Former Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Home Affairs Wong Kan Seng spoke Thursday in support of the government’s population white paper, lauding it for not being “rash”, but “honest with the people”.
Speaking in Parliament on the fourth consecutive day of its debate on the paper, which has sparked heavy criticism from the public and a few Members of Parliament thus far, Wong reiterated that the “headline number” of 6.9 million people by 2030 is not a target, but used to plan for the requisite infrastructure.
“If we search our hearts and conscience, we will know that this is not a rash government,” he said. “It is a government that is honest with the people. For decades, the same government shared the country’s problems openly with the people. This way, it hopes to rally the people to find solutions to the difficulties we faced together.”
Wong praised the government for “(taking) the bull by the horns” instead of taking the easy way out of not raising the issue till after the coming general election, or even the one after that.
He, like Emeritus Senior Minister Goh Chok Tong, tracked the challenges Singapore faced and tackled over the past decade. Having previously also served as minister-in-charge of population, he admitted that “with the benefit of hindsight”, the government was “a bit too liberal” in bringing in transient foreign workers and granting people PR status here.
“Could we have built up more infrastructure and housing then, when barely a few years before that, our prospects were not very optimistic? Again, with hindsight, many think the government should. Admittedly, the government was caught off-footed,” he said.
The paper, therefore, is the government’s effort to prevent a repeat of history, said Wong, maintaining that the point is not what size the population should be, but instead how to keep Singapore’s economy growing at a sustainable rate, create better-paid jobs for citizens and provide care and support to the elderly — and the people’s consensus on the plan is necessary.
“In the light of global uncertainties and rapid changes, the jury is still out (on) whether we can achieve our goals. We cannot take economic growth for granted,” he added.
In order to maintain that growth, he said, growing the workforce is necessary given Singapore’s ageing population and shrinking citizen labour pool. In turn, he stated three ways to do this — encourage procreation, increase labour participation rate and bring in foreign workers “with the right profiles”.
“But no matter what measures are taken, the number of Singaporeans above 65 years old will increase,” said Wong.
Adding that the first option is a “highly personal choice” and that our labour participation rate is high by global standards, he said, “We now know that pacing the influx of transient foreign workers is important and the government is calibrating the inflow. There are no silver bullets.”
MP Zainal Sapari: Help lower-wage workers first
Also joining the population debate on Thursday evening was Pasir Ris-Punggol MP Zainal bin Sapari, who spent the duration of his speech championing the concerns of low-wage workers.
“We have heard in this house over the past few days alternative labour force, GDP and population growth projections. Unfortunately, to the many Singaporeans who are facing stagnating wages, coupled with rising inflation, it means nothing to them,” he said, addressing the House.
Without mincing his words, Zainal, who serves as director for the Unit of Contract and Casual Workers in NTUC, declared that “the Singapore narrative for the low-wage workers must change for the better” as the country heads toward 2030.
Acknowledging the financial support and social assistance schemes in place, he maintained that the government cannot raise a person’s dignity through handouts.
“The time to take class-based affirmative action is now,” said Zainal. Speaking of the recent National Wages Council (NWC) recommendation of quantum pay increments for low wage workers, he said the reality is that many companies continue to show resistance to the national initiatives, citing cost concerns.
He singled out the National University of Singapore as an example of an organisation that failed to incorporate the progressive wage model into its requirements for cleaning contract services.
“How many cleaners (were) affected? I am not sure, but behind each of these cleaners is a family that most likely will find it difficult to cope with the rising cost of living,” he said. “When a premier academic institution of higher learning shows resistance to efforts to help low-wage workers, I am worried what the situation would be like in 2030.”
Zainal called on the government to be more aggressive in its measures to ensure “a more systemic impact” to improve their salaries. He also noted that joining unions may not necessarily help them to get better pay either.
“While unions can ensure they are accorded their statutory benefits according to the Employment Act, it is a challenge to negotiate for better wages if the workers are working under an outsourced contract with their salaries determined largely by what the company is getting from the Service Buyers,” he explained.
Despite the rising proportions of Singaporeans expected to take on professional and managerial-level jobs, Zainal argued that although there is hence a need for foreign workers to take on blue-collar jobs, the concern remains that this impacts low-wage and older workers, many of whom have for a long time faced stagnant pay from cheaper foreign competition.
He called for the government to make it mandatory for all companies to adopt the NWC’s recommendations for low-wage workers, and to recognise industry-wide agreements on wage levels, particularly for occupations like cleaners, security guards, retail assistants and landscape technicians.
“It is said that a society or a nation is judged on the basis of how it treats its weakest members; the last, the least, the littlest,” he concluded. “What we can do in the future is judged by what we can do now.”