Afterthoughts – The White Paper on Population

After five days of intense debate, Parliament on Friday (08-Feb-2013) passed the amended motion to endorse the toilet White Paper on Population with 77 ayes and 13 nays. The results is of no surprise. The fact that the WP MPs voted against it demonstrates the difference between them and PAP backbenchers. Unlike PAP MPs who has no avenue to vote according to their conscience as long as the whip is not lifted, the PAP cannot take it for granted that Workers’ Party MPs will vote in favor of everything it wishes to pass.

A PAP MP can rave about being ‘his own man’ and it is nothing but a sham. They are simply their ‘own man’ apart from the will of the voters. The only avenue for an PAP MPs not to vote for a bill that they have spiritedly spoken against – so that they may not be looked upon as hypocrites and traitors to their constituents – is to be absent on the day when they are required to do so. That should be easy since Mah Bow Tan has been absent for almost half of the 12th Parliament’s sessions so far, and Mr Inderjit Singh was also absent during the vote on the White Paper. If they have an issue taking leave, my suggestion to them is “keng mc”. [“Keng mc” is a term used by National Servicemen for malingering. It means to think (mis-pronounced as ‘keng’) of a way to fabricate symptoms of physical disorders or sickness such that the medical officer would issue the servicemen an official excuse from duty for a certain period of time. The PAP MPs who have served NS can do Janil Puthucheary a favor by advising him what this means.]

I am also against the White Paper on Population. Whether it was the amended paper or the original that was passed is irrelevant. The statement that it “recognises that the population projections beyond 2020 are for the purpose of land use and infrastructure planning, and not a population target” is nothing more than a sleight of hand. It doesn’t require much gray matter to know that when land use and infrastructure is planned for a projected population figure, then it is certain that at least half of the targeted population increase will be met. Which fool expects the PAP to build ghost towns like Kangbashi on the outskirts of Ordos in Inner Mongolia? After all, when Mah Bow Tan was asked whether it was possible to lower land prices and thus the cost of new HDB flats, he said that would be like “stealing from the reserves”. My friend pointed out that to build empty towns would be blasphemous to PAP’s policy where profit is king. I think it would be more than just blasphemous, the Holy Order of PAP-Mammon would view it as sacrilege.

As far as I am concerned, the desperation in which the PAP needs to ensure that Singapore population keeps growing suggests two main issues, and they are not entirely Singapore’s. We probably won’t see it mention in the white paper, and some reading between the lines is required to identify these issues. The PAP can’t state their agenda upfront, because that would open many other cans of worms. Anyway, the first is mentioned in Lina Chiam’s Parliamentary Speech whereby she said (and I quote),

“The white paper assumes that bringing in more migrants is the solution to our worrying Old Age Support Ratio (OASR), through increased tax revenue collected and so on. But I do not know how this is applicable in Singapore, where the government believes families should be the main source of financial and social support for the elderly, where the state is unabashedly anti-welfare.”

I agree with Mrs Chiam that the state is unabashedly anti-welfare. Yet in spite of that knowledge, she failed to press on to the main point. That is, the OASR in the Singapore context has very little to do with welfare, but more to do with finding people to pay into the CPF to ensure that there will be some money to go about to pay out to those members who have reached the age to withdraw. Whatever infernal schemes that could be imagined had already been implemented to stem the amount of withdrawal from the CPF – for e.g. retaining a minimum sum, CPF Life etc. But stemming the outflow only address one side of the issue and it is not enough. Those who called the CPF a ponzi scheme is thus not very far from the mark. It is not difficult to understand why the PAP is desperate to ensure that there will be enough people around to pay into the CPF. They need to slow down the timer of the ticking time bomb. Depending on which side of the divide you are on, they could be trying to buy time to defuse it, or as Low Thia Khiang (MP, Aljunied GRC) said – they are simply ‘kicking the can down the road’

The next issue can be glimpsed when S. Iwaran spoke against the WP. I quote,

“We would be breaking faith with companies who are already invested here and are in the process of ramping up their operations. It will damage our reputation and severely impair our efforts to attract new and different businesses which can offer precisely the kind of diverse jobs that better educated Singaporeans seek.”

We? Well, I don’t recall having promised anyone anything to get them to invest here. This suggests to me that somewhere, someone over-promised to foreign companies that there will be little, if not zero restrictions in employing all the foreign labour they want. In fact, even for PMETs because it appeared to me any foreigner with a degree would be considered “foreign talents”. (I’ll come back to this later.)

Some may argue that’s not the case, because Singapore has imposed a dependency ratio, which effectively says employers can hire only x foreign workers for every y locals. But with the Total Fertility Rate (TFR) at an all time low of 1.2, things will definitely come to a head when the number of Singaporeans continue to dwindle, probably around 2030. That maybe why the PAP government has been very liberal in converting some of these so-called “foreign talents” into “new Singaporeans”. The other alternative would be to amend the dependency ratio to x+z locals for every y locals, which in any case will still upset Singaporeans. Thus the PAP needs to hoodwink us into accepting immigrants.

In all honestly, I can’t say that these issues which the PAP did not honestly tell us upfront are just the PAP’s problems because on a broader scale it is ours as well. So why am I still against the White Paper?

First of all, it’s not the population figures that upsets me. The Prime Minister said that the government does not have 20/20 foresight and it can only act on what it believes is the best plan for the country. Sadly, years of talking down at the people and telling us they are the best this country has to offer, and being the highest paid in the world, simply means we expect nothing less than 20/20 foresight. The Prime Minister needs to take a closer look at a more serious and fundamental problem, i.e. our civil service – which advised our ministers on the policies to take for the future – may have deteriorated. Asking “What do you think?” no longer suffice. The Prime Minister and his team have to work harder to earn their keep and not take it for granted that their minions have thought through something from all possible angles, before they put their chop on it. No one can have 20/20 foresight but it is oversight that is a greater concern, because Singapore’s well-oiled state machinery may have ran too well in the past years that some civil servants have now taken it for granted.

I am saying this because I have lost all confidence in the city planners of this country, regardless whether there will be new MRT lines and housing estates in the pipeline. How am I to have confidence when I am told that the cause of the CCL’s breakdown is due to water getting into the power cabling? The CCL is a almost brand new line running underground! Compare that to large tracts of the oldest North-South (NSL) & East-West Lines (EWL) which are exposed to the elements! And even the North-East Line (NEL), which has been in operation for far less time than the NSL & EWL has suffered as many major breakdowns, if not more! Even maintenance of our infrastructure has fallen short, as I start to notice small puddles of water that failed to drain away at road junctions after a downpour.

On the same day when the White Paper is endorsed in Parliament, a coffee shop at Clementi, and a large area around Commonwealth Avenue near the Commonwealth MRT station were flooded due to heavy rainfall. The city planners who planned for new amenities in the vicinity of the affected area have clearly failed to take into consideration their impact on the surrounding drainage system. It is of no surprise that places that have seen drastic landscape changes – such as Orchard Road, the old Clementi MRT bus interchange, the pristine HDB ‘sky scrappers’ at Tanglin Halt – is now prone to flooding during a heavy downpour. The failure to anticipate may still be forgivable, but a lack of willingness to tackle the issues is not. For e.g. a minister first calling it a once-in-fifty year problem, and then another blaming it on climate change, while a third tell us that no amount of engineering can deal with it is unacceptable. How does the government expects us to accept a bigger population when things are not even kept in proper conditions with the current one? At the very least, the people expects someone to exercise some hindsight, apologise and get it fixed.

Next, let me touch again on the matter of “foreign talents”, and in extension immigration. New immigrants congregating among themselves and perhaps lacking identification to their new national identity as Singaporeans is understandable because first generation immigrants may never truly integrate. The only hope is in their descendants. What really pisses me off, is a lack on verification the qualifications of some PMETs which were generally those granted citizenship.

It requires little imagination to know that countries like India and China have far more universities than Singapore, not to mention Singapore is not the top destination for the really talented. Thus, the problem is whether the degrees from some of those universities are even worth the paper it’s printed on in most other parts of the world. Are these – which I would consider riffraff – what Singapore considered “foreign talents”? Furthermore, all too often many of us have encountered a “foreign talent” who clearly isn’t even capable of “tying his own shoelaces” when performing his daily duties. The influx of these foreigners had made it even harder for a young local diploma holder to start work first and study part-time for a degree later. Singapore already does not have enough universities while other countries may be producing graduates in truck loads. And as if that’s not bad enough, Singapore even reserved certain amount of vacancies in our universities for those so-called “foreign scholars”.

The above is enough for Singaporeans to object to more foreigners without even ranting about how they might be depressing wages. Has the Ministry of Manpower any system in place for some of these so-called “foreign talents” to prove their proficiency? Or did MOM simply expect the corporate human resource departments to do so, while all they do may simply be obtaining the hard copy of their degree from any Tom, Dick or Harry for photo-copying? What avenue is there for locals to raise an alarm against those who have puffed up their CV, or worst still, got their jobs using a fake degree?

As for the matter of TFR, I don’t think any more incentives are going to help. Not even the image of a 55-year old man taking his 80 year-old wheelchair-bound parent to the hospital is going to scare anyone into thinking otherwise. It may simply be more fruitful to just keep the cost of living in check. And perhaps, the government can start doing so by doing something about the cost of land. Making housing affordable again is only one part of the equation. Keeping rentals to a more manageable level may not have a great impact on big corporates, but it would certainly help the small-time businessman running a small enterprise and even the hawkers. Hopefully, that would give us some breathing space in return, and then those of us who are married can then consider having kids again.

The government has to take its pick between increasing the national reserves through land sales, and Singaporeans having babies. If the government insist on having the cake and eat it, then 2016 may perhaps be a new historical reference for a new generation of Singaporeans.

One comment

  1. The government can talk credibly of the global race or it can maintain its immigration policy. It cannot do both. Another strong reason for bipartisanship.

    Also Wong Kan Seng has said “Singapore does not have unlimited past reserves to plug the gaps”. It makes you wonder what sort of “gaps” our Reserves are facing now/today. Haven’t they been reporting >15% growth rate yoy for the most decades? Unless there has been some reckless investments that we don’t know about.

    These fiascos showed that we had to engage, robustly and sometimes preventatively.

    Thanks for a great article. Have a happy Snake Year!

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