Sunday 21 October 2012

Singapore's population debate: 3 missed chances

By Phua Mei Pin, The Straits Times, 20 Oct 2012

COME the end of this month, public consultation on the population draws to a close. Civil servants then start to draft a White Paper due by January to propose a sustainable population strategy for the country.

Eight months after the Government launched a review of its population goals and policies, what has been achieved?

This is what the numbers look like:

Some 2,000 pieces of direct feedback to the Government, which also contacted more than 1,200 individuals.

Four official papers, four sets of recommendations from the non-government sector, about 15 closed-door focus group discussions, three public dialogues and one dedicated website.

And three missed opportunities, based on what this journalist heard and saw.

The first of these involved local small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs), which let slip a chance to tell Singaporeans how they are hurting from foreign worker curbs.

At one forum last month, Association of Small and Medium Enterprises (Asme) representative Chew Lee Ching was the only one out of 15 speakers to touch on the matter.

"Our members are suffering a lot because of the labour shortage. They are thinking of relocating or closing down altogether," she said.

Her comment drew no response from the other 100 participants, who wanted to talk instead about how to encourage Singaporeans to start families.

Unlistened to, she later slipped out of the forum before it ended.

Forum organisers are reportedly frustrated that SMEs poured out their manpower woes to policymakers but chose not to speak up for themselves at public forums.

At the last and largest forum held last week, there were 220 participants. The only one who spoke on behalf of SMEs was Deputy Prime Minister Teo Chee Hean.

He cited an Asme survey which found that close to a third of SMEs are thinking of leaving Singapore. However, as happened with Ms Chew, the broader audience did not engage on this point.

The matter of foreign labour is no longer just an issue for negotiation between businesses and the Government alone. It involves issues of competition, integration and quality of life that directly impact the wider public.

The business community could have and should have reminded the public of the Singaporean jobs on the line should firms go bust because of manpower shortfalls.

SMEs could have launched a charm offensive to demonstrate how the good outweighs the bad for now. They could have bargained for the time to shift from foreign worker reliance to higher productivity.

Until businesses join in the discussion, their pressures will remain an abstract concern for which Singaporeans at large see no reason to make any compromises.

A second lost opportunity concerned economic growth.

A central question of the population debate has been Singapore's appropriate level of economic growth, and hence how much it needs to top up its workforce to support that growth.

The stance that Singapore can afford to slow down and cut labour force growth became a trendy one to adopt at public forums, with several people supporting that view at each session. Not a single person argued for maximising growth.

Former chief statistician and one-time population planner Paul Cheung made no bones about his view that such thinking was "stupid" - the damage to the drivers of economic growth would be irreversible in a highly competitive world.

However, he spoke at a separate panel for experts and did so at the risk of public flaming. As the months passed, even this vocal advocate for economic growth conceded that population numbers and growth could no longer remain a purely economic discussion.

It had become politicised and the final numbers had to be a negotiated outcome between the public and the Government, he said.

It was left to the Ministry of Trade and Industry (MTI) to put out a paper last month on the consequences of slow growth, namely, higher unemployment and fewer job opportunities.

At a forum the day after the paper's release, held specifically to discuss the economic aspects of the population debate, many participants did not appear to have absorbed the arguments from the MTI paper.

When asked if he had read the paper, one person said, laughing: "Is there really a need to?"

He meant that the forum organisers would surely summarise the paper for the participants.

But his comment also betrayed a lack of interest in tackling the economic dimension of the population debate. That forum was the occasion when many chose to swop ideas for raising birth rates instead.

The Government limited itself to outlining trade-offs and refrained from advocating growth. That left the strong growth argument without a champion, and made for a one-sided discussion.

It could well be that Singaporeans ultimately choose a more manageable pace of economic growth. But without a proper debate, when the costs of slow growth start to sink in, it will be harder to convince members of the public that they took this route with eyes wide open.

Finally, there was a chance in the population debate for new citizens and permanent residents to express their commitment to the country.

Officials who work with companies and community groups say some have made strides in integrating foreigners and locals. But of late, many pro-integration parties have become too browbeaten by anti-foreigner vitriol to share their examples.

Whether it is permanent residents who go for national service, or new Singaporeans who volunteer with charities here, their personal testimonies were desperately needed to remind Singaporeans that these newcomers can be a valuable part of society. That point has to come from new immigrants, not from the Government. Unfortunately, this has not happened.

The three opportunities are lost not only to those who failed to speak up - that is, businesses, growth supporters and new immigrants - but also those in the opposite camp.

On a small island, the fates of all parties are intricately tied up - the pressures of one group, set aside today, will very likely plague another group tomorrow.

If all parties do not have a thorough and open discussion of the trade-offs and alternatives of population policy choices now, it will be that much more difficult to make peace with the consequences when they do come later. It may seem then as if they come completely by surprise.

There is still a week to go before the close of consultation. Interested parties can visit the National Population and Talent Division website at to give their views.

But they need not feel limited to that, and should seize any public or private platform available, such as the Forum pages, to air their thoughts.

For those who have not spoken, you still have a chance to have your say in the population debate. For those who have not listened as much, take a moment to consider the other side.

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