White paper – Its not about 6.9 million, it’s about hearts

It's about hearts

It’s about hearts

The debate about the  Population White Paper has unsettled me

It’s the week before the Lunar New Year. Normally, this is my time for trimming our Vietnamese mai trees, baking pineapple tarts and Indonesian layer cake, getting my popiah filling ready for the family re-union dinner on New Year’s eve and arranging the flowers and decorations.

Actually I’m still going through the routine. But instead of focusing wholeheartedly on my tasks, my thoughts keep drifting back to that Population White Paper.

It’s not just the premises underlying the White Paper and the proposals that bother me. It’s also the vitriol underlying some of the responses. The xenophobia and self-entitlement displayed in some of the rants.

I need to unravel all the pieces of the argument and go back to heart of the matter, for my own peace of mind if nothing else.

What’s bothering me about the White Paper?

The White Paper offers an economically optimal way for Singapore to move forward as a vibrant global city.

It rests on 2 flawed premises:

(1)    All Singaporeans want to live in a buzzing global city.

(2)    Singaporeans cannot make the tradeoffs needed to keep the country going if we reduce foreign investment and foreign labour inputs at both the high and low end.

A buzzing global city is not enough

Living in New York City, London, even Hong Kong, is a choice for the citizens of American, the UK and China. Singaporeans don’t have a choice about accepting a higher paced city life style either for work, education or retirement.  It therefore behooves policy makers to remember to balance the needs of city and country.

How do we create national identity, roots and a feeling of belonging even as we try to create a city that provide jobs, opportunity and a tax base to pay for a gentler, kinder country?

It’s a conundrum no city-state has tried to solve in the last 50 years and I do applaud the government for its efforts. But I don’t believe the problem can be solved by an algorithm that optimizes the proportion of old citizens, new citizens and migrant labour against train lines, public housing and recreational spaces.

A plausible answer can only be arrived at if we go beyond the box of competitiveness and simple economic sustainability. Our best Singapore home is not just one that is economically vibrant. It has to be competitive enough for our hearts to espouse, sustainable in terms of loyalty.

The ultimate nationhood question is – What are we prepared to die for?

The ultimate nationhood question is – What are we prepared to die for?

Which leads me to the second flawed premise, Singaporeans can’t won’t make the tradeoffs to keep the country going

Yes, there will need to be tradeoffs.

A kinder gentler Singapore could/may/will mean a slower growing Singapore for at least some time. It means trading off fewer maids for more construction workers if we still want more housing. It may mean asking national servicemen to contribute a stint to the building and shipbuilding industry. It may mean enlisting national service women to be trained in nursing, social service and early childhood education skills! Are we open to these changes?

A Singapore with fewer foreign labourers means we’re going to have to pick up after ourselves. We’ll need to bus our dishes at the hawker centers. We’ll need more volunteers to sweep our parks and corridors.  We may have to pay more for our conservancy and cleaning services because folks, Singaporean workers will be doing it, and Singaporeans will expect higher salaries.  Are we willing to suffer these discomforts?

Some foreign MNC’s will  withdraw from a higher cost Singapore which puts caps on foreign labour? We will need more Singapore businesses. Who’s going to step up to the entrepreneurial plate? Will there be government funding to help Singapore companies restructure and grow?  Are there adventurous Singaporeans who’ll move abroad to build an external wing? Are we Singaporeans willing to think in terms of Gross National Income instead of Gross Domestic Income, i.e. are foreign based Singaporeans willing to accept a global taxation system like the American and Swiss, so those left at home can share in their overseas success?  Can we shoulder these burdens of leadership?

This is a national conversation. It’s about the type of country we all want to have regardless of party stripes. Is the opposition willing to engage constructively with the government and take a step back from the work permit ceiling proposal? Are government MP’s willing to get off their party posturing and working behind the scenes to make this conversation meaningful? Will the government really listen to what backbenchers have said and fix the infrastructure before moving ahead on the rest of the proposals? Will all parties step back so we can move forward together?

I’ve said before, the nationhood question is – What are we willing to die for?

It’s not continued GDP growth. It’s not better flats and more open spaces. It’s a Singapore home, Sunday mornings at the hawker center, Malay weddings in the void deck, that Chinese New Year re-union we’re all going to have to cater with take-away because there’s a worker shortage in the food industry.

If we’re talking about life and death, then what’s a few other trade-offs here and there?

I believe it’s because we’ve been talking about money and forgotten about blood, sweat and tears that we’ve become a country gradually losing its heart, where we oppose old folks homes and foreign worker dwellings near us because the reduce the value of our property, where we are more interested in what there is for us rather than what we can give.

Let’s get back to basics. Let’s get back to heart.

As for whether we can make it…

We shouldn’t get ourselves stuck in the mind-set that Singaporeans are destined to be price-takers. The Straits Times today (ST Page A26 Feb 8) features Mr. Tan Min Liang, the Singapore born CEO of Razer, a leading US based gaming company with triple digit million turnover. Look at Keppel Corporation, a truly global leader in oil-rig building. Look at Capital Land in China.

I also point to the example of Switzerland, the home country of Novartis, that country that’s ramping up biologics in Singapore (BT Page 2 Feb 7).  Switzerland is also the home of Nestle, of global somewhat less glitzy but still leading bank UBS. It’s a small country which has managed to be cohesive yet maintain the diversity of it’s four language groups for a very long time.  Switzerland has strict citizenship controls. It imposes global taxation for citizens. It’s not super vibrant but it’s not a nowhere backwater. It’s a place citizens are proud of calling home, able to contribute significantly to the world.

If the Swiss can do it, why can’t we?

What’s the cost?

We will be uncomfortable.We will all need to make the mental and heart trade offs I listed above. We will also need real dollars to make sure the transition’s a success. Where is that coming from?

The White Paper says infrastructure improvement will come from income, consumption and asset taxes, all of which will depend on economic growth.

If we accept  it’s not about growth but learning to go slower so we can be gentler and kinder as a nation, about increasing productivity, learning to work in new ways,  then revenue from falling economy dependent taxes will certainly not be enough to see the country through its transition to higher productivity.

Even in the dollars-and-cents conversation, something has been missing – a question about when it’s appropriate to draw down our reserves.

This is a momentous conversation. It’s about how we want to be as a nation, how we want this nation to be for our children.

When my mother and father bought a new house, all five of us children emptied out our piggy banks to contribute.

This is a hard heart conversation.

I’ve said we need to ask ourselves as citizens what we’re willing to sacrifice.  Those in charge of the piggy bank for a rainy day must also ask if this is the right time to take something out of the kitty.

Can we do it together as Singaporeans? How do you feel about this? What do you think? Take the first step forward. Share. Leave a comment. 

19 Responses to “White paper – Its not about 6.9 million, it’s about hearts”
  1. doulosyap says:

    This strikes a chord. Singapore needs to grow past the numbers and find her own identity. I blogged about heart earlier on my own site. Keep it up.

  2. IJ says:

    Singapore has always has foreign low-cost, transient labour. The problems don’t stem from that, but the importation of higher-income, qualified labour, foreign investors and new PRs/citizens who have contributed to GDP, but have in turn rapidly driven up asset prices and cost-of-living. It is this process which can and should be better managed, not a fundamental flaw in the underlying equation.

    • Audrey Chin says:

      IJ, you’re right we’ve always had foreign low-cost transient labour. But even that is a problem because now its’ depressing wages at the lower end and we shouldn’t really have an underclass of citizens who are not working because wages are too low in that sector.
      I just got back from some last minute shopping and saw 5 foreign workers painting the fences under an MRT Track with inefficient roller brushes. In labour scarce Oz it would have been one person,using a hand glove (it was a metal fence with rods). I didn’t see the 5 going faster than the 1 Aussie.
      And of course you’ve seen those road diggers – 1 supervisor, 1 foreman, 3 workers 2 of whom are digging, one holding the stop/go traffic sign. That is such an example of not thinking about productivity.

    • Audrey Chin says:

      As for the other sector. Yes, it’s the process.

      You are right there isn’t a fundamental flaw in the underlying equation if you believe that what needs to be optimized is growth towards a buzzing global city. I guess what I’m saying is, regardless how comfortable you or I are with that, looks like lots of people don’t accept that goal.

      • IJ says:

        Respectfully, I’ve yet to see hard evidence that meaningful number now reject that goal. I think there is resentment (and we can debate whether this is justified or not) that the recent spoils of Singapore’s undeniable economic progress are being inequitably allocated class-lines, and to newcomers who have not contributed. This to me is the crux of the matter. And I also believe that if the incumbent political party can successfully renegotiate its fractured contract with the people, it is not inconceivable that their popularity will once again rise above 60.1%.

      • Audrey Chin says:

        We’ll see. I think they did a good thing to step back. Now it’s time to work on productivity. And national service women?

  3. Tee says:

    It’s heart-warming to read stuff like this.

  4. IJ says:

    Inderjit Singh is correct. Press pause, revisit the numbers, the timeline, and understand the short-term imbalances impacting the primary stakeholders – the natural-born citizens who have built this country. They rightfully deserve to be first among equals. Then continue when the imbalances are restored.

    • Audrey Chin says:

      Thanks IJ, Inderjit Singh’s comment about stopping and some other minister about taking it in 3 steps really made sense. Do sign up to follow if you want to continue this dailogue.

  5. qiquan says:

    I don’t like this kind of sentiments, sentiments about who is first, who need the privileges, it sounds so much like my home country Malaysia. First the nationwide discussion about the white paper does not related to heart at all, it is about me, me, me.

    My father came from China during second WWII, and as like many older generation of Singaporeans. But these days, the ‘racist’s tone’ towards China migrants is astounding to me, I heard similar things in Malaysia, Go home you Chinese, you do not belong to Malaysia! And this is why Singapore is not staying in Malaysia. The younger generation as well as older generation of Singapore ought to remember this part of history, and learn the heart lesson.

    7 millions is ridiculous to me, for only one reason, how are you going to take care of the life of the local citizens and foreign workers? The recent bus drivers event is one, and the maid is another. Can we take care those who live here, or come to stay here in this country, and contribute to it, and have a sweet home?

    I am not taking the point of view from a foreigner (though I have two sisters who are citizens, and my brothers in law the singaporeans), but I am taking the view from my heart, and I ask: Can we have the happiness by not giving the same to others, may it be your fellow citizens, or foreign low level workers? The Singapore government, as well as its citizens, I plea that you think carefully.


    • Audrey Chin says:

      Yes, te conversation in parliament and the news has been unsettling. it’s why I’m saying, like you, that we should get back to heart.

      • qiquan says:

        This morning when I was biking to visit my parents in the Choa Choo Kang Columbarium, I was thinking this question:

        If the road has less car, or if the road is made wider, will the car be slowed down?

        On my way back to Clementi West, I saw a temporary building without any windows at the side of the PCN bike path, and it is the living place for the workers.

        Every Sat or Sun, I heard the noise from the work in progress project all around the place I stay, or to any place I am visiting.

        To summarize I ask this question: Can we feel the peace (serene or quietness) without giving peace/happiness to others?

        Last week I went with my Singaporean friends to dine at the Starvista, and I was told the upper part of the building belongs to the Church. Not too long ago, the City Harvest intended to buy the Suntec City. I was amazed, the churches here are extremely rich.

        The PAP thinks that by feeding the mouth of Singapore, they have done a good deed, the people (religious or non-religious) think that by donating the money, they have done a good deed, and we the parents think that by giving what our children want, we have done a good deed. Deng Xiaoping, and Lee Kuan Yew are great leaders of the World but still they are limited by their living experiences at their time, and cannot foresee the change even in their own country. There is a Confucianism quote:
        物格而后知至,知至而后意诚,意诚而后心正,心正而后身修,身修而后家齐,家齐 而后国治,国治而后天下平。It says that to study with great care, then to understand with great sincerity, then to put it on the right use with benevolent motive, with great benevolent that we make it the way of our heart, with this we can take care of our family, and by the same care we give to our family, then we can rule the country, with love and care we then make the world at peace.

        In most European countries including Switzerland, any foreign workers (low or high level), and PR are having about the same rights as the citizen. This is not the case in Singapore. I have also seen and experienced myself many racists attack and speech while I was living in Germany, Netherlands, and UK. That’s why I ask you from the very beginning:

        How Singapore is going to lead the World?

        I would term it as the heart project, that need great courage, as well as great love, to answer to our heart, to share the prosperity, happiness, peace, and love

        I just hope to share with you my opinions.Thank you Audrey, for bringing up this topic.

        Happy Chinese New Year.


      • Audrey Chin says:

        Happy New Year Qi Quan.

  6. christhy77 says:

    It is sad that before the Singapore Conversation exercise ends, a decision on this is already made. It seems to render this exercise futile.

  7. Audrey Chin says:

    there has been lots of good commentary. Laurence Lien in parliament is one example. Also Manu Bhaskaran in this weeks Edge. Lets hope some of it is heard.

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