Monday 18 February 2013

Singaporeans hold protest against White Paper on Population

By S Ramesh, Channel NewsAsia, 16 Feb 2013

A protest was held against the government's White Paper on Population at Speakers' Corner on Saturday, organised by 

Organisers said about 5,000 were present.

The intermittent drizzle did not deter the organisers, who led attendees in singing the national anthem and reciting the pledge.

"I think it's the largest protest in decades. It is also the first one where anger is directed squarely at the government," said Reuben Wong, an assistant professor of political science at the National University of Singapore.

"People are now more willing to air their grievances. They have been doing it on the Internet for the past few years, but it is new for them to physically come down in such numbers," he told AFP.

The 12 speakers lined up for the event included young Singaporeans, bloggers, and opposition politicians. Most of them called for more consultation with the public.

Lawyer Nizam Ismail called on the Singapore government to supersede the White Paper with a Green Paper.

He said such a procedure is in practice in developed countries.

Mr Nizam argued that the Green Paper will contain the views of Singaporeans about the population challenges, and he stressed that this was missing in the formulation of the White Paper.

Former presidential candidate Tan Kin Lian argued that four rounds of the baby bonus had not solved the problem of declining total fertility rate.

He said at the end of the day, it all boils down to affordability for Singaporeans to first get married and then have children.

Mr Tan said it is important for a policy change on the part of the government to encourage marriage and procreation. 

However, he did not offer any new solutions or ideas to improve the total fertility rate.

Samantha Teo, a young Singaporean, also shared her thoughts on stage: "Right now a scarier concept is what Singapore can potentially become in another 20 years. Imagine a place where your cultural identity is slowly eroded away surrounded by unfamiliar faces, a stranger in your own homeland. How different is that from living in another country?"

"The large crowd here shows the PAP government that they are not afraid any more, they don't want to hide behind a moniker on Facebook to show their displeasure," said chief organiser Gilbert Goh.

"They are showing their deep displeasure with the White Paper," he told AFP.

The protest was held a week after Parliament endorsed an amended motion on the White Paper after a five-day debate.

The amendments ensure that the 6.9 million population figure in 2030 is not a target and the projection is for infrastructure planning.

ESM Goh pleased Singaporeans debating population issue
But speeches at recent protest were too political and one-sided, he says
By Andrea Ong, The Straits Times, 18 Feb 2013

EMERITUS Senior Minister Goh Chok Tong said yesterday he was pleased Singaporeans are debating the population issue, even if he thought the speeches at the protest against the Population White Paper in Speakers' Corner were too political.

"I am happy that Speakers' Corner is serving its purpose. Also pleased that Singaporeans are debating this population issue because it is about our future," said Mr Goh, in response to a question on his Facebook page.

Thousands turned up at Hong Lim Park last Saturday in a protest against the population projections laid out in the White Paper.

Mr Goh was Prime Minister when Speakers' Corner was opened in 2000 as part of the Government's move towards greater openness.

However, Mr Goh stressed that the debate on the population issue needs to go "beyond just population figures".

He added: "Cannot say that I think much of speakers' rhetoric. Too political, too one-sided, appealing to emotions only and not shedding light on important issues."

The line-up of 12 speakers at last Saturday's protest included former presidential candidates Tan Jee Say and Tan Kin Lian, as well as opposition figures, bloggers and working professionals.

Mr Goh was among the first PAP figures to comment on the protest.

Two others, Minister of State for Health and Manpower Amy Khor and Acting Minister for Social and Family Development Chan Chun Sing also weighed in.

Like Mr Goh, Dr Khor said it is positive that many people are interested in and thinking about the population issue.

"Like the Prime Minister said, the conversation continues," she said during a constituency event in Jurong West.

The population issue is an emotive one which has aroused "quite understandable" sentiments, she said, citing challenges in recent years such as the congested public transport system.

"We need to resolve these short-term issues," she said.

"We also need to continue to engage our Singaporeans on these challenges that are facing us, and hopefully, we can get more buy-in and support."

Mr Chan, speaking to reporters on the sidelines of an event in Queenstown, said he was not surprised at the strong public reaction to the White Paper.

"If you look at every rapidly developing society... every one of us individually, as a community and as a society, has to find that balance between preserving what we hold dear to us and yet at the same time, giving up some of the things for development, for the future generation," said Mr Chan.

I am happy that Speakers' Corner is serving its purpose. Also pleased that Singaporeans are debating this population issue because it is about our future.
- Emeritus Senior Minister Goh Chok Tong, on the protest against the Population White Paper

Who's xenophobic?
Those who speak up for and against policies on foreigners drawing flak
By Leonard Lim And Andrea Ong, The Straits Times, 21 Feb 2013

OVER the past week, the continuing conversation on the Population White Paper has taken on a new buzzword: xenophobia.

At least three individuals critical of the Government's immigration policies have been labelled anti-foreigner.

Most recently, Workers' Party chief Low Thia Khiang has had to defend himself against a charge of inciting xenophobia in his speech during the parliamentary debate.

So has Mr Gilbert Goh, the organiser of what has been touted to be the biggest protest rally in Singapore since Independence, and a young man who attended it in punk attire and was seen holding up a sign saying "Singapore for Singaporeans".

Several speakers at the protest last Saturday also took pains to make clear that they are not xenophobic, which is an intense dislike or fear of people from other countries.

But accusations continue to be lobbed at various personalities on different media platforms.

The thorny topic of foreigners continues to dominate online and offline conversations two weeks after Parliament held an intense debate on the White Paper.

In the latest twist, those who voice strong opposition to foreigner-friendly policies find themselves risking being called xenophobic even if they are not.

Those who fear that closing the door on foreigners could hurt Singapore are also getting hit by those who say they are not pro-Singapore enough.

The growing divide bears watching, said observers like Dr Leong Chan-Hoong of the Institute of Policy Studies (IPS).

"We're becoming more polarised and politicised than ever on immigration and integration," he said.

Dr Leong added that it is dangerous to "present issues in a dichotomous way because you will overlook the complexity of the challenge".

At the centre of the storm is Mr Goh. Critics said he should not be xenophobic given talk that he holds permanent residency in Australia, where he spent a few years in the past decade.

But he denied this, and said he remains a Singapore citizen. His ex-wife and daughter are living in Australia.

In a Facebook post yesterday, he said: "I merely had a four-year work permit and it has expired."

The charges of xenophobia began last Friday - a day before the "Say NO to 6.9 million" protest - when an article he had written two years ago describing stereotypes of different immigrant nationalities went viral.

The timing could not have been more unfortunate. It sparked online debate on whether attending the rally meant endorsing what appeared to be his anti-foreigner stance.

One of the 12 speakers, Dr Vincent Wijeysingha of the Singapore Democratic Party, wrote on Facebook that the article was regrettable.

"As citizens, we must be very clear that xenophobia is not the way to react to population policy. Foreigners are human beings and deserve respect and dignity," he wrote.

The National Solidarity Party, whose members Jeannette Chong-Aruldoss and Ravi Philemon also spoke, released a statement to say neither the party nor the pair endorsed the views in the article.

Mr Goh himself apologised at the start of the rally. He told The Straits Times yesterday: "I'm human, I make mistakes. But this event was not about xenophobia. It's about being against the Government's policies."

Participants were not spared. Photos of signs held by some have circulated online, raising questions of whether they were promoting anti-foreigner sentiments.

The sign which sparked the biggest uproar read "Singapore for Singaporeans" and was held by a young man wearing punk-influenced attire. Some drew parallels with right-wing nationalist punk subcultures in Europe.

Sociologist Tan Ern Ser said the language of inclusion "can easily connote exclusion" and come across as xenophobic even if unintended.

But he felt the protesters wanted to send a strong message to the Government rather than drive out foreigners.

The man, who goes by the online name Daryl Nihility, also wrote on Facebook that his sign simply stood for "putting Singaporean first and not to lose our national sense of identity". He added: "There is nothing nationalistic or xenophobic about that."

On what the recent events suggest about Singaporeans, some academics like IPS' Dr Leong cited his think-tank's survey findings showing that Singaporeans are largely inclusive and recognise the contributions of immigrants.

Professor Tan agreed that Singaporeans are not xenophobic, but cautioned that having a significant number of foreigners deemed to have a negative impact on citizens' interests could "reinforce the boundary between being Singaporean and non-Singaporean".

Away from the rally, WP chief Mr Low has also had to fend off accusations of inciting xenophobia.

A new citizen from China, Mr Li Yeming, wrote to Lianhe Zaobao and suggested that Mr Low and the WP fanned anti-foreigner sentiments in the White Paper debate, and drew a line between native-born and new citizens. Mr Li has clarified that he wrote in his personal capacity.

On Monday, Mr Low refuted Mr Li's claims, saying the latter had selectively interpreted his speech and that he had called for equal treatment of all citizens.

On how Singaporean-foreigner relations can be navigated in these sensitive times, experts said it is important to be clear on the issue.

Anthropologist Lai Ah Eng said it was a good start that those involved in the protest were reminded of what it was against: policies, and not immigrants.

Singaporeans should also not be too quick to cry xenophobia. "There are individuals who say 'go home' but instead of labelling them as xenophobic, can we ask why are they saying 'go home'? Context is crucial," she said.

Former Nominated MP Siew Kum Hong pointed out that netizens and citizens can set the tone by speaking out strongly against xenophobic views, like in the aftermath of Mr Goh's article.

Dr Lai also hopes the discourse will shift away from labels of xenophobia.

"The focus should be on whether Singaporeans are reasonable in asserting their rights to citizenship over population issues amid intense globalisation and competition, in which rapid and massive immigration is used by the Government to solve problems."

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