White Paper – A Matter of Trust

Hri Kumar Hri Kumar

Hi all,

I set out below the speech I delivered in Parliament this evening on the White Paper. I look forward to receiving your views.

In the aftermath of the 2008 global financial fiasco, the editor of Newsweek International, observed that the crisis had demonstrated one thing: that democracy has a genetic defect – it emphasises the current, usually at the expense of the future. Intuitively, we all recognise this. So while politicians often speak eloquently about promises of the future, they know that what really matters is that they deliver on the real and tangible problems of the present. Policies are often driven by this reality.

Singapore is not immune to this genetic defect. It would be foolish to think we are different.

However, when we were a young nation, we showed strong resistance to it. When former Prime Minister Mr Lee Kuan Yew said that the Government was going to transform Singapore from a swamp to a gleaming metropolis, not many believed it could be done. The key was that Singaporeans allowed the Government time and space to embark on its vision, to effect medium and long term strategies – on the economy, housing, transport, health. Singaporeans took a leap of faith with the Government, and were rewarded for doing so.

Did some Singaporeans suffer as a result of these policies? Some clearly did.
Take land. In order to build housing and hospitals, roads and rail network, industries, the government acquired property from Singaporeans. This included farms and business premises. Some were dislocated, lost their homes, their inheritance, even their livelihoods. I have some residents who still complain bitterly about this difficult time in their lives. We can all understand why they are unhappy. But is there any doubt that these measures were necessary and have benefited the vast majority of Singaporeans? Few today would argue against it.

Today, we are the beneficiaries of these long term policies, of this long term strategic thinking and of the hard work of the previous generation, many of whom are no longer around to enjoy its fruits. But it is also common for people to view the past with rose-tinted glasses. Despite the current and legitimate unhappiness about over-crowding, high property prices and such, we are today far better off than our parents’ generation. All the objective figures – education, home ownership, employment, wealth and household income, quality of life, health and longevity – prove that.

But today, we are also an older society – less resistant to genetic defects. The current has become as important, if not more so, than the future. The White Paper is very much about the future. But its acceptance by Singaporeans will depend very much on how we deal with today’s problems. That will determine if Singaporeans will give the Government time and space to re-shape the future, like they did before.

So to persuade Singaporeans to come on this journey, we have to do two things:

(a) paint a full picture of the future for Singaporeans, highlighting both the good and the bad;

(b) give Singaporeans confidence that the Government will be able address the challenges of the future.

Chief among these challenges are the questions of over-crowdedness and the advantages of being born a Singaporean.

Some in this House and many outside have questioned the numbers and assumptions in the White Paper. They say that the Government has over-stated the problems of the elderly to working adult ratio, that we have not done enough to boost productivity and birth rates and that the elderly can retire later and work longer.

But we are all crystal ball gazing. No one wants to hit 6.9m. Every member in this House wants a stronger core of Singaporeans. Everyone supports the Government building ahead of demand. We all want the TFR measures to work so that we may have less need for foreigners. Future technology and advances in health care may well help our seniors remain active and productive longer. Other innovations and mechanisation may reduce our dependence on unskilled foreign labour. Technology can change life dramatically in the next 20 years, as it has in the last 20 years. But no one can say with any certainty what will happen.

The issue is therefore not 6.9m, 6.5m or who can assert a more acceptable number. Numbers will change over time as circumstances change, and assumptions are either confirmed or debunked. However, as DPM Teo said, we have reached a turning point, and we have decisions to make today about what we do about our future as we see it today. We have to take the next leap of faith.

The issue is therefore one of trust and confidence.

The Government has done the right thing to talk about the future, and show its vision of it. It has stuck its head up and is prepared to take the blows. As DPM Teo said, it would be far more politically convenient to do or say nothing. There are many who have written that the Government is politically naïve for doing this. But would Singaporeans be better off if the Government had kept silent? Would you trust a party that ducks difficult questions?

No one can predict the future, and as Minister Lui said, it is very difficult to visualize how the future will look. So we do what comes naturally – we project what we see today as a basis of what will happen in the future. The problem is that many Singaporeans do not quite like what they see today.

The White Paper plans for a “good quality of life”. But that means different things to different people. To most Singaporeans, day to day issues weigh most in their minds. How will the building of new MRT lines and housing make our lives better if we are, at the same time, growing the population? Will the added capacity only be sufficient to cater to the increased population? In basic terms, will Singaporeans have to wait longer, shorter or the same for their flat or the next train? Or are we, as in Alice in Wonderland, running as fast as things move, just to stay on the same spot?

The distinctions between Singaporeans and foreigners must also be carefully reviewed, as that is a matter which will have growing significance as the Singaporean core diminishes. How do we deal with the issue of PRs not doing National Service? How are we going to ensure that jobs which Singaporeans are ready, able and willing to do are not given to foreigners? How do we help our children secure places in good schools and universities? How do we ensure that foreigners do not speculate and drive up property prices, and put it beyond the reach of Singaporeans? Essentially, how do we ensure that those with no skin in the game do not walk away with all the prizes?

We need to address these and other difficult questions now. If we do not, few will trust the Government to get it right in 2020 or 2030. That is why I support the amendments proposed by the Hon. Member Mr Liang Eng Wah, as it puts the issue in better perspective, better context.

Just as important, we should not mislead Singaporeans by simply telling them what they want to hear. It is easy to discount projected population figures by a million or so, and then say that the work force shortfall will somehow be made up by foreign brides and productivity, that we can simply decide how many % of GDP we want (as if there is some magic machine to input numbers) and that we can all live happily ever after with lower growth. There is a difference between a vision and a fairy tale. We have to compare something with something. This debate will not be served by comparing the Singapore envisioned in this White Paper to one which exists in utopia.

Singaporeans are best served by details, not posturing. And I do not mean simply throwing numbers around. Let’s deal with the real effects on real Singaporeans. For example, what will low growth mean to employment opportunities for young Singaporeans? All around the world today, youth unemployment is increasing at alarming rates. The ILO 2012 report puts Youth Unemployment for Developed Economies and the European Union at 18% for 2011 and projected to be the same for 2012. As at July 2012, Spain and Italy had youth unemployment rates of 52% and 35% respectively. This is because businesses are not investing or growing, and cannot absorb the young who are graduating from schools each year. Why do some assume Singapore will be different? Businesses in Singapore will not invest and expand if labour is tight and growth is low. To say that we can have the same growth as other mature economies is no answer as it ignores the problems these other countries already have.

So, this is not about having good GDP numbers. Having a job makes a world of difference to a person and his family. If you have no job, no prospects, no hope, everything else is pretty much moot.

What about other effects? Will we have to pay more taxes? What will it mean to our retirement age? Willl we have enough workers in essential services, such as domestic, health and geriatric care, and construction to meet the additional infrastructure and health care services we need? These are important to the daily lives of Singaporeans.

Under the Workers’ Party plan, there will not be, and it is a pipe dream to believe that Singaporeans alone will make up the difference. These and other questions have to be answered if there is to be a credible alternative or at least, a meaningful debate. It is not enough to simply say that there has to be “structural changes”. It is clearly not enough to say you empathize with local SMEs which will be killed off by your plan, and then say your solution is for the Government to solve the problem. It is also not intellectually honest to suggest that shareholders will suffer and Singaporeans will not, when we are dealing with Singaporean businesses, Singaporean owners, Singaporean employees, Singaporean shareholders, all supporting Singaporean children and families.

Ultimately, we are engaged in this debate because we want all Singaporeans to have a better life and future, and to help Singaporeans understand and deal with the realities on the ground. We should not be disacted by numbers, nor should we use numbers to distract.

I hope the Government will deal with the issues of today and give confidence that it will be able to solve those of tommorrow. New plans, programs and initiatives, like those announced by MND and MOT are good. But Singaporeans need to see them work and feel their lives improve. That I believe is the only way to ensure that Singaporeans will take the next leap together with the Government.

A Matter of Trust (2)

Thanks to everyone who posted your views. Not surprisingly, views are divided. It shows that different people are concerned about different issues and have different perspectives. That is only natural as we are dealing with issues concerning our future.

Some have said that I was too aggressive with the Workers’ Party (WP). There is a certain amount of cut and thrust in Parliamentary debates, but anyone viewing it live will know that all speeches (both from ruling and opposition parties) are delivered in a measured way. But views have to be scrutinised, tested and challenged, so that their full implications will be understood. That is what the debate is for.

We now know that the WP’s proposal of freezing foreign worker numbers will in effect create haves and have-nots. If you have a home, good; if you do not, you wait longer to get your house. If you have a job, great (provided your employer does not fold or send his business elsewhere); if you are graduating or joining the work force, you may have to wait or leave Singapore to get one. If you have a maid, hold on to her; if you are new parents, or have elderly parents, and need someone to help you, too bad as no additional maids will be allowed in.

If your business folds, and you have to lay-off your Singaporean employees, tough, but the Government should think of a solution to help you. And we all have to wait much longer for more trains, buses, hospitals and other public services.

If you put aside all the rhetoric, this is really what it amounts to. The WP then glosses over the ill effects of its proposal by arguing that only businesses will be hurt, and Singaporeans will not. Everyone can see how absurd that is. The simple truth is that the WP is advocating a figure of 5.8m, not because there is any logical basis, but because it sounds better.

One thing the Government keeps getting blasted for is that it appears to rule with its head and not its heart. That is a valid point. But that does not mean it should completely swing the other way. I think both head and heart are equally important, and must feature in every policy decision. So while we should formulate policies with the aim of helping Singaporeans (heart), there must be logic to that policy and its implementation so that Singaporeans are in fact helped (head).

The Government has much to do to re-capture the hearts of Singaporeans. The best way to do that is for Singaporeans to feel that the Government’s plans and initiatives have meaningfully improved their lives and give them confidence for the future.

 

image source : The Idealist

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