The population debate transcends political stripes. It does not matter which political party you belong to. What matters is whether or not you believe in Singapore and the kind of future we want for our country. It not entirely about the numbers we should have, although that itself is a serious concern for all of us. The publication of the White Paper has unleashed several more issues for deep consideration: immigration, emigration, an ageing population, a shrinking workforce, quality of life, standard of living, citizenship, nationhood, our future, and perhaps many more.
Will the politics of balance prevail in this debate? If yesterday’s speeches on the motion are anything to go by, the search for balance and consensus will prove most elusive.
In this post, I will compare and contrast the visions put forward by the ruling People’s Action Party (PAP) and the Workers’ Party (WP) by examining the speeches made by their respective heavyweights: Deputy Prime Minister Teo Chee Hean and WP Chairman Sylvia Lim. The hollowness of the WP’s alternative vision will be revealed once we pierce beyond the veil of its rhetoric.
Framing the Debate
Ms. Sylvia Lim gave a solid introduction in her speech, one that resonates with the first paragraph above:
“It is not just about population. It is about nationhood, the meaning of being Singaporean, how we want to face the future as a country. It is about reclaiming back Singapore.”
Due credit must be given to Ms. Lim for framing the debate in the abstract notions of nationhood, identity, and our collective future. I agree with all of what Ms. Lim said, save for the last sentence. That Singapore needs to be reclaimed is an assertion that left me, frankly, quite puzzled. What exactly are we reclaiming?
Prior to Ms. Lim’s speech, DPM Teo Chee Hean said the debate is “fundamentally for the benefit of all Singaporeans – ourselves, our children, and their children. To make sure that Singaporeans continue to live in a harmonious society, with strong supportive families, good jobs, and a good living environment.”
Given that Singapore is at a crossroads in its history, DPM Teo cannot be faulted for framing the issue as such. To paraphrase DPM Teo’s words, he was essentially asking the question: Where do we go from here?
Looking at how both politicians have framed their perspectives, one wonders if these two views could be melded together? After all, debating notions of nationhood is certainly not exclusive from the broader question of Singapore’s future direction, and in my view, the former is a part of the latter.
A more straightforward manner in which to look at how both the ruling and opposition parties have articulated their stances can be found in the simple titles of the Government’s White Paper and Ms. Lim’s speech, and here we have it – the White Paper was titled “A Sustainable Population for a Dynamic Singapore” and Ms. Lim’s speech as “A Dynamic Population for a Sustainable Singapore”. It is a simple play on words – a harsher critic would accuse her of politicking – but it dramatically changes the meaning of the Workers’ Party’s alternative vision for Singapore. Immediately, questions come to mind: What would the WP consider as a ‘dynamic population’ and what is the definition of a ‘sustainable Singapore’? The same questions can be equally asked of the ruling party: What is a ‘sustainable population’, and what is a ‘dynamic Singapore’?
Now that the debate has been framed in these terms, I will now turn to answering those definitional questions.
Definitions: The PAP
I will state upfront that I am bound to commit the risk of oversimplification – do forgive me. Here, I will first look for clues in their speeches that tell us more about the meanings of those terms mentioned by DPM Teo and Ms. Lim. I will then interpret Ms. Lim and the WP’s rejection of the White Paper.
The Government has been constantly accused of being too obsessed with economic growth and that this White Paper proves once more that the PAP cannot shake off its ‘bad habit’. Let me first state clearly that I am pro-growth, but not ‘growth-at-all-costs’, and I will return to this at a later part in the post. A ‘sustainable population’ in the PAP’s view would be one that is able to meet the replacement rate of 2.1 and one that is capable of looking after the ageing population without straining taxpayers and workers excessively. I draw this definition from DPM Teo’s words:
“Taking in between 15,000 and 25,000 new citizens each year is about equivalent to having a stable and sustainable Singapore citizen core population with a total fertility rate of 2.1 … If we maintained our current birth rates and with no immigration, our Singaporean core population would eventually shrink sharply below today’s 3.3m. This was the first, and most important, part of the White Paper. To ensure that our Singaporean population is sustainable and stable.”
Arguably, this is a very mechanistic definition of a ‘sustainable population’, but it has its merits because sustainability cannot be a matter of guesswork. Data and calculations have to be factored into the projections.
What, then, does the PAP believe to be a “dynamic Singapore”? I draw your attention to Paragraph 85 of DPM Teo’s speech:
“As a citizen in 2030, you will have good quality jobs and opportunities, have access to services to support your family needs, and enjoy a high quality living environment. As a student, you will have many opportunities to maximize your potential. As a working adult, you are likely to be holding a higher skilled job than today…”
To summarise the PAP’s vision of a “sustainable population for a dynamic Singapore”, I would say that it is a Singapore with a healthy population pyramid and a vibrant economy that is capable of providing high-value jobs to all Singaporeans, where all have a chance at success in life. The economy’s centrality in the PAP’s vision is undeniable, as it believes that a bustling economy is the integral to a better life. If, at this point, you find that you disagree with me, let me remind you that I was likely to oversimplify J
Definitions: The WP
Let’s now look at what the WP’s alternative of a “Dynamic Population for a Sustainable Singapore” means. I will draw from Ms. Lim’s speech and then attempt to synthesise what it means collectively:
(1) “The roadmap proposed in the White Paper will further dilute our national identity; it will also place us on a course towards needing even larger population injections in the future, which we do not believe is sustainable. While we accept that trade-offs have to be made, we believe such trade-offs should be made in favour of the well-being of Singaporeans and not GDP targets.”
(2) “(T)he core must be strongly Singaporean in values, worldview, culture, sense of place and history, and network of friends and family … A strong Singaporean core should be made up of Singaporeans who grow up in and with Singapore.”
(3) “We believe that Singapore should instead work towards a more modest GDP growth of 2.5 to 3.5% per year up to 2020, and from 2020 to 2030, 1.5 to 2.5% per year.”
(4) “What the government is proposing in this White Paper is to aim for its GDP targets and grow the population to achieve it. The Workers’ Party believes that the well-being of Singaporeans, our quality of life and our very identity will be put at peril under the government’s proposal.”
In essence, the WP’s conceptualisation of a “dynamic population” is about a strong sense of Singaporean identity, a high quality of life with the well-being of citizens being taken care of. In contrast with the PAP’s economy-centric vision, the WP’s vision is heavily muted on the economy. The furthest mention that is given to the economy is the reference made to the anaemically low rates of growth that Singapore could potentially achieve under their alternative vision in the period 2020 to 2030 (see Point 3 above).
What has gotten me scratching my head is that the WP has conflated the strong sense of identity and high-quality of life (that we should aspire towards) with a “dynamic population”. A simple check with the Merriam-Webster dictionary would reveal that being “dynamic” has got to do with being engaged in “continuous and productive activity” and “being energetic and forceful” (Merriam-Webster online dictionary). To me, it seems that the WP has misunderstood dynamism and what its attributes are, because having a strong sense of identity and a high quality of life have nothing to do with being occupied with “continuous and productive activity” and “being energetic and forceful”. In short, the WP does not understand what dynamism means and has completely failed to define this accurately.
One is left to infer what the WP means by a “sustainable Singapore”. This one is not too hard to understand. A “sustainable Singapore” would be one whereby the pace of life would be much slower (since the rate of economic growth has fallen) and that stress levels are not astronomically high. Is there merit to this vision? I think there is. But at the same time, the WP has projected an upper end of 5.9 million in terms of population by 2030. In addition (and this is what worries me), the WP does not agree with the Ministry of National Development’s (MND) land use plan. Again at risk of oversimplification, I have to assume that the WP does not agree to developing new parcels of land to support the building of new housing estates and infrastructure. The WP’s calls for a population upper limit of 5.9 million and slower economic growth coupled with the rejection of the MND plan, we will be headed for an even more crowded Singapore. The future Singapore, under the WP’s vision, is certainly neither dynamic nor sustainable at all.
What we are left with …
The PAP envisions a future Singapore with a vibrant economy and certainly more people in our midst. However, its vision is silent on notions of citizenship and nationhood. These ideals cannot be relegated to tangible privileges, costs and benefits alone. The PAP must articulate what it envisions Singaporeans and Singapore to be in the future, beyond the technocratic vocabulary that it has grown accustomed to over the years.
Yet, the WP fails to offer a compelling vision to rival the PAP. Whilst its efforts at discussing the issues of nationhood and citizenship are admirable, it has failed to come up with a tangible plan to back up its aspirations. A credible alternative must have viable plans for the future.
Preliminarily, we are left with not-so-good options. One hopes that the debates in the coming days will yield further nuanced arguments that discuss both realities and ideals.
I did mention earlier that I would like to address the importance of economic growth in this post, and I shall do it here.
Economic growth is important to Singapore because it is the very crux of our survival. Singapore has two resources: people and money. To survive, we need to develop both. It should also not come as a surprise that economic defence is one of the key pillars in the concept of Total Defence. I will not belabour the point about economic growth and so I will illustrate its importance with a simple analogy:
A family, regardless of socio-economic background, needs to have an income with which to feed itself. If the jobs of the breadwinners in the family are threatened and they end up unemployed, the family will lose its means of feeding itself. The children will have difficulties pursuing higher education and it means that a whole range of opportunities are closed off to them. The illustration should be clear: growth is vital because it is the means through which jobs are created and incomes are raised.
Perhaps I can be faulted for having a linear and positive understanding of progress, in that we must be moving from one point to another, and that we should gradually have better things in life.
I have also said to a few friends before that the debate on growth or no growth has to be assessed with the following questions: Why do we grow? Then, what do we grow? How do we grow?
Growth must therefore be a means to an end. Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong conceded as much in his National Day Rally speech last year. With growth, we can achieve our social aims of income redistribution and, in the Government’s words, “build an inclusive society”.
And ideals …
2013 marks our 48th year of independence and we are two years away from our golden jubilee as a sovereign state. But after close to five decades, are we a nation yet? Or are we still an unceasing work-in-progress? Where are the fruits of nation-building? What is the Singapore identity? What are our values?
I have often opined that we must be careful about immigration and integration. Immigration should be controlled properly and I think we can agree that we should be lax in our standards. Our social fabric is a tapestry that is constantly being woven. Our multifarious origins are like threads of varying coarseness and make. Having large numbers of immigrants would be akin to weaving this tapestry with different threads once more. Whilst it is acknowledged that we do need immigration, care must be taken to not weave a fabric that is uneven in texture or weak in quality. For if that tapestry tears, it will begin to unravel and it will take a Herculean amount of effort to weave it back together.
I feel that our sense of identity is taking a more negative contour, if one is to go by the visceral comments online about all and sundry. Readers should know what I am referring to and hence there is no need for me to delve into detail. Why have we allowed ourselves to become as such?
As a child of the ‘90s, I remember growing up in the economic uncertainty of the Asian Financial Crisis, the dotcom bubble, and SARS. Yes, I may be criticised for not being able to appreciate the real difficulty of it since I was a mere child, but what I do remember vividly is that we were a people who could bite the bullet and face the challenges ahead. We stayed together in the Asian Financial Crisis and we tided the SARS challenge as one people. There was that ‘can-do’ spirit and resilience in Singapore. But that was in the ‘90s and early 2000s. The attitudes of Singaporeans today are a bit different, to say the least.
The National Service (NS) policy represents and encapsulates citizenship. It has become enshrined as a rite of passage in Singaporean society. But as my erudite friend, Wee Keat, pointed out, NS will be collateral damage if the White Paper is not refined. If immigration is unfettered and citizenship is granted carelessly, the legitimacy of NS will be challenged as our boys and men will then see that being male citizens of Singapore is a curse more than a blessing. We cannot allow that to happen. What will then become of values such as duty, honour, patriotism, and sacrifice?
Challenges define who we are and what our values are. This White Paper is a challenge in its own right. Will we be able to discuss and debate this all-important matter in a mature manner that is becoming of an educated citizenry? Or will we be unable to resolve our differences and fracture thereafter? After all, former prime minister Lee Kuan Yew did say that if the political divide becomes a national divide, then Singapore will indeed be finished. This debate is a very tough and difficult one, but we must not allow our society to fracture because of it.