Monday 25 February 2013

Picking up the pieces after the protests

No running away from ageing society, and the need to take steps to deal with it
By Warren Fernandez, The Sunday Times, 24 Feb 2013

The large turnout at the protest rally two Saturdays ago against the Population White Paper culminated in calls from some participants for a referendum on the issue.

Judging by the anger that has raged against the paper's proposals, the outcome of such a poll seems a no-brainer. It is as clear as day that the White Paper has gone down badly.

Congestion on the roads and trains, skyrocketing property prices, heightened competition for jobs, schools and other amenities, have all combined to make the idea of having almost two million more people added to this tiny island seem like one of those "foolhardy" or "courageous" suggestions that politicians make at their peril.

It all made me wonder how a similar proposal to boost the population might have gone down in the 1980s, when the quest for economic growth was not as unfashionable as it is today. Would the population, which then hovered around 2.5 million, have come out in support of doubling this in a few decades?

Even then, it would have been a hard sell.

One reason stems from what psychologists call the "end of history illusion".

A recent New York Times report citing a study in the journal Science noted: "When we remember our past selves, we seem quite different. We know how much our personalities and tastes have changed over the years.

"But when we look ahead, somehow we expect ourselves to stay the same... we underestimate how much we will change in the future."

The same might apply to societies. So, just as it was difficult for anyone living in the 1980s to picture the Marina Bay of today, a spaghetti network of MRT lines running across the island, or three terminals at Changi Airport, most people extrapolate from their experiences today to form a picture of what the future might be like, as if society has reached its zenith and "history" has ended.

Little wonder then that all the grand plans unveiled recently for new homes, more MRT lines, additional parks and recreation options seemed remote. At best, the proposals were plausible; at worst, just so much political pie in the sky.

Most of us live in the here and now. Quite naturally, people want to see their current concerns being addressed, bottlenecks fixed, runaway costs checked, before they will believe that things might get better, as promised.

So, ironically, the upshot of this is that the White Paper, which was meant to make the case for a more moderate and calibrated pace of immigration, has ended up making the idea of further inflows of people all the more unpalatable politically.

Singapore, someone pointed out to me, is living through another Howe Yoon Chong moment.

Remember Mr Howe? He was the top civil servant-turned-minister mostly known for an ill-fated report in 1984. Like the recent White Paper, it too was focused on the challenges faced by the ageing of Singapore society.

By most accounts, the report contained some sensible ideas. But one controversial proposal to raise the Central Provident Fund withdrawal age from 55 to 60 sparked a furore. It proved so politically toxic, tarnishing the entire report, that few can recall anything else in it.

There was much dark talk of "betrayal" by the Government of the day, and murmurings about a backlash at the next polls. Politicians beat a hasty retreat, and it was only several years later that they took another stab at the underlying issue of people needing more retirement savings, when the CPF Minimum Sum scheme was introduced in 1987.

Then, as now, the idea that you could simply set out the facts, make a rational argument and win people round to the need for "painful but necessary" measures, proved overly optimistic. As was the case then, the latest White Paper has made tackling Singapore's rapidly ageing society more - not less - challenging politically.

Worst of all, the strong reactions to the recent proposals have emboldened latent xenophobes, who now see an opportunity to whip up public unhappiness for their own ends. Today, it is not uncommon to hear people say: "I am really not against foreigners, but...", before launching into a tirade against immigrants, or spewing some racial stereotype, and leading up to an anti-government diatribe.

Some have begun to mouth empty slogans such as "Singapore for Singaporeans" or "born and bred Singaporeans". There was even one outlandish posting on Facebook calling for "ethnic cleansing of FTs from Singapore".

The idea is absurd. Where would we draw the line separating "born and bred" Singaporeans from others to be spurned - 1965? If so, many of us would have to disavow our own parents or grandparents as interlopers. Or should we push it back to 1819? In that case, most of us, except for a few Malay families, would have to pack up and ship out to wherever our ancestors came from.

Let me be clear: It is perfectly legitimate to debate, and disagree with, the government's proposals. Like many others, I share the unease over the ramping up of immigration that led to the current infrastructure bottlenecks, and fed the collective angst over the White Paper.

But it is a fine line between this and vilifying foreigners to use xenophobia for political ends, wittingly or otherwise. Right-minded Singaporeans will have to guard, and speak out, against this.

For, when the political heat cools, Singaporeans are going to have to pick up the pieces and figure out a way forward. To my mind, finding common ground is likely to entail the following:
- Coming to grips with the fact that Singapore has an ageing population. No doubt, some will blame this on past government policies. Even so, there's just no running away from the problems that loom. Most of us around today are likely to live through the effects of a major slowdown in our society and economy in the decades ahead. Either we do something about it now, or rue the consequences later.
- Dealing with this will require efforts to boost our birth rate, raise productivity and move the economy up the value chain. And yes, it is likely to call for some degree of immigration. The precise number is worthy of debate, but clearly the doors will have to be kept open, and the population will continue to grow.
- After all, Singapore was not built just by "born and bred" natives. It owes its success to our disparate immigrant ancestors' willingness to work together. It also took investments, skills and ideas from people from all round the world - such as Dutch economist Albert Winsemius for several years from the 1960s - as well as the sweat and toil of foreign construction workers, nurses, service staff, maids and cleaners, without whom this city would grind to a halt.
- So, those who speak disparagingly of "foreigners" or "FTs" (short for foreign talent) do a grave injustice to the founding ideals our forefathers held dear - of equality and meritocracy, "regardless of race, language, or religion".
- Ultimately, being Singaporean is as much an act of faith and will, rather than any geographical or ethnic lineage. Most Singaporeans, I believe, accept this and do not share the "little islander" mentality that some now espouse so vociferously and venomously.
But, unfortunately, recent events have raised the political temperature, and stakes. It is going to take much effort all round to ensure that Singapore remains open to the world and yet coheres internally, and to prevent that age-old refrain that haunts all fledgling and disparate societies - "things fall apart, the centre cannot hold" - from becoming a dreaded reality.

'End of history' illusion

Just as it was difficult for anyone living in the 1980s to picture the Marina Bay of today, a spaghetti network of MRT lines running across the island, or three terminals at Changi Airport, most people extrapolate from their experiences today to form a picture of what the future might be like.

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