I’ll be as nice as I can about the Population White Paper – it’s weak.
Sure, there a bunch of happy photos in there along with lots of statistics and a projection of our population future and a “solution” for our population challenges, but it’s probably the worst solution we could have come up with.
“It’s not the headline number”
Since PM Lee has said that “it’s not the headline number that matters”, let’s take that out of the equation first. Let’s even be generous and assume (though incorrect) that population growth is the best way to grow economically. I’ll assume that it is logistically possible to have 7 million people here. Heck, going by the reasoning, I’ll assume it’s possible to have 10 million people in Singapore, since I assume that’s the plan post-2030.
The first question is “why aren’t there any plans to raise TFR”? The white paper talks almost exclusively about growth through immigration. I’ve got nothing against immigrants, but it’s daft to ignore TFR. All we see is a kind of footnote that points to a slightly more padded-up Marriage and Parenthood Package. The same Marriage and Parenthood Package that hasn’t worked very well in the last few years. The only idea they had for TFR was “throw more money at the citizens”.
Even the headline number of 6.9 million is going to be the direct cause of a TFR drop in Singapore. Imagine raising your children in the worst-case population scenario possible. Yes, think about that – the Population White Paper itself might cause our TFR to fall. Talk about counter-intuitive.
Second, where are all the plans for integration, naturalisation and national identity? This is a population paper, isn’t it? If you bothered to include plans for transport, housing and healthcare, why not community and culture? Why not project how immigration will affect us? Why not warn us about the challenges?
Third, no mention about distribution of growth. Yeah, sure it’s a given that growth is needed – we are part of an inflationary global economy. What the Gahmen seemed to forget is that the problems we face are IN SPITE of strong growth over the last decade or two. Having had this point made to them time and again, will they dare publish a “push for growth” paper without mentioning how it will improve Singaporeans’ lives in reality? Yes, they dare.
Why all these failings? The answer is simple – our Government and leadership doesn’t know how to speak to our hearts anymore. Look around – any eloquent, passionate, persuasive speakers in the cabinet? Any Toh Chin Chye, Lee Kuan Yew, David Marshall figure who could stir our hearts, squeeze tears from our eyes, inspire us to charge once more into the breach? Nope. And none in the pipeline either. The best we’ve got for that role is probably Vincent Wijeysingha, who’s not even an MP, and may be a little too refined for some.
Our government has also become blinded by the numbers – in that if they tally, nothing else needs to be considered seriously. They don’t need to consider how we feel about it. They don’t need to consider how they announce this information: “just throw the numbers at them – you can’t argue with facts”. They’ve stocked up the technocrat department so high and put so much faith in its infallibility that they’re blind to their biggest weaknesses.
The “Strong Singaporean Core”
Says the Paper, “First, Singaporeans form the core of our society and the heart of our nation. To be a strong and cohesive society, we must have a strong Singaporean core.”
For all the ink on the paper (or pixels, if you’re reading the PDF), this little phrase is all there is to how Singaporeans may be a part of their nation in the years to come. The proportion of Singaporeans to foreigners is still the same. No significant plans have been made to strengthen or benefit Singaporeans. Nothing particularly “Singaporean” about the core of our workforce. No legislative or framework changes.
Make it better
By now, the obvious question is this – if not this policy direction, then what? Well let’s look at this on several levels:
First, the basics – why growth? We need to understand the correlation between growth and what is best for Singapore, however debatable “best” may be. Growth is part of the equation, but not all of it. It is entirely possible for Singapore to become a better place to call home even while in the midst of a drawn-out recession. It may not spell good news for our creature comforts and consumerism, snacks and shopping, gifts and gadgets, but we may discover (and for some, re-discover) the joys of the simple life – time with friends and family, DIY, the lost spirit of gotong-royong.
The White Paper glosses over “Heart, Hopes and Home”, twisting this precious vision into a crude numbers game. It doesn’t open itself up to the possibility that our dreams may be shifting, that we may no longer hanker after more stuff, but after more of the stuff that life is made up of. Sure, growth will help secure some of these things more easily, but the consensus is that the growth we have now is robbing us of life, not allowing us to enjoy it. The tool has become our harsh master.
Next – why population growth? Sure, it is the most reliable way to achieve economic growth, but it is not sustainable in the long run (as this Globalist article discusses). The White Paper does mention productivity growth, and while productivity may not be the domain of the Paper, we do need a clear signal that population growth is not a prerequisite for growth. We want better, not more, and, if I hear the rakyat right, less would be preferable. Perhaps Donald Low’s suggestions should be implemented, and quickly. Then there may be a chance to reverse some of the coming damage from the much-needed immigration. Population.sg was swamped with great ideas, very few of which have been included in this White Paper. Why, then are we bothering with the National Conversation, if all our input gets turned out as the same old policy direction?
Finally – why population growth through immigration? This is the TFR question again. Raising children is as much a heart issue as a dollars and cents problem. The reason why so much of the feedback to REACH is about the cost of raising children (and subsequently why they just keep throwing money at it) is because this is what we’ve learned the Gahmen does. We have never heard stirring, passionate, rousing talk about the value of our children – Singapore’s children come from the halls of parliament. Sanitised speeches are given, heartfelt yet poorly delivered reminders of the value of family are inserted into policy debates, but no – nothing much else. Ministers manage and refine, even mould policy, but do they inspire? Barely a spark.
How then will the rakyat catch fire and burn like we did in our young ascendancy as a nation, if there is nobody to speak that fire into our hearts?