While the debate rages on over the controversial figure of 6.9 million population by 2030, as laid out by the white paper, the way the government sought to communicate this leaves much to be desired.
The almost instantaneous push-back by the people and the backpedalling by the government show the chasm of trust between the two sides.
Released a day after the Prime Minister admitted that his government was “blind-sided by the outcome of some international events” and that it does not have “20/20 foresight”, the latest population projection is quite ironic and would seem a hard sell, as indeed it is.
To add to the public outrage since the paper’s release, government ministers’ backpedalling on the matter does not inspire confidence on such an important matter of national consequence.
Leaders are now saying and trying desperately to explain that the 6.9 million is just a working parameter, or a “worst-case scenario”, for bureaucratic planning purposes.
Well, it is cutting no ice with the common man and woman who see such terms as nothing more than semantics, and for good reasons too.
For one, the government’s past “planning scenarios” were all realised – and exceeded.
Its 1991 concept plan’s “planning scenario” of a 4 million population to be attained after 2010 was instead reached by 2000. And its 2001 projection of a 5.5 million population for the “long term” was later adjusted to 6.5 million. Singapore’s population reached 5.5 million in 2010.
One therefore wonders how the government can say that our “population grew faster than we expected” and why “our infrastructure didn't keep up” when the concept plans of 1991 and its upgraded one in 2001 had already planned for such population numbers. [See here for Concept Plan 2001.]
So, when the Prime Minister and his ministers try to explain that the figure of 6.9 million is only a “planning scenario”, it is understandable that Singaporeans doubt that it is just so.
Singaporeans are also wary of the potential squeeze and their quality of life if such projections should come to fruition.
Who is to say that we won’t in fact reach and even surpass this figure of 6.9 million by 2030 – or even sooner?
All these – exceeding the “planning scenario” numbers, the apparent failure to implement plans put in place, being “blind-sided” despite projected infrastructural needs already pinpointed years earlier – have created a palpable and deep sense of unease among the populace since the release of the White Paper.
The level of distrust of the current government has especially been accentuated in recent years by its failures to anticipate and address major problems – such as immigration, public transport, public housing, income gap disparity, depressed wages, social cohesion (especially between the foreigners community and locals), and other social issues.
Yet, criticisms have also been levelled at the white paper itself – the most notable coming from Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy Senior Fellow, Donald Low. He “criticised the lack of scholarship and academic rigour in the white paper”, adding on his Facebook posting: “If this was a term paper, I would have no qualms failing it - whether or not I agree with it.”
Yeoh Lam Keong, adjunct senior research fellow at the Institute of Policy Studies (IPS) and Vice President of the Economic Society of Singapore, was just as harsh in his criticism of the paper:
"The problem I have with the white paper,” he said, “is that the trade-offs considered between good jobs and economic dynamism, and population and workforce growth are overly mechanistic, economically simplistic and astonishingly sociologically and politically naïve.”
Women’s rights group, the Association of Women for Action and Research (AWARE) said it “is concerned that the government has once again focused on economic growth, rather than the well-being of its people, as the main determinant of Singapore’s population size and rate of growth.”
"Despite receiving clear signals that public sentiment on this issue is strong,” it added, “the government is fixated on GDP growth through population expansion. The cost to society can already be seen in the claustrophobia and diminished quality of life that many Singaporeans complain about."
Opposition parties such as the Singapore Democratic Party (SDP), the National Solidarity Party (NSP) and the Reform Party (RP) have all expressed their disapproval of the white paper. The Workers’ Party (WP), with its 9 Members of Parliament, is expected to state its position in Parliament during the week-long sitting of House this week.
It would thus seem that the government has more convincing to do, if it wants the people to be on board the same boat as it is. At the moment, though, there is little in the white paper to convince Singaporeans that it is in their interests to support a larger population, made up of an ever-larger contingent of foreigners.
Trust and confidence will not be forthcoming from Singaporeans unless the government can solve existing problems in the next few years. Otherwise, there is a real fear that instead of making Singaporeans’ lives better, the infusion of more people onto this tiny island will instead make things worse.
The main problem the PAP government will face – as it already is facing increasingly – is the erosion of trust and confidence in its ability to carry the country forward, to the benefit of Singaporeans.
The way it has thus far communicated the message of the White Paper shows that the Government has much to do in instilling or inspiring trust and confidence in its people.
To this writer, the question really should not be about how many people from foreign lands we want to welcome to our shores, or even how much economic growth we want (white the white paper seems pre-occupied with). The real question is this: have we done enough to encourage our own people to have children? This is the source or root problem which has led to the introduction of the White Paper.
Perhaps we should look again at whether there is nothing more we can do in this aspect. I believe that we have not done all that we can.
Andrew helms publichouse.sg as Editor-in-Chief. His writings have been reproduced in other publications, including the Australian Housing Journal in 2010. He was nominated by Yahoo! Singapore as one of Singapore's most influential media persons in 2011.