A Dynamic Population for a Sustainable Singapore: Reclaiming Back Singapore – Workers Party MP for Aljunied GRC, Muhamad Faisal
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Our government has placed its nation building emphasis on our economy and the relentless pursuit of GDP growth. Singaporeans have been reminded time and again that a healthy GDP will bring about a better life for all. The negative consequences will be minimised and relieved with the onset of economic growth. It was on this note that between 2008 and 2011, our Government widened its door and allowed the large influx of foreigners and immigrants into this tiny nation state. The Government argued that we need a critical mass in our workforce to ensure the vibrancy of the economy. However, Singaporeans today face a widening income gap, a rising cost of living, increased social friction, unhappiness at the direction this country is taking, worried about their employment prospects.
Singapore ranks consistently near the top in any international benchmark on GDP per capita but sadly, many people do not seem to be happy. What went wrong?
This is my understanding of the White Paper. In order for Singapore to have critical mass for its continued economic growth, there is a need to attract more immigrants and enlarge the foreign workforce, especially in light of the current Total Fertility Rate of 1.2. This will ensure that Singapore continues to stay relevant in the midst of globalised pressures.
I am for a dynamic population for a sustainable Singapore, buttressed by a Singaporean core, a Singaporean Singapore. Here, I would like to express my grave concern on the approach that the Government is adopting and the direction that this Government is bringing the country.
As a parent of three, I can empathise with the fears, discomfort, anxieties and insecurities that many Singaporean parents share about the future that is in store for their children in a 6.9 million Singapore. The fears, anxieties and insecurities are not irrational. You can feel it, especially so when the rate of immigration is exceeding the capacity of the country’s infrastructure. Despite the many pleas by the Government to not worry, there is no doubt that parents are concerned about the future of their children as the Singaporean core gets increasingly diluted. What will happen to the Singapore that we have grown up to know and loved? In 2030, is Singapore still worth fighting for? These are concerns that the government must adequately address. Singaporeans must believe in Singapore again.
The Economist observed in 2006 that the world’s lowest fertility rates are in super-crowded Hong Kong, Macau and Singapore. That suggests the role density plays in affecting the fertility rate of a country. Given that Singapore will become increasingly denser by 2030, this is an issue that we must address.
A recent study in 2010 also indicated the negative correlation between density and fertility. Professor Francis T. Lui from the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology pointed out that “the small size of Hong Kong’s residential quarters is likely one of the factors causing the low fertility rate.” This is also consistent with the ﬁndings in a recent paper by Murphy, Simon, and Tamura (2008), which provides evidence indicating that population density, or price of space, is negatively correlated with fertility rate in the United States.
What is my point? In 2030, there will be a denser Singapore and as these reputable studies points out, a reduction in Singapore’s total fertility rate. The most worrying aspect of this is the increase in the non-Singaporean portion in the population, especially with immigration top-ups. The Singaporean core will be compromised. The fact is we will be further from a Singaporean Singapore in 2030 than what this government envisions in 2013. In the 18 years leading up to 2030, I think we will see this worrying trend developing before our very eyes. The government has thus far failed to address this relationship between density and fertility, which has wide ranging implications on the identity of Singapore and Singaporeans in 2030.
As things stand now with this White Paper, there is a fundamental disconnect between the aspirations of Singaporeans and their children with this 6.9 million figure.
It is stated in this White Paper that one of the three key pillars for a sustainable population is that of Singaporeans forming the core of our society. The best way or approach to maintain a Singaporean core that is strongly Singaporean is to improve the Total Fertility Rate (TFR). I believe that as long as there is the easy and enticing option for immigration top-up, there is the moral hazard of taking the path of least resistance that will end up with half-hearted promotion of TFR recovery. And sadly, I can say that this is already happening.
It is natural for two individuals who are in love to get married and procreate. It is the dream of every couple to start their own family and see their own children grow up under their nurturing care. Many surveys have indicated that most Singaporeans want to get married and have more than two children however circumstances pose as obstacles to them.
The current Marriage and Parenthood Package has its criticisms. Critics mentioned that this package is an expensive third-round of band-aid solutions that do not address the structural problems causing the low TFR in the first place. Among the structural problems are (i) the lack of work-life balance and (ii) the lack of financial security due to the escalating housing costs and the long housing wait for newlyweds.
My work experience as a marriage counselor has provided me with many insights and enable me to understand very well the worries, concerns and fears of young Singaporeans who intend to marry and start a family as well as the problem face by married couple. The most common issue raised is the factor of time.
Couples which I have came across in the course of my work shared with me that while they have anticipated the demands of work and marriage on their family life, this lack of time has often taken a toll on them and prevented them from carrying out their spousal roles and parental responsibilities. The emotions and psychological needs are affected and the quality of family life is consequently compromised.
I acknowledge that the Government has expressed its support for policies to improve work-life balance and increase flexi-work options. But I believe that the Government can do more and they must make a stronger commitment in this area.
The House may wonder, what is the price that Singapore may have to pay as a result of half-hearted social policies? In a study on emigration attitudes of young Singaporeans in 2010 conducted by the Institute of Policy Studies, it pointed out that,
“In the endeavour to retain Singaporeans, it is important for policymakers to complement the current emphasis on national obligations with policies that would encourage stronger family and friendship ties, which emerged as critical factors of rootedness. It is also necessary for policymakers to address the work-life balance in Singapore, which came up as a key area of dissatisfaction in the study.”
Our next generation cannot afford for this generation of leaders to get this issue wrong. A Singaporean Singapore is at stake here and the stakes are high.
The Government should commit to reducing the number of working hours to 40 hours a week. I have called for this in one of my previous speeches in this House. This can be done by improving productivity by adopting technological innovations and changing our work practices.
I am of the view that, if the Government is serious about improving the work-life balance of Singaporeans, then it must lead the way through action and legislation.
The Government should increase the support and create stronger incentives for employers to implement better work-life balance practices and flexi-work arrangements. The civil service should set the example for the private sector to follow.
Apart from a healthy work-life balance, ownership of a house is also high on the priority list for couples, especially newly weds. A house provides a comfortable and conducive environment for the development of a family nucleus. Social scientists have long traced a connection between housing and fertility. When a home is scarce or beyond the means of young couples, couples delay marriage or have fewer children.
Newly wed couples also find it challenging to own a house due to high costs. On this matter, I would like to propose the government to grant a housing grant of $10,000 for the birth of the first child, $15,000 for the birth of the second child and $20,000 for the birth of the 3rd child. The availability of these grants may help to lessen the financial burden in their consideration to start a family. According to Seth Sanders, director of the Maryland Population Research Centre at the University of Maryland in a New York Times article published in 2008, “If you lower the cost of housing, you’re going to lower the cost of raising a child.”
In conclusion, population is a complex issue and there are no easy answers to such a multi-faceted issue. The White Paper attempts to strike a judicious balance to achieve a sustainable population and a dynamic Singapore. No efforts should be spared to improve Singapore’s total fertility rate and the infrastructure to cope with the projected increase in our population. However, this must be done with the well being of Singaporeans at its core. The government must know that this is an irreversible process and generations after may suffer the missteps this government is taking in 2013.
Source: Workers Party political website