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.
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.”