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If there is a silver lining to the Population White Paper, it must be how it has stirred the voices of Singaporeans. And as a citizen, I too, feel a duty to share my voice even if much has already been said.
The White Paper was poorly timed, lacked breath, depth and honesty with its social impact analysis, and failed to recognize the zeitgeist.
But the bigger doubts of Singaporeans are not over economics or population replenishment projections. They are about the more fundamental issues of trust and respect. Singaporeans need to know that they have put people in government who will give them that. For all its noble and right intentions, the White Paper failed to recognise this starting point.
There is a trust deficit between populace and government and unless behaviours are changed, this set-up-to-fail spiral will worsen.
The SG Conversation was a bold, promising step in the right direction to reconnect government and people, rebuild trust, and take a more inclusive approach to leadership. But in one fell swoop, pushing ahead with the White Paper has undermined any credibility the SG Conversation will have going forward; findings of which have yet to emerge or be shared.
Surely, discussions around “What makes Singapore our HOME? What are your hopes for our shared future? How can we have more HEART as a nation?” – all quoted from the SG Conversation website - would have had much to add to and help shape the White Paper.
Furthermore, as the population plan per se can only form a part of an overall strategy to achieve the vision of Singaporeans, releasing it at this point would be putting the cart before the horse.
It is worse to have been asked for an opinion, only to have it ignored, than not to have been asked at all. Just on this basis alone, there was sufficient merit to have held back the White Paper: to do the right thing by the thousands of Singaporeans who have given time to this nation-wide feedback exercise.
The narrative behind the White Paper now seems to read: we took a bold move when chips were down, flooded Singapore with more people – this drove up consumption while suppressing wages. It worked like a dream, for a while and for some people, but it has now created a few structural and social problems.
The problems are not easy to unwind: that expensive HDB is looking more like a liability than an asset. Upping supply, rightly so to meet Singaporeans’ needs, will soften prices. On the other hand, artificially propping up prices also has its ill effects -- having majority of financial resources tied up in a property would make ageing Singaporeans the eschewed economic deadweight.
The argument to chase growth, both population and economic, so as to improve the lives of lower-income Singaporeans has become a circular one.
The available data clearly shows lower-income workers have lagged behind through the last growth decades and nothing in the White Paper changes their future prospects, and more critically, the income gap.
Weaning off low-cost foreign labour while seeking to pay Singaporeans higher fair wages is going to be challenging. But we must at least start by taking small, obvious steps. In wake of last year’s fiasco with the SMRT bus driver strike, few would oppose the idea of paying the job well enough such that Singaporeans would want to take them – after all, it has been acknowledged that public transportation is a matter of national security. Why are we ignoring this glaring opportunity to give a Singaporean a deservingly better pay and choose instead to continue substitution by lower-wage foreign labour?
These are but some of the questions that sit right in front of peoples’ minds. Addressing them will improve the trust deficit. Ignoring them with more of the same answers will deepen contempt.
Of respect and maturity
I cannot ignore the government/PAP’s track record and how as a single party it has steered Singapore to where it is – on many counts, successful.
Leadership today though is about enabling, stimulating and harnessing the best ideas.
There is a growing pool of non-partisan, independent thinkers who are able to offer leading-quality, alternative thought leadership on policies and solutions; such talent must be co-opted into the national policy-making process to give it needed diversity and creativity.
Similarly, there should also be opportunity for opposition party proposals, such as the SDP Paper on Non-Open Market flats, to be tabled and debated in Parliament. To borrow the words of Bill Clinton: “When times are tough, constant conflict may be good politics but in the real world, cooperation works better.”
Enlightened leadership respects the maturity of the people it leads and the strength of collective wisdom. No individual takes kindly to condescension, and progressively, we are becoming more educated and questioning - as we should. Our evolved environment that now allows effortless permeation of information of all sorts online all but makes current censorship practices ineffective and archaic.
The bigger evil under such circumstances is that continuing with banal censorship basically says to the people they are thought of as simpletons.
Gestures such as the easing of censorship on film, media and performing arts, and the repeal of Section 377A of the Penal Code will go along way in signalling to the populace that its maturity is respected. Respect, when given, is always returned.
The government needs to reverse the perception and reality of a growing bourgeoisie and proletariat divide. It must go back to its core, rebuild trust, fix evident problems, and accept the fact that, like the country, the people have grown up too.
I say this very respectfully to the government: help us help you. We all want a better future, but only together can we achieve it.
Simon Loh, 43