Speech by Mr Inderjit Singh,
MP for Ang Mo Kio GRC
On the White Paper on Population
Madam Speaker, thank you for allowing me to join the debate on the White Paper on Population.
While the report has some compelling arguments for the 6.9m population figure projected, we all know it is based mainly on economic considerations. Had we focused on things like building a cohesive nation with a strong national identity, the outcome would likely be very different.
I feel the time has come for us to find a better balance between economic growth and social cohesion and yes there will have to be tradeoffs of economic growth but I would rather trade some of these for a cohesive, united nation where people feel taken care of at home and are confident of their future. I am not saying we go for low or no growth. Instead I am willing to adjust my growth expectations for a more comfortable life for all Singaporeans. I am confident we will still be able to pursue respectable economic growth when companies and Singaporeans are faced with a situation of tightened labour availability by focusing on improving ourselves through productivity and higher value capabilities. Finland and other small nations have done, we can do it too.
Our past decade of rapid population growth has already created too many problems which need to be solved first before we take the next step. I call on the government to take a breather for five years, solve all the problems created by the past policies of rapid economic and population growth. We can safely say that we have failed to achieve the goal set by the then Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong, of a Swiss standard of living for most Singaporeans, except for the higher income Singaporeans including foreigners who just recently decided to make Singapore their home. So I call for a breather in this quest of growing the population and focus on improving the lives of Singaporeans and achieve that promised Swiss Standard of living for most Singaporeans first before we plan our next growth trajectory.
Taking Care of the Singaporean Core
I have a big issue with the number of PRs and new citizens we are planning to add to our population. I don’t see the necessity to be as aggressive when the key consideration of the population growth is the economy. We have already added too many new citizens and PRs and need time for integration and social cohesion to happen. Looking at history, our population grew from around 2.4m in 1980 to 3m in 1990 and then to 4m in 2000, reaching 5.3m last year. Just looking at the resident population alone, we grew the numbers from 2.3m in 1980 to 2.7m in 1990, 3.3m in the year 2000 and then to 3.8m last year. So in the last decade we added more than 1m to the resident population, and the in last 25 years, which is close to 1 generation of Singaporeans, we have added another close to 50% more to our resident population. I believe this must be the fastest rate of population growth in the world and I feel this is just too much for us to comfortably go back and build a national identity and social cohesion which was progressing very well till the 1990s. Adding another 500,000 to 800,000 more PRs and citizens as proposed by the white paper will be disastrous and add to our already difficult infrastructure and social problems.
If it is economic growth we want then let’s just adopt the Dubai model of a transient workforce which will give us a lot more flexibility to manage numbers in the longer term. On PRs, today we already have too many of them and they are enjoying full citizen privileges without the citizens’ responsibilities. For example;
– Far too many PR boys who skip NS when they turn 18. After enjoying the privileges they have a choice of not doing NS and then leave the country. I believe only around 30% of all PR boys do NS today. Well, our Singapore sons don’t have a choice but to do NS, it is an office not to do it.
– PR children study at their International system schools sticking to their home cultures.
– PRs can buy HDB flats from the open market driving prices of HDB flats too high.
So I urge the government to reduce the number of projected new PRs and citizens just to the population replacement levels and be more selective and differentiate their privileges from citizens. I have a few suggestions for the government to consider;
• The government in the past couple of years has tried to draw the distinction between PRs and citizens by increasing school fees and healthcare fees for them. But I wonder would it not have been better to instead partially subsidize these same fees for Singapore citizens? So do it the other way round, reduce fees for Singaporeans not just increase for PRs.
• PR children must be made do national service – it should no longer be a choice and we should make it an offence if they don’t do it. We should not grant PRs to families who don’t commit their sons to National Service.
• HDB – if a PR buys a HDB flat from the open market, charge a levy of say $50k and allow them to sell only to Singaporeans. If the PR takes up citizenship within 5 years, we can refund the levy.
• Children of PRs should be made to study in our national schools so that we increase the chance of integrating them at the next generation.
• On the employment front, it is time we implement a Singaporean first hiring policy like what is done in some developed countries like Canada. Companies should show proof first that they were not able to fill a position with a Singaporean before they are allowed to hire a foreigner.
• Reconsider the dependents policy – I have come across a number of cases where our targeted one child from China brings in 2 parents who then bring 2 parents each as their dependents – Net is that we gain one young one child who we brought in for our future but also inherited 6 older people – making our ageing population issue worse not better.
I feel the differentiated privileges will separate the genuine ones from those who are here for a ride. We should grant PRs to those who are most likely going to take up citizenships so these differentiated privileges should not stifle our plans to attract quality PRs and new citizens.
This brings me to the point of how many Singaporeans are feeling about the presence of such huge numbers of new citizens, PRs and foreigners amongst our midst. First for housing – there is no doubt that the influx of foreigners in Singapore has driven up our property prices. PRs are buying HDB flats from the open market which drives up prices.
Just last week I had a dialogue session with my private estates residents and one of my residents complained that a new citizens recently bought a landed property in this old estate and was building a 3 and a half storey towering house. Well the, new citizen, the owner of the house was also present and when, I spoke with him during the tea session I found out that he was a new citizen formerly from China, just gained his citizenship and bought not 1 but 3 landed properties in Kebun Baru alone. I was surprised and saddened because many Singaporeans cannot afford to do the same, and this new citizen, no matter how he may have made his wealth is able to do so.
Many young Singaporeans I talk to, especially those who have recently graduated and have just entered the workforce feel demoralized because many of the things that they grew up aspiring to have are now beyond their reach. Our aggressive growth strategies, which allowed cheaper foreign workers, including professionals to easily gain employment passes degraded or depressed wage levels of many Singaporeans, not just the lower income Singaporeans. I remember when I started work in 1985, my salary was $1900 as an entry level engineer. After a few years I could afford a house and a car. Today, 28 years later, an entry level engineer in Singapore earns $2600, just $700 more than what I earned when I started. The mathematics is very simple, the cost of living did not just go up by 1.3% per annum the last 27 years and even more, the cost of owning a HDB flat is did not just go up by 37% since 1985.
Finally, I am perturbed by the banquet analogy used by Minister Khaw. We are talking about lives of Singaporeans. Our banquet guests come for one night and leave when the function is over. There is no turning back when we grant PR and citizenships. We must be more exact about the numbers we want to add to the Singapore population and not plan on a basis of ‘hoping we hit some number”. Because if overdo things and end up with a population of more than 7m, it may be too late to stop the fast moving train of population growth when we fire up all the engines of growing the population. We missed the mark the last 10 years, and are already paying a high price for that mistake.
In my speech in this house in 2008 during the committee of supply debate on the population I urged the government to abandon the “the instant tree mentality” in trying to grow the population in response to the declining birth rates. At that time, I did not agree with the rate of growth pursued and we know the consequences and the hardship Singaporeans faced as a result of the rapid growth, Instant trees cannot grow strong roots and can be uprooted in difficult times. I once again urge the government to slow down and plan on reaching their population target over a longer time horizon. I don’t think we can live with a 6.9m population in 2030. We may be able to handle it in 2050, no one really knows. Please abandon this ‘instant tree” mentality as we cannot afford to make Singaporeans lives more difficult as a result. I rather we err on the side of caution when it comes to growing our population. We cannot keep paying a high price for planning misjudgments.
In Conclusion, I would like to see us take a breather from re-growing our population again. We have too many problems as a result of the last breath taking population growth rate. As a government we need to rebuild the trust and confidence among Singaporeans that our citizens matter most to us and that we are willing take a break from our relentless drive for growth to solve their problems, make their lives more comfortable, give them a better quality of life and show them that any future growth of population will not create similar social and cost of living problems. At this stage many Singaporeans from all walks of life don’t have the confidence that we can handle another steep growth of the population, so let’s not push it. I would like all of us, including the government to spend the time creating and environment that gives us confidence in our future and one where our young can see a sense of hope of opportunity and if we fail to instil a sense of hope and opportunity for our future generations, we will not be able to root them here and build a strong national identity and a strong nation. This is what building a strong Singapore core should entail. So let’s delay all plans for further population growth for now.