COMMENT: In wake of the riot, what now of the Population White Paper?

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SingaporeScene

Singapore must now confront its foreign worker dilemma. (AFP News)

Calvin Cheng was a former Nominated Member of Parliament and a member of the Media Literacy Council. He writes in his own capacity and blogs at www.beyondtheemotive.com

Any hope the Government still harboured of the electorate accepting the "6.9 million" Population White Paper may have just gone up in flames.

One must not underestimate the shock to the Singaporean psyche in seeing images of burning police vehicles, crowds attacking ambulances and rioting masses; for Singaporeans born post-independence, these things just do not happen in Singapore. They see them on the TV, or the internet, or the papers -- but not in their own backyard.

When news of a riotous crowd attacking police vehicles started filtering out, the reaction from Singaporeans, online and on the streets, was one of utter disbelief.

People do not attack police vehicles in Singapore, much less set them on fire. The most difficult situation ambulance drivers have to normally handle is unruly patients; never in their wildest dreams have they imagined themselves running for their lives from an angry mob.

The Government may try its best to deny that the riot has anything to do with immigration policy, but it will fail. It may exhort Singaporeans not to politicise the issue but it will fail too. The Government may rail against xenophobia but it will also fail, because I fear reason cannot overcome the images from Sunday's riot already burnt into the mind's eye.

Cost of immigration

I have written elsewhere that I support the Government’s immigration policy because I have seen the statistics, the facts and I know that if we do not take in immigrants, we would be faced with a rapidly ageing population and a shrinking workforce. I also know that we need a foreign migrant workforce because in order to build more homes and infrastructure for a growing population, we need these foreign workers to do the jobs Singaporeans are not willing to do at an economically feasible wage – construction, building sewers, paving roads.

But the best way for the Government to convince the population of these facts is not to merely present its vision for a rosy future, but to be honest about the costs involved.

And one of those costs is that immigrants need to be assimilated, and foreign migrant worker populations do not just disappear during weekends after toiling the entire week to build our homes and roads.

It may, however, be too late.

Even if the amateur psychologists and sociologists on the internet may all be wrong in speculating why the foreign workers rioted, their narrative is a powerful one.

The Government may like to frame the issue as simply a law-and-order matter, but no amount of briefings will make people forget the fact that the people who rioted were foreigners. There is no way that the Government can make the events of Little India disappear from the psyche of an electorate already skeptical about its immigration policy.

Two alternative scenarios

It now has two choices.

First, it can roll out all the bar graphs and pie charts again and show the people the bleak future Singapore faces with an ageing population, minus immigrants. But this time, it must be completely honest about the costs of this policy.

The Government needs to show how it intends to work with Singaporeans to improve these social costs. These include a plan on assimilating new immigrants, as well as that of dealing with an ever-increasing foreign migrant worker population, needed to build infrastructure for a growing population.

With a bigger foreign worker population, the Ministry of Manpower will also have their work cut out, policing cases of exploitation and employer malpractice, as well as finding ways to house the foreign workers. Trade-offs have to be made with businesses having to commit financial and human resources to ensure foreign workers hired are treated well and paid fairly; these increased costs to businesses means highers prices to consumers, which makes raising productivity even more urgent.

The population at large will also have to expect these migrants workers to be in their midst and adjust to it.

This is not an easy ask: as can be seen in Little India, enclaves of foreigners can form, and we can neither expect them to assimilate (since they are transient workers) nor to completely follow the norms of a foreign culture.

Thus, the Population White Paper may be anchored on irrefutable facts and figures, but the costs and challenges of implementing the policy paper must be made clear to the electorate.

It may well be that the electorate find these costs too much to bear, even in the face of a dire population problem.

The second option then is for the Government to abandon the Population White Paper and come up with a Plan B.

Plan B

What is Plan B? It is certainly not some watered-down version of the Government’s plan that the Workers' Party has presented.

Plan B has to deal with the other alternative -- that of an AGED (rather than ageing) population, with a small work force, but a small immigrant population.

Plan B is an economy less reliant on foreign workers, with Singaporeans taking up jobs in construction, and all the other manual work that we now take for granted.

In this, critics of the Government, as well as opposition politicians, need to be honest too.

There will also be social costs to plan B, and these costs will also be painful for Singaporeans to adjust to.

Firstly, Singapore will need higher taxes from a smaller active work force to support an aged population. There will also be a less vibrant Singapore, with old people making up a larger proportion of society. We may even have to draw down on our reserves, if taxes on the work force are not to become prohibitively high.

We will (as we are already presently) have to get used to more old people taking on work that the young do not want; retirement age also has to go up. The entire economy has to be re-configured to adjust to an aged workforce, a task that will be fraught with risks and no guarantee of success.

In order for more Singaporeans to take up the jobs that foreign workers are now doing, wages have to go up. But that means prices may have to go up as well.

If bus drivers are to be paid more in order for Singaporeans to take these jobs, then bus fares will either have to rise, or taxes have to rise in order for the Government to subsidise fares. Homes may be built less cheaply, even if productivity rises. That means either HDB flats will either cost more, or again, more tax revenue has to be raised for bigger subsidies.

Singaporeans have to learn to do a lot more household maintenance jobs, like in some developed countries, where blue-collared jobs are highly paid. These are also not easy challenges to adjust to.

Plan B is a possible scenario, but it is not enough for detractors of the PAP to criticise its immigration policy and not present the alternative with the trade-offs. There is no perfect solution and both sides in the debate must be honest about the costs of the options available.

The problem I fear is that the shock of the riots of Little India has irreparably tarnished the PAP’s immigration plan. Every conversation it will have from now on will consciously or subconsciously be associated with images of foreign workers flipping over a police car and setting it on fire.

The Committee of Inquiry will not be as important as the Government presenting to the population how it intends to manage the growing foreign migrant worker numbers, needed to build the infrastructure for a larger population.

And it needs to be a convincing story.

Otherwise, it is time to seriously consider Plan B.

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