Why the Population White Paper is Ill-Conceived

by  Ben L, February 7, 2013

First, I want to say that I voted for the PAP in the last GE. I think I have a really good MP and I suspect that I will vote for her again in the next GE.

I voted for her because I think she’s a good MP, period. I did not vote for my MP because I need her to speak up for me. I believe that I am perfectly capable of speaking up for myself, and I am doing so right this very moment.

Next, just because I voted for the PAP, it does not therefore mean that I will endorse anything and everything that the Government puts forward in Parliament. Perhaps I am being audacious, but I suspect that in saying this, I also speak for many others who also voted for the PAP in the last GE.

Today, I would also like to teach my students how to tell the Government off when you are pissed (even if you did vote for the ruling party). There are 3 steps:

1. You demonstrate to the Govt that you understand what the heck it’s trying to say (“Yes, I know you not stupid”)

2. You explain to the Govt why you don’t agree (“Yeah, but I also not stupid”); and

3. Suggest a course of action (“Don’t say I only comprain and neber offer solution”).

What the White Paper is Really Saying

First, to give the Government some credit, it is trying to do its job. The real problem and about the only problem that this nation has been completely fixated on is JOBS. It has always been true and it is still true today — and don’t get my wrong. It’s not a bad thing.

And, if anyone knows anything about what’s happening around the world today, it should be apparent that 2% unemployment is an exceptional achievement.

The Govt has often been maligned about caring only about GDP and economic growth to the detriment of the people. But the bottomline of the White Paper is very simple: like it or not, we’re currently on this train. If we are to slow down the train, i.e. cut down in the intake of foreign workers, the train will stall and the fear is that a lot of the SMEs will go under.

Most SIngaporeans are workers and many seem to have this impression that the business owners are rich and evil and so the businesses don’t matter. Workers matter yeah? Well, when the businesses go under, jobs are lost. Many will be foreign, but some will be local.

This is very real. I just happened to have lunch yesterday with two of my ex-classmates, whom I have not met in 20+ years. They are now bosses of an SME. They tell me that they have a problem. They cannot find good locals to hire. Can I help? I said that I’d try. They also said that if the situation does not improve, they will have to make plans to relocate part of their business overseas.

To be honest, it is abundantly clear that the Government has screwed up on a few major items over the last decade: we have severely under-invested in infrastructure leading to the crowded trains and obscene property prices. The Government also released an excessive number of COEs in 2004-2006 (leading to cheap cars then for which the people who bought then never thanked the Government) and insane COE prices today.

The one thing that the Government has done very well however is keeping the unemployment at a historic low and ironically, this is exactly what is causing it to have much difficulty in selling its White Paper today.

What people see are not potential job losses (nobody thinks it’s going to affect them. Screw the MNCs and business owners. They are rich.) What people see today are the sardines in the trains, the sky-high property prices and the obscene COEs.

Under these circumstances, I truly wonder what possessed the PM to want to table the current White Paper. Is it not clear that the people are angry? Is it not clear that it spells political suicide?

Why I Believe that the Proposed Economic Trajectory is Problematic

There is another thing that the Government is saying in the White Paper and that is it can build enough infra to support the proposed 6.9 m population.

Setting aside the question about why we should believe these claims given all the screw ups that we’ve seen in recent years, let’s pretend for the moment that it’s true, we can indeed build enough infra to fit everyone and solve all the transportation woes.

If we did end up with 6.9 m population and magically have no more MRT sardines and breakdowns, everything will be good?

Over the last few years, I have been asking random Singaporeans that I meet, “Tell me: what fraction of your colleagues that you work with do you think are incompetent?” To be more precise, “incompetent” refers to the people that they would never hire if they were the boss.

Why do I ask this question? Well, I wanted to get a sense of what is going in the general workplace — and I have asked lots of random people this question. I got a whole range of answers and it ranges from 20% to 80% (Yikes!).

Obviously, 80% is way high, but how do we even reconcile 20% with 2% unemployment? It turns out that we’re particularly clever about creating jobs.

Some have suggested that firms be allowed to hire only if they can prove that they cannot find Singaporeans who can do the work locally. Bad idea.

What we are currently doing is actually much more clever. By imposing a dependency ratio and telling the employers that they can hire x foreign workers for every y locals, the Government is effectively forcing the employers to create y jobs for the locals.

We can do this indefinitely and ensure that every single local gets employed eventually. Basically, the bosses will now be willing to tolerate less productive locals if they can hire and make up for the productivity with the foreigners.

If we think about this carefully, it should be obvious that bosses are being forced to hire locals so that they have the “right” to hire foreigners, In other words, we are effectively converting the less productive local workers into walking COEs (for foreign workers).

One can only imagine the career path for a walking, talking COE, and it ain’t pretty.

Isn’t it obvious that even if people have jobs, we will have a lot of unhappy “poorly employed” people with no future in sight? Are these the jobs we really want for our children and our children’s children?

The White Paper also calls for 2/3 of the population to be white-collar workers in 2030.  Given what we have discussed about the general level of incompetence, is this realistic?

The theory apparently is that by 2030, the overall population will be better educated and therefore they will be equipped to do “better” jobs.

Has the Government been speaking to the employers? Has the Government heard from employers that the graduates today are getting worse? Is it *THAT* surprising given that the cohort participation ratio has gone up to like 25% and will rise to 40%.

Do we believe that just because these people now have degrees, they are now good workers that the firms want to hire? How many employers have said they don’t really need graduates, that they need good workers? Why do some have this illusion that just because they have a degree, they are entitled to a good job? Which law of nature is that?

I find it hard to believe for a moment that 2/3 of the population are suited for white-collar jobs and I actually want to know what makes the Government think that it is a good thing for 2/3 of them to be white-collared?

I suspect again that the theory is that we want people to make more money and white-collar jobs make more, so more white-collar jobs are good — and we will build the pyramids required to support these white-collared jobs by filling the base with foreigners in a sort of “no-one-loses quasi-Ponzi scheme “.

And even if we agree with this “create-white-collar-by-stuffing-the-pyramid” approach, is it sustainable? Can we stop at 2/3? Or are we going to keep stuffing?

If we are going to keep going with this, is 6.9 m enough? Keep in mind that if we do get to 6.9 million in 2030 according to the plan, we will hardly have any land and wriggle room left. Then how?

What Next?

MP Hri Kumar said that at the highest level, the White Paper is about trust and confidence (https://www.facebook.com/notes/hri-kumar/white-paper-a-matter-of-trust/490805030966099). I also say.

However, I wonder if it’s lost on MP Kumar and his Party that the PAP has recently taken a beating at the last GE and in the two recent by-elections.  Does the PAP of today think that it still enjoys the same level of trust and confidence of the people like that under the LKY Government of the past?

When the White Paper was unveiled, I asked myself, “what is the PAP trying to get out of this debate?”

If the Government is asking for the people’s permission and concurrence to build infrastructure to support 6.9 m, may I suggest that there’s no need to ask one. Just build lah.

Are we worrying about people complaining that the MRT is too spacious, houses are too affordable and COEs are too cheap?

If the Government is asking the people to agree to the economic model of the past decade, then the only thing that I can come up with is a conspiracy theory that the PAP is tired of running this country and is trying to get itself booted out of office by the next GE. @.@

We have very urgent problems:

  • The MRT is crowded and breaks down every other week
  • The property market is still overpriced
  • The COEs are way too expensive
  • Many Singaporeans are extremely unhappy with the large and sudden influx of foreigners (the ex-MM Lee already said that 60,000 migrants a year is “politically indigestible”. Do people really think he’s old and senile? The man has spoken, why aren’t people listening?)

I tell my students: don’t give me this bullshit that you cannot do something right because it is small. If I cannot even trust you to do something small correctly, you expect me to trust you with bigger things?

Let me put this to the present Government: notwithstanding that policies are already in motion to address these problems, they have not yet been resolved.

How do we expect Singaporeans (even those who voted for the ruling party) to have confidence in some 20-year grand plan when it is not yet clear that the Government is capable of solving our clear and present problems?

I read yesterday that “ESM Goh hails PM Lee for dealing with problems of the future early”. Easy for him to say. If the PAP gets booted out at the next GE, guess who gets to carry the can?

Not that I do not believe in long-term strategic planning, but for all that is said and done, Singapore is NOT a company. Governments, as it turns out, need to persuade the people.

This is Singapore. It is not our style for politicians to persuade with empty promises. The “Singapore Style” is that politicians need to persuade with action and deliver on the bacon.

Americans seem to think that Singapore has no democracy because we voted one political party into power for almost half a century (yeah, we’re getting there). Some probably think that we’re stupid and naive.

Personally, I am somewhat more optimistic. I love my country and I think we have good people.

I’d like to think that the majority of my fellow Singaporeans are right-minded people who are capable of exercising their votes wisely, and that PAP Government of the past did not win landslide victories because people dunno what they were doing, but because the LKY Government delivered and the people reciprocated with their votes.

I personally do not believe that this is the time for us to decide whether we want to have 6.9 m people in 2030.  I also have too many questions about the validity of the assumptions underpinning the accompanying economic projections in the White Paper. Many others also have their doubts.

PAP and WP can argue to death about the 0.5% or 1% in Parliament, but what’s the point? How many of us non-economists can really fully understand the 78 pages of graphs and figures? Do all the MPs really understand? Dun bluff. 🙂

Like what MP Inderjit Singh says (https://www.facebook.com/kbinderjit/posts/598891680137569), I think that the PAP should first go and deal with the problems it has inadvertently created over the past 10 years, survive the next GE and then we talk lah.

I would like to propose that the motion be amended so that the MPs do not only get to vote “Yay” or “Nay”, but that an additional “Inderjit KiV” option be tabled as an additional option, i.e. after GE2016 then we talk again. 3 years only. We can wait.

I hope that the PAP would lift the whip and allow all the PAP MPs to vote according to their conscience.

If the whip is not lifted, the people might not know exactly who they have voted for. If the whip is lifted, people can then see for themselves how their MPs vote and decide if they still want the same person to represent them come GE2016. 🙂

be_mindfulimage source : Words of Wisdom

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