Sunday 30 December 2012

Foreign workers and ageing citizens in the spotlight

The year 2012 was an eventful one for the political arena, and next year promises more of the same. But what kind of politics can Singapore expect to see in the year ahead? Dr Reuben Wong, Dr Chua Hak Bin and Shaikh Syed Isa Semait discuss with Andrea Ong the defining issues of 2012 and how Singapore can move forward in 2013. Dr Wong is a political scientist at the National University of Singapore, Dr Chua is an economist with Bank of America Merrill Lynch and Shaikh Syed Isa is the former mufti of Singapore and the vice-president of the Inter-Religious Organisation.
The Straits Times, 29 Dec 2012
What do you think were the issues that defined 2012?
Dr Reuben Wong: Nimby (not in my backyard). It's defining because we are on the cusp of having a very large proportion of aged people in Singapore and yet we are not very well prepared. We are preparing the infrastructure, but socially and attitudinally, Singaporeans are not prepared.

One in three Singaporeans will be at least 65 by 2030. That's only 17 years away.

Our whole population make-up and infrastructure, everything has to change. We need eldercare facilities in the neighbourhood, not some far-off place. If one in three of the population is elderly, you shouldn't be making him take a taxi halfway across town.

Dr Chua Hak Bin: The theme of this year seems to be restructuring - the deliberate and calibrated shift towards a less labour-dependent and higher-quality growth model. That's been the ongoing experiment, but it has come with mixed results.

Ideally, the hope was that the shift would drive productivity growth and inflation would not result.

On the good side, core inflation is contained somewhat, wages are rising for the low-income group and the labour market remains fairly tight.

On the more disappointing side, growth has been somewhat lacklustre, with the risk of a technical recession a very likely reality. Productivity growth has been somewhat elusive.

All those efforts and initiatives, budget incentives and so on, but the results are clearly not visible.
Looking back on the year, what made you most happy or unhappy?
Dr Wong: I think the xenophobia towards foreigners quite marked 2012, like the way people reacted to everything from Sun Xu to Ma Chi, the man involved in the Ferrari crash.

The foreign workers involved in the SMRT strike were also Chinese. I think those who were already sympathetic to Chinese workers felt more sympathetic because they realised that they live in pretty bad conditions. Those who felt anti-Chinese probably felt more anti-Chinese. This whole issue is quite polarised.

Government engagement is definitely better than before last year's general election.

Before that, it was talking about feedback; now it's a conversation. The very idea of feedback is so anti-democratic - citizens should be involved in making policies and decisions. A conversation at least goes somewhere down that line, towards co-decision making.

I'm still looking forward to the conclusion to all the discussions, to see where we're going to go.

Dr Chua: It's a balance between the social concerns and the trade-offs of economic costs. There was an effort to try and make up for some shortfalls of previous years, in terms of public transport and shortage of public housing.

But the issues of low-wage workers are not going to go away. The demographic trends in Asia will bring up some of these forces even more dramatically in the coming years: The labour market is tightening across Asia, in part because China is facing a turning point with labour shortages and rising costs.

Over the past decade, we've seen wages of the lower-income folks being depressed somewhat by this huge pool of workers from China and India. That looks to be coming to an end.

The bargaining power of the low-wage worker is coming back. Across the whole region, you suddenly see lower-income workers able to negotiate and bargain for a fairer share, a group which has been somewhat marginalised in the last decade. That's a positive development.

Shaikh Syed Isa: As a country, we are lucky that our Government and social workers here are quite aware about what is the good thing and not-so-good thing to do.

Our lives here are much better than in other countries. Our standard of education is much better, our people do not face the difficulties that other people face.

We should thank God for giving us the community, the way of life, the situation here. And we hope it will continue or improve much, much more.
What do you think next year will be about?
Dr Wong: The economy. The global economy is unstable, so Singapore has got to manoeuvre in a very unstable situation - how the recovery in the US, Europe and Japan will affect us, whether China continues to grow at a reasonable pace and whether we can ride on China's and India's growth.

If there is a by-election, it will be an election where the PAP has a lot to lose and the opposition has something to gain. If the PAP wins, it has to win reasonably well. If it just squeaks past or loses it, oh dear.

But the by-election is still a sideshow domestically.

I think the population White Paper is the main show. That's really important - to figure out the trends of the population, what we need to change, how to adapt our population profile for our workforce, infrastructure and economy.

Health care is also an issue which is a long time coming. We have to think about more sustainable health care that covers the growing bulge of old people without over-straining our resources.

Dr Chua: Things may also get uglier for SMEs next year, when their existing permits expire. If they are still above their foreign worker dependency ratio ceiling then, they cannot renew their permits.

I think complaints will come over the strict foreign worker policies. There will be tension between those who argue that we need to clamp down and those who say companies and SMEs which have relied heavily on foreign workers are going to feel the bite a lot more.

As the policy effects become more visible, there could be more cases of shutdowns or losses. There will be more blood.

What do you hope to see next year? How can Singapore improve its politics?

Shaikh Syed Isa: I hope that Singapore will prosper and peace will prevail.

The best thing is peace, that we can live among ourselves in peace, although we have many cultures, religions, languages. So I hope we can live in peace and be happy. That's the best gift from God to our country and to the people of Singapore.

Dr Wong: I would like to see more reasoned, more dispassionate debate, not the kinds of shrill debate we've heard so far.

It will happen as society matures and people get used to having debates and having disagreements in public. We don't have that culture yet, but I think it will come over time.

It will be good if we have more such debates and the institutions which can cultivate this - universities, social institutions, the media, the alternative media and blogosphere - will be the gatekeepers that set their own standards.

I think we should also put a cap on unbridled capitalism.

We've cut down on what politicians should earn, but we should also have some sort of limit on sky-high salaries that bankers earn. This has already started happening in the US and London.

I hope there will be some checks on the salaries of big corporations. If we don't set an example, our Gini coefficient (a measure of equality) will continue to worsen.

Dr Chua: My wish list is for the pressures that are hurting the global economy to dissipate.

Basically, if the US can recover a lot more strongly next year, if the Europeans can somehow contain the debt crisis and China holds firm, and Asean makes a very clear commitment on economic integration, then I think Singapore is in a good position to benefit.

Most important would be the outcome of the Malaysian elections, since that is in our immediate neighbourhood. I hope that whatever the outcome, any kind of transition will be a smooth one.

As for Singapore, I think it should focus - as it always has been - on remaining resilient and anticipating some of these shocks. It can help companies which may be struggling because of the ongoing restructuring, and continue to target the right kind of investments, the higher-value investments.

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