Attacks on the Workers' Party's 5.9 million population counter-proposal in Parliament came thick and fast on Tuesday from a long list of ruling party MPs and ministers, as the debate on the population White Paper continued.
In the hot-seat were WP MP Chen Show Mao and NCMP Gerald Giam, who during their respective speeches spoke further on the population proposal first tabled by party chairman Sylvia Lim on Monday.
They both delved into greater detail on the idea of not adding new foreign workers to the existing workforce -- apart from replacing outgoing ones -- while focusing efforts on growing the resident labour population in Singapore (consisting of citizens and permanent residents) by one per cent each year until 2020.
Aljunied MP Chen faced a volley of questions after speaking at length about the benefits of tapping into the existing pool of economically-inactive Singaporeans -- these include stay-at-home parents and retirees, among others.
“We believe that we should focus on growth through a Singapore core. To quote a population expert, immigration is 'essentially a uni-directional policy tool with permanent or long-term social, economic and environmental consequences, and it cannot be reversed without human rights violations',” said Chen.
“When we have 6.9 million people we will have even less space for making mistakes. I would urge the government to think three times before we move.”
Instead, he urged the government to encourage more Singaporeans to join the workforce. Citing labour statistics that 1.06 million Singaporeans were not working in 2012, Chen said that the emphasis should be on getting this group of people to re-enter the workforce – and not bringing in more foreign labour.
In particular, Chen said that the ageing population should not be considered dependents or hindrances to a dynamic Singapore, but rather a ‘triumph of development’, many of whom still have much to offer our country.
Acting Minister of Manpower Tan Chuan-jin reminded Chen that the Paper’s 6.9 million number was a ‘projection, not a target’ and that boundaries had been clearly spelled out, which, unlike WP’s proposal, had concrete ideas and initiatives to provide support for Singaporeans.
“Our objective is about the people – the quality of life that can be provided at that stage. But the stepping stones – the state of the economy, level of population growth that is needed – we are more interested in the methods to get there – we do have many initiatives, we have the advantage scheme, the SEC which has worked very well,” said Tan.
PAP MP Vikram Nair asked Chen for a breakdown of the immigration numbers under the WP’s proposed plan for a 5.9 million plan by 2030.
He also asked if the WP hires foreign workers to work in their Town Councils through their managing agents.
Chen responded that he would look into providing the breakdowns.
“Like many TCs, the Aljunied-Hougang TC is managed by a managing agent who in turn helps the TC subcontract a lot of it’s functions to service provides, including cleaners. Yes, they have foreign workers on their staff although I understand from them they are making every effort to reduce that number,” said Chen in answer to Nair’s second question.
MP Janil Puthucheary questioned WP’s plan to increase labour participation for the elderly, requesting for specific information like their proposed average retirement age, what proportion of the ageing population WP would target, and how many workers it would add to the workforce.
Chen replied that WP was not counting only on increases in the labour participation rate to hit boost Singapore’s workforce and that WP expects the resident labour force to grow at one per cent over the next few years, contributing to numbers.
White Paper premise 'a false dilemma': Giam
Meanwhile, Giam argued that the belief that allowing more foreigners into Singapore is necessary for economic growth and enhanced quality of life is a "false dilemma".
"The Paper positions population growth as necessary for economic growth," he noted. "Singaporeans are then given a Hobson’s choice: Accept more new immigrants and foreign workers, or face a declining economy and lower quality of life."
Giam also crystallised the WP's stance on importing large numbers of foreign labour to boost Singapore's workforce.
"We should strive to keep our foreign labour force constant between now and 2020, depending on our success in growing the local labour force," he said. "It does not mean that we shut the doors to foreign workers. Instead, new work passes will be issued only to replace expiring work passes or to supplement shortfalls in the local labour force. Companies will have to find ways to hire more Singaporeans."
Acknowledging that the resulting restructuring that is needed will be "painful", Giam maintained that it is "critically important for our nation's future".
"The government should commit to supporting companies and workers through the restructuring process, as well as retraining workers to provide them with the right skills to make a transition to another industry," he said.
That said, Ministers in the Prime Minister's Office Grace Fu and S Iswaran aimed repeated questions at Giam, pressing him for confirmation that the party's proposal meant zero additions to the foreign workforce, as well as no new citizens or PRs in the coming eight years.
To them, Giam said they do not envision a need for additional foreign labour "except if we cannot attain 1 per cent growth in the resident labour force".
Acting minister Tan also jumped into the debate, informing Giam in pointed remarks that it is "not just rhetoric", but concrete initiatives, that will increase Singapore's labour force participation rate.
To this, Giam responded that he and his fellow MPs intend to push for measures in that direction -- naming flexi-work telecommuting and part-time work, in particular raising wages as a key way, he believes, to increase the opportunity cost of staying at home.
He also clarified that the WP does not practice a "zero-tolerance policy" on foreign workers -- instead, they simply do not see a need to increase the foreign labour force size.
"It does not mean we kick them out now. We maintain the numbers now, and replace the ones who leave," he added.
Pressed further about immigration in general, Giam said the WP is open to accepting 10,000 new citizens each year until 2020, after which they will monitor how the total fertility rate (TFR) has increased. He also said they used a TFR of 1.3 as a conservative estimate from which they based their calculations on population growth, and that they differentiated their calculations on population growth from those on the workforce.
Reported with Jeanette Tan in Parliament
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