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Reframe the Great Population Conversation

21 Feb Reframe the Great Population Conversation

Controversy followed the Government’s White Paper on Population, from its introduction to the last day of Parliamentary debate, when Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong addressed Parliament. Even after the clear Parliamentary majority in favour, that public debate continues, a fact Mr Lee welcomed. But from which departure point should the Great Population Conversation continue?

Last Saturday, an event was organised at the Speakers’ Corner to protest the 6.9 million population projection figure, which has become a lightning rod for many. The numbers who turned up sent a message of opposition and ire.

There are, however, other points from which to continue the discussion. Some of these will allow future policies to be more closely considered.


One starting point is to note the clarifications subsequently made to the 80-page White Paper. The speech by Mr Lee in Parliament gave a considerably different emphasis, stressing the aim to strike a balance rather than to maximise capacity. The Government also gave the assurance that 6.9 million is not set in stone and that future governments would look at the situation afresh.

Additionally, the Parliamentary motion was amended by a backbencher to re-emphasise issues of concern for many. These included encouraging Singaporeans to have children, the Government resolving infrastructure crunches and taking steps to ensure Singaporeans benefit from growth.

These reflect the Government’s concessions in part to public concerns. We can anticipate further adjustments to both the content and the manner in which the main issues are discussed. The upcoming Budget Debate and the ongoing National Conversation will no doubt pick up threads and key points.

Three aspects would bear particular attention and merit prompt action.


First, trust needs to be rebuilt. MPs and public voices alike have stressed that concerns over public transport, housing and cost of living must be addressed. Drawing up new plans and policies are a start, but the benefits have not been felt viscerally. Visible and immediate action are needed.

One step that has been taken is that the council reviewing public transport fares has been directed to look more deeply into the issue of affordability, especially for low-income earners, the disabled and polytechnic students.

If the resulting recommendations — the release of which has been postponed to May — are substantial, this can help temper the frustrations of commuters, who would be averse to the idea of paying more for what they perceive to be sub-par services.

An even bolder step would be for the Government to mandate a freeze on transport fares until service problems are resolved. This is neither token populism nor quasi-nationalisation; it would be a small but real way to show that the Government means well and can deliver better.


A second measure concerns the Government’s pledge to maintain a Singaporean core.

How to do this without pandering to anti-foreigner sentiments will be a difficult balancing act. Ours has been, and still is, a very open society, so even a ratcheted tightening will be felt.

Companies, both local and foreign, who require foreigners in different sectors and with different skill sets should speak up more. Only then can citizens see that the Government is serving to moderate commercial interests, rather than opening the gates to the maximum.

A first step would be to remove “foreign talent” from the official lexicon — simply call them foreign workers. A second step is to bring some scrutiny to employment practices. The process should not be cumbersome but neither should it be fully online and automatic.

Government agencies should ask employers to verify in writing that they have tried to hire a Singaporean before a work permit for a foreigner is issued.

More, since there is talk and the perception that some MNC chieftains favour their own nationalities, larger corporations should report their employee balance in nationality (as well as gender and age) as part of their commitment to diversity and to Singapore as their base. No law or penalties are needed; just good faith and transparency.


On its part, the Government needs to more visibly recognise the talents of Singaporeans and promote national champions, especially those outside government and government-linked companies. Take our small and medium enterprises (SMEs).

As the cost of business goes up and foreign worker permits are reduced, there is a perception that SMEs are being squeezed out. It is economic logic that some should relocate but it is critically important how this is approached.

It is one thing to be assisted in this transition, as a Singaporean champion growing abroad while keeping key operations at home. It is another thing entirely to feel orphaned and driven out of one’s own house.

The Budget must look at providing ways to lower the cost of business and support the transformation of SMEs, with the aim of supporting the growth of Singaporean champions.

Another dimension of giving attention to the Singaporean core can be signalled with measures to assure that the elderly in Singapore are provided safety nets against illness and hardship, as well as incentives to keep working and renewing their skills. Again, the Budget can set the tone here.


There is a third factor that should emerge, and this is involves seeing Singapore in a regional and global context. Ours is not the only society to age. Singapore is not the first to look at how to continue to develop even after achieving a high level of growth.

How do other countries approach the issues of growth, an ageing population and social mixture? How do individuals elsewhere deal with the pressures of work and family life, and how do their societies and governments support them to make the right choices?

In the debate so far, a bewildering array of analogies has been thrown up, from the Scandinavians and Swiss to Japan, Dubai and Bhutan. But a rational and more comprehensive analysis is lacking.

Perhaps Singapore is different.

Yet the goals of our people — for quality of life and social safety nets — are human needs that many others feel. Even our policy goals, like being a global financial and business hub, merit comparisons.

To supplement the ongoing national conversation, a dialogue with international perspectives is needed.

The possibilities of cooperation across borders also need consideration. The recently announced high-speed railway link with Malaysia, for example, can potentially ease concerns about overcrowding in Singapore. But sensitivities must be managed and win-win solutions offered.

Lessons from elsewhere can be learnt and adapted. There is no easy, single model to emulate. There will be dilemmas and hard choices.

Mr Lee is right to say that while the debate is over, a conversation can begin. But conversation must be reframed, if it is to avoid becoming merely an altercation among the deaf.

In time, those against the White Paper should temper emotion and suspicion with informed consideration, while the Government must rebuild trust and truly consult.

Only then can we — Singaporean and others with real stakes here — truly think ahead about what is best for the future.


Simon Tay is Chairman of the Singapore Institute of International Affairs. This article first appeared in TODAY on the 21st of February 2013.