Photos and Videos First, Life can Wait …

This post won’t be a long one. It is in fact a short commentary on the small fire that broke out at Newton MRT Station yesterday. Two issues deserve mention here: the responses of those impacted by the fire, and of course, SMRT’s reaction.

Pictures of You, Me, and the Smoke

What captured everyone’s attention for the day was not so much the train disruption that arose from the fire, but the fact that several people (in particular, one lone ranger) were taking videos and pictures in the midst of the smoke. Our self-styled ‘Ministry of Laughter’ made this meme with a very apt caption.

Credit: SGAG

Credit: SGAG

Additional footage of the incident came from Mr. Victor Tan, citizen-journalist of the day. In the midst of the smoke, he managed to take a video of commuters leaving the scene and most interestingly, he managed to capture someone else taking his camera phone out for a picture. Credit must go to Mr. Tan, for without it netizens would not have been able to see what it was like.

This is precisely where I fail to comprehend. Why on earth and for the sake of their lives would people simply prioritise taking footage of the scene over evacuating the station? 

I find such an attitude troubling, because it reeks of complacency and a complete lack of situational awareness. This may have been a small fire, but it was an emergency nonetheless. The foremost task in any emergency is to save your own life, not take a picture or video and frantically upload it onto Facebook and Twitter. If comments on The Straits Times Facebook post are anything to go by, some people share the same sentiments as I do.

It is completely worrying to see such a nonchalant and blatant display of smugness and complacency because it is symptomatic of something that lies much deeper in the psyche of other people. I am still unable to accurately place my finger on what it is, but it is something that does not bode well.

Another (silly) concern of this worrywart writer is this: if it had been a terrorist attack instead of a small, localised fire, would people have taken a picture with the terrorist(s) and upload it on Facebook as their profile picture?

SMRT…(Sigh)

No other company has been as heavily assailed as SMRT in recent months. The embattled transport operator has been struggling to restore public confidence after a series of train mishaps (and a bus workers’ strike as well).

According to a TODAY report, confusion reigned as commuters were initially clueless as to what had happened and an evacuation plan failed to materialise coherently due to fuzzy train announcements. While staff were mobilised on the ground, it seemed that communications could have been much better.

This incident shows yet once more the technical faults of SMRT and how much they really need to improve in terms of maintenance. We can only be thankful that this was a small fire that was resolved within two to three hours.

Also, let us not forget SMRT’s ground staffu. Kudos have to be given to them because they are the ones who bear the brunt of public anger towards SMRT’s failings. From what I know anecdotally, morale in SMRT, especially among ground staff, is low. Think about it: would you work as a member of the MRT station staff? I don’t think many would. I salute the men and women who do their jobs day-in-day-out at MRT stations across Singapore, for their job is not an easy one.

Last Thought

The fire at Newton MRT Station showed that our emergency readiness is far from desirable, if public indifference towards the situation can be deemed as a symptom of a larger and more worrying symptom of a deeper problem. At the same time, while we are upset with SMRT, let us also make the effort to be kind towards their station staff, for they – just like many other workers – are doing their job, earning their keep, only so that they can feed themselves and their families.

 

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Remembering Ong Teng Cheong: An Exemplar of Presidential Leadership

On 8 February 2013, some Singaporeans quietly marked the eleventh anniversary of the passing of the late Ong Teng Cheong, the first elected President of Singapore. I decided to write about the role of the elected president and relate it to the context of today’s Singapore, in the aftermath of the White Paper (yes, I’m not quite done with it yet). I thank Alfian Sa’at for his Facebook post which is the source of inspiration for this post. I may not agree with him on many issues, but on this one, we sing the same song.

In this post, I will first posit that the elected president can and should exercise his moral authority judiciously whenever the existing socio-political climate in Singapore warrants a stabilising intervention. Second, I will argue that the characteristics of closeness and sympathy made the late President Ong an exemplar of presidential leadership and this is what the current President, and indeed successive presidents, ought to exude.  Before the main exposition, a tribute to Mr. Ong is necessary.

Honoring the late President Ong

The late President Ong occupies a special place in their hearts of many Singaporeans for several reasons. He was a gentleman, kind, caring, and always looking out for those who were less-fortunate. He proved this in action as well: the annual President’s Star Charity is a legacy of Ong Teng Cheong, who first initiated it in the early years of his tenure.

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He was also known for being an active minister who dared to challenge the existing order by testing its boundaries and exercising his prerogatives both as a minister and a president. While in Cabinet, he sanctioned a strike in 1986 without informing his colleagues and erstwhile mentor, Lee Kuan Yew, earning him the ire of the then-Minister for Trade and Industry Dr. Tony Tan. As President, he granted a pardon for a death-row inmate, ordered for a report on Singapore’s reserves, and staunchly advocated the construction of the MRT.

Above all, Mr. Ong was remembered for being close to the people and a fatherly figure, always smiling. It is precisely because he had Singapore and Singaporeans at heart that he earned the respect and won the hearts of all who came to know him. In his own words:

“Some people still ask whether my long previous association with the PAP will stop me from acting independently. The answer is no. My loyalty is first and foremost, to the people of Singapore. It has always been so, and will always remain so.”

Not many can utter these words and put them into concrete action. Mr. Ong was one of the rare few who succeeded in matching words with actions.

The President, Moral Authority, and the White Paper

It is abundantly clear that the President of Singapore is an office that is non-partisan and above politics. I argue that precisely because the office of President is an elected one, it is one that is consequently vested with moral authority, and therefore, the angry and frustrating aftermath of the White Paper was a golden opportunity for President Tony Tan to exercise his moral authority and calm the public mood.

Some would first question if President Tony Tan can claim to have moral authority, given that he was voted into office with 35.20% of the ballot. Frankly, it is quite a stretch to say that he had it in the first few months of his tenure. Has President Tony Tan since cultivated his moral authority? That’s an open question.

Arguably, the White Paper (as I have mentioned in my earlier post) is an issue that transcends political stripes because of its massive importance and implications on the future. So, the question here is this: if the President had intervened to assuage public rage, would that have been deemed as wading onto the political scene? That is yet another open question.

Given how politicised (and divisive) the White Paper was, I would summarily conclude that the President would have entered a grey area if he had said something on the White Paper, because he would inevitably be forced to take a side by virtue of the words he chose.

In my view, the uproar over the passage of the White Paper by 77 ayes, 13 nays, and 1 abstention was justification enough for intervention. The purpose of intervention is not stake a political claim or to make a political statement. I see intervention as necessary to prevent the already-heated political climate from combusting into flames. Any statement made by the President would have to address all three actors in the political landscape: the Government, the Opposition, and the people. I believe the weight of the President’s words would have had a calming effect on public sentiment.

The President is supposed to be a unifying figure for all Singaporeans, regardless of political stripes. The visceral results of the White Paper have left Singapore sharply divided but the silver lining lay (and still lies) in the opportunity to unify and heal the rifts that have emerged in Singapore. Indeed, there has never been a more opportune time for unity in this country in recent years.

A President for the People

While heads of states are not deities or higher beings, the way citizens look to their heads of state as a beacon of hope, wisdom, and good counsel in times of trouble parallels how the devout would turn to their faith for strength and sustenance. No one can deny the significance and influence that heads of states, such as Queen Elizabeth II of England and King Bhumibol Adulyadej of Thailand, possess in their person and office. The same goes for President of Singapore. I reiterate: it is an office above political divisions and that is why it is an office of unity. Presidential leadership is therefore comprises the elements of unity and moral authority in the person of the president.

In this section, I bring in Dr. Tan Cheng Bock as a comparison to Mr. Ong Teng Cheong. Those familiar with the Presidential Elections of 2011 would know that the runner up, Dr. Tan Cheng Bock, lost by 0.34% (some 7,000 votes) to Dr. Tony Tan in a nail-biting vote count.

What, then, explains the election results? Why was the race so close?

Without going into a thesis-length explanation, I would attribute Dr. Tan Cheng Bock’s appeal to his to personal magnetism, his charisma, and his willingness to stand up for the people according to his conscience. This independent streak was made known when he voted against party lines in the 1980s. Additionally, Dr. Tan Cheng Bock had developed a very strong following in the south-western parts of Singapore because that is where his old fort of Ayer Rajah is located. His old constituents remember him fondly and trusted him, having constantly returned him as the MP for the constituency with vote shares between 70% and 88%.

Here, we find that Dr. Tan Cheng Bock’s track record and personal traits do not differ much from the late Ong Teng Cheong. They both stood up to the party that they were in. They spoke their minds with the interests of the people at heart. Thus, the similarity between Dr. Tan Cheng Bock and Mr. Ong Teng Cheong lies in their courage and willingness to act on their own consciences in the interests of the people, and it is precisely these traits that endear them in the hearts of the people. The electorate wants a President who will safeguard and guarantee the interests of Singapore and Singaporeans, and a President whom they trust wholeheartedly and can rely upon for moral and, indeed, presidential leadership.

Parting Thoughts

I should state in closing that I supported Dr. Tony Tan in the presidential elections only because he proved to be able to represent Singapore at the international level, given his experience as a minister who has travelled abroad. I should also state that I have nothing against Dr. Tan Cheng Bock and I am confident he can discharge the guardian role of the office with distinction, but it is Dr. Tony Tan’s proven international credentials that made him the candidate of choice for me. As for the others, let’s not even mention them.

My personal views aside, what matters here is this: the socio-political climate in Singapore can only become more tense as her people, aided by social media, become more vocal and assertive by challenging the existing social order and desiring more alternative voices in Parliament (if the results of Punggol East are anything to go by). As a result, there is likely to be more friction in society which in turn gives rise to opportunities for the President to exercise his moral authority. After all, a silent president will surely leave behind a muted legacy. It can be said that the late Mr. Ong set very high standards for presidential leadership for his successors. While it is unfair to expect President Tan and other future presidents to be like the late Mr. Ong, I sincerely hope that President Tan and his successors will, in their own ways, leave behind a fruitful and meaningful legacy for Singapore.

Happy Lunar New Year

The Side Parting wishes all readers a prosperous and jubilant Lunar New Year! 

As the Lunar New Year is a season of union, there will be no posts for the time being – this gives me some time to mull over new topics as well 🙂 Do let me know if you would like to hear my thoughts on certain issues. An upcoming topic would be the post-mortem of the White Paper’s passage in Parliament. It won’t be a lengthy one, I promise. 

Cheers to your good health, wealth, and a thriving Singapore!

 

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The Workers’ Party: A Case of Misrepresentation

Is this a fair description?

Is this a fair description?

Workers’ Party (WP) chief Low Thia Khiang circulated a document in Parliament yesterday detailing the policy differences between the ruling People’s Action Party (PAP) and the WP. I must say that the WP’s paper cannot be further from the truth. The WP has grossly misrepresented the PAP, and such wrongs must not go uncorrected.

Before I begin, let me state that I have my own reservations about the PAP’s policies as well, but that does not preclude me from criticising weaker alternatives and setting the record straight on what the PAP has put forward. It is one thing to pick a side, and it is one thing to completely present a distorted version of policies.

Low Birth Rates

The WP stated that the PAP Government relies solely on monetary incentives ‘to entice young couples to have more babies and hope birth rates will improve’.

I don’t see it this way. But let me state clearly that I do believe that there are limits to incentivising childbirth. Barriers to birth must be tackled as well.

In fact, many people have cited the costs of having and raising a child. Responding to such concerns, the PAP Government has stepped up the amount of funds for young parents to cope with the costs. Is the WP trying to say that such a method is immoral?

Also, it must be noted that the PAP is in fact devising a multi-prong approach to tackling the problem of declining fertility. If Mr Low had paid attention to what Minister Grace Fu was saying in Parliament on Tuesday, he would have realised the enhanced Marriage and Parenthood (M&P) package includes paternity leave, shared parental leave, priority in housing, medical and healthcare support, and better work-life measures among many others.

Hence, to merely simplify the measures as throwing monetary incentives is incorrect.

The WP said it believes in ‘institutional reforms’, but if speeches by its members are anything to go by, details on what these reforms entail are at best patchy and unclear.

Shrinking Citizen Core

To be fair, I like the WP’s proposal of ‘recovering citizen birth rates’. It’s a more careful approach than granting new citizenship status annually. Other than suggesting that foreign spouses be granted citizenship, the WP is very much silent on how it intends to do so. And for the record, foreign spouses are granted citizenship status after a period of being Permanent Residents.

However, the WP has once again misrepresented the PAP’s measures on tackling a shrinking Singaporean core. Again, if Mr. Low had listened, Ms. Fu stated that ‘the most important way to strengthen the size of the Singaporean core is through encouraging marriage and parenthood’.

Immigrant Integration

This is where I think the perspectives of both parties should simply come together.

The PAP Government is extremely reliant on the People’s Association (PA) and has set up Integration Committees (INCs) led by grassroots leaders for this express purpose. Surely, having a grassroots approach is better than having no approach at all.

The WP, on the other hand, believes that integration through family ties and educational institutions should be key. I don’t dispute that either.

So, is it that difficult to have the best of both worlds and simply integrate both methods? Harmonious integration is win-win for both newcomers and locals alike. No one loses from better and stronger relationships and understanding.

Ageing Population

On this count, I believe the WP to be guilty of painting the PAP as an uncaring political party, which obviously I don’t believe to be the case. My suspicion of the WP’s intentions is further fuelled when they bold the words ‘resource’ under the WP column and ‘burden’ against the PAP column.

In other words, this is blatant politicking. Don’t believe me? Examine their wording. It’s absolutely repulsive.

Whilst I agree that senior citizens should have the opportunity to work if they want to, they must not be forced to work if their health prevents them from doing so.

It is disingenuous to say that the PAP views the elderly strictly as a ‘burden’. Has the WP forgotten that the PAP has repeatedly made the case for taking care of the elderly because they have contributed to Singapore with their hard work and it is only right that they be taken care of in their golden years?

Furthermore, is it a sin to acknowledge the fact that as human beings age, the body of the elderly is not the same as its youthful counterpart?

If we can agree that ageing does bring about its physical limits, then we can agree that some of the elderly, due to poor health, will need people to look after them. And given that our workforce will really shrink, is it then wrong to bring in immigrants and foreign workers to help out with looking after them?

By painting the PAP in such a manner, the WP is genuinely naïve if it thinks that the task of caring for and looking after our seniors, with a smaller workforce is going to be a walk in the park. The WP needs to learn how to call a spade a spade. If it doesn’t then it will really be guilty of doing, in the words of its chief, ‘kicking the can down the road’.

Slowing Economy

PAP Ministers Tan Chuan-Jin and S. Iswaran have cautioned against the WP’s stance on the economy. There was a heated exchange between the two parties on the issue of raising the labour force participation rate and the need to calibrate foreign labour.

The issue of a slowing economy goes beyond labour participation rates and it is therefore not as simple as what the WP has made it out to be. The issue of growing the economy is not limited to numbers alone.

Infrastructural

The WP painted a rosy self-portrait by suggesting that infrastructure be developed for the ‘quality of life’ of the current population. The WP then went on to say that the PAP was building for an ‘immigration tsunami’.

Such claims are ridiculous. Immigration or no, infrastructure has to be developed. It is a necessary part of development in any modern city. The Downtown Line and Circle lines were definitely not built for immigration.

Consider this: do foreigners vote for the PAP? No. Singaporeans do. Would the PAP be so stupid as to court the votes of foreigners? Obviously not.

Conclusion

What this episode tells us is that the WP can and might politicise anything and everything for its own gain, even if it entails having to misrepresent its opponent’s stance in Parliament. This is hardly becoming of a credible alternative. There can be no credibility in deliberately misunderstanding and oversimplifying complex and nuanced policy positions. Yes, the PAP’s policies might be flawed in certain areas, but certainly, that is no excuse for misrepresenting what it has put forward on the record for all to see.

Three ‘I’s of the White Paper

In this post, I talk about the three broad themes that have come to characterise the debates on the White Paper. I summarise them as the three ‘I’s: immigration, infrastructure, and identity. These three themes are intertwined.

Firstly, I argue that the topics of immigration and identity have close bearing on one another and have hence evoked a more emotional response Singaporean society in general. Secondly, I argue that the Land Use Plan put forward by the Ministry of National Development (MND) is an essential complement to the White Paper, and to reject the White Paper would be tantamount to rejecting a viable plan for infrastructural development. Lastly, I will touch on the deficit of trust that has developed between the people and its leaders today.

Immigration and Identity

To be clear, immigration is not so much about the transient foreign workers in our midst than it is about who we want to accept to become a part of us. Precisely because immigration is about acceptance, therein lies an emotional dimension of the issue of immigration that cannot be ignored. The White Paper recommended bringing in 15,000 to 25,000 new immigrants each year to supplement our population. Such an idea easily generates negative responses almost immediately. Questions such as ‘who are these people?’ and ‘why is our Government bringing in more and more, especially if their presence seems to encroach on our sense of space?’ come to mind As it is, signs of strain manifest at every opportunity in our daily experience and it makes no sense to want more. Perhaps, under the current conditions, it is stressful to reconcile the rational need for immigration and our emotive aversion to the policy. It would be helpful if policymakers took heed of the signs of emotional stress and the responses towards immigration.

However, I must state for the record that I am not xenophobic. My aim is to describe the situation as it is and to give it nuance. Verily, the questions in the previous paragraph throw into sharp relief the emotive aspects of immigration and identity. As born and bred Singaporeans, we want newcomers to adapt to our ways of life and have a shared outlook. I think it is fair for Singaporeans to expect that. But on the other hand, Singaporeans can be unfair in having too high an expectation as well. Time must be given to develop mutual understanding.

A larger issue looms in the issue of National Service (an issue which I have devoted some time to in my previous post). The very legitimacy of the policy that has become a crown jewel in the diadem of Singaporean identity would come under siege if immigration is not careful, and especially if permanent residents and first-generation male immigrants do not perform their dues to the nation. Hence, the tensions and emotions inherently intertwined in immigration and identity are shown in NS itself.

Probing deeper, however, have we found our identity yet? Has our identity been shaped after 48 years of nation-building? What are our values? I will leave these questions open-ended. The White Paper is rather silence on nationhood. I sincerely urge our leaders to mull these questions and give them some thought. This is because Singapore is not a machine that contains cogs and wheels, and the potential malfunction of which can be averted by tweaking input and making mechanical, calculated calibration (even though calibration is a good practice to adopt in policy). The human aspect must be acknowledged and addressed.

Infrastructure

My short answer to this part is this: I find no fault with the infrastructure proposals laid out.

But first, it is worthwhile to note that an Amendment Motion was moved by MP for Holland-Bukit Timah GRC, Mr. Liang Eng Hwa yesterday. He urged Parliament to amend the White Paper such that it is clear on the figure of 6.9 million is strictly a planning parameter, and not a policy target. One can only hope that the public calms down and realise that. ThereOf course, I do not wish to see 6.9 million become a reality. It would be unimaginable. Really. No one in their right mind would have reacted to the headline figure of 6.9 million by saying ‘oh, okay, no sweat’. That response would be, for lack of a better word, stupid. There is worry and anxiety, even frustration, because people gave some thought to the number and said, ‘this is not going to work out’.

Readers may ask why my response to the infrastructure plans is so brusque. Well, since the figure of 6.9 million is a parameter and not a target, it means that infrastructure will be developed to the extent that it can handle 6.9 million if it has to. This translates into excess capacity and more comfort for each and every one of us. There will be more BTO flats built, leading to shorter queues, more green spaces for families and recreation, more room for development, more room to lessen the crowding, more rail lines. Can anyone reject that?

Deficit of Trust

The pervasive sense of inertia and resistance towards the White Paper has led me to conclude that there is a deficit of trust between the people and its leaders.

The extent of frustration on the ground is palpable because there are so many issues unresolved: sky-high COE prices, ever-increasing costs of living, congestion on buses, trains and roads, and expensive HDB flats.

Coming on the heels of a by-election defeat, the White Paper did not inspire confidence in the Government’s abilities to solve the problems at hand. Instead, it had the reverse impact of effecting shock and disbelief. As someone said to me: “Losing Punggol East wasn’t enough and you have to bring on this White Paper? What would it take for you to listen?”

I trust that the Government hears our problems. If they weren’t they would not be building more MRT lines, improving bus services, building more flats, reviewing the COE, nor allow an Amendment Motion to be filed so as to be in tune with the ground. If the Government weren’t listening, MP Inderjit Singh would not have made his impassioned speech in the House yesterday. If they weren’t listening, none of these would have been done.

I fear for our country. I fear that the people and the Government are not willing to listen to each other and, as a result, are unable to work together. Yes, the Government failed to communicate effectively. But can it be faulted for trying to solve problems here and now?

Singaporeans face multiple anxieties, stresses, and fears; they are not confident that they can make it, or succeed. The Government needs to take time to pause, reflect, communicate, and make an emotional connection with the people. Reassure, affirm, listen, empathise, sympathise. It is like saying, “Look, I know what you are going through, I feel you. I am sorry for not being able to meet your expectations, but I hope you can trust me, because I promise you that I am going to stay here by your side, listen to you, help you, look after you, and walk with you through every single step of this journey that we have to take.”

The White Paper: Where are we going?

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.

Realities …

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.

The First Post

It would never have crossed my mind that I would one day set up a blog when blogging was first made fashionable several years ago. 

As time goes by, people change (and so have my attitudes toward blogging). 

So, why the sudden decision? 

I have decided that this would be a good way to put my thoughts in a coherent manner and perhaps share them with those who are interested. 

That Singapore is at a crossroads in its history is another reason why I have decided to start blogging in the spirit of discourse and measured, rational thought. I would certainly hate to see online discourse being quagmired in tit-for-tat reprisals that do not bring debate to a responsible and serious level. 

So, there you have it, my reasons for blogging. Watch this space for more ramblings of an “old man trapped in young man’s body”, as some of my friends have kindly called me. I will begin with a series of posts on the hotly debated White Paper. Stay tuned!