Population White Paper: Let's get over that emotional hump

As an exercise in public communication or political messaging, the White Paper on Population left much to be desired.

It could have been framed better. Its arguments should have been set out more fully, over a longer time. And Singaporeans could have been given more of a chance to come to grips with the demographic challenge at hand.

So, all of that was a bit of a mistake. The Government could have, and should have, done better.

There, that's said.

Perhaps now right-minded Singaporeans might get over that emotional hump and the 6.9 million figure and take the White Paper at face value for what it is trying to do.

That is, provide a road map for planners to gear up for all the extra buses, trains, homes, parks, nursing homes, hospitals, childcare centres that are needed.

Accept that 6.9 million is not a target, just a convenient number for planners so they know how much land to set aside for what. Accept that the Population White Paper (PWP) v1.0 is flawed. But take consolation that it will be up for periodic review and that PWP v2.0 will be better.

After five days of intense debate, the People's Action Party-dominated Parliament endorsed the PWP as the road map to deal with Singapore's demographic challenges. There were 77 "yeses" from PAP MPs, 13 "nos" from the 10 opposition MPs and three Nominated MPs, and one "abstain" from NMP Eugene Tan.

Some Singaporeans will hold grudges against the PAP MPs for voting "yes" to a policy that permits calibrated immigration into an already hypercompetitive, crowded city-state.

There is much muttering about the PAP paying a political price in the next general election due in 2016, and predictions of it losing one-third or more of the 87 elected seats.

More worrying, as several MPs pointed out, is a growing divisive "Us and Them" rhetoric that demonises the PAP Government.

PAP MP Denise Phua, one of the more vocal backbenchers and hardly a yes-woman, referred to this as a destructive trend.

"Stop the government bashing; enough of it already. Stop repeating the narrative that the PAP Government is a heartless common enemy of the people that has brought Singaporeans nothing but misery... The narrative has divided and polarised our country.

"As MPs of the incumbent ruling party linked to the Government, we promise to try harder and work harder for the people. The only promise we cannot make is to turn our cheek every time we are being slapped."

Several MPs made plain that they were only too aware that coming out in support of further immigration could be seen as political suicide. So why push through a policy proposal so evidently unpopular?

Reflecting how seriously they saw the need to win over the doubters, several ministers past and present tried to explain that the impending demographic change is a very real one that will hit Singapore quite suddenly. More workers retiring, too few babies, a shrinking workforce.

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, speaking at length in three languages, said he could have left the issue to be tackled by a future PM or government. But that would be irresponsible. It was better to talk openly, frankly and sincerely about the issue.

"We want tomorrow to be better than today, otherwise why are we striving? And to make tomorrow better than today, we have to get our population policies right so that we give ourselves the best chance of success."

And what is the gist of that policy? Switch to a lower gear that still allows for growth. Raise population numbers with higher birth rates and limited immigration.

Many Singaporeans would not disagree with those fundamentals.

Some disagree on the degree of growth. A few prominent economists have suggested a near zero growth rate, so the population can be below six million.

I'm not an economist. But I am always mindful that a loss in income of 2 percentage points from slower growth when you earn $10,000 a month is a paltry $200 you will not notice.

For a worker scraping by on $1,200, $24 less a month may mean his daughter can't go to a neighbourhood tuition centre to get help with her homework. Or no broadband subscription at home.

As PM Lee said, growth still matters, and most of all to the low- and middle-waged families.

Singaporeans can also disagree with the way this paper was formulated. Many have said it lacks depth and rigour. It comes across as more simplistic than any number of critiques circulating online. Singaporeans these days want better arguments, as PAP's youngest MP Tin Pei Ling said.

Example: Can domestic services and the care sector be the driver of growth, and not multinational corporation (MNC) activities which are so dependent on foreign labour? Isn't raising fertility rates, not immigration, the real and better long-term solution to the demographic challenge? The Government has by no means won every intellectual argument.

But the key policy of going for some, not zero, growth despite a shrinking indigenous population, is one that is worthy of support.

In 2030, I will be in my 60s and hope to have a slower pace of life. But I also have nieces and nephews. Unlike the supersmart children of the globe-trotting elite, they are average youngsters who will need good jobs in Singapore. It's for their sake - and the sake of youngsters like them - that I hope Singapore will still be growing in 2030.

The PAP Government is like a geeky government, strong on the engineering of a product, but not so good on the marketing. PWP 1.0 is a beta version. But there will be upgrades and fixes. As the PM and other ministers have promised, there will be ample ongoing discussions on the direction of population policy.

Singaporeans have a choice. Throw out PWP v1.0 because it was released without being perfect. Or accept it as a best effort for now, and work together towards an improved version down the road.

muihoong@sph.com.sg


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