEs appreciate that the Singapore of the future will be a more sustainable one, they would have understood this turn was one that we have to negotiate as a country, in spite of the turbulence it causes. We will stand with SMEs by pressing the government to do more for them especially on rentals, so they can devote more resources to productivity.
Madam Speaker, this white paper has jarred the average Singaporean. So it should be no surprise that a backbencher has introduced an amendment to the motion and a Minister has endorsed the same. But the amendment still does not alter the substance of the white paper and the lacuna therein. Given the urgency of the issue, the white paper needs to be reworked with more aggressive measures to raise TFR as a start and it has to be populated with more detail about the quality of life of Singaporeans should anticipate with the projected figure is reached. The public cynicism surrounding the white paper remains high – it is an emotion the government cannot afford to ignore to achieve a dynamic population for a sustainable Singapore.
Source: Workers Party political website