• Audrey Chin

White paper – Its not about 6.9 million, it’s about hearts


It’s about hearts


The debate about the  Population White Paper has unsettled me

It’s the week before the Lunar New Year. Normally, this is my time for trimming our Vietnamese mai trees, baking pineapple tarts and Indonesian layer cake, getting my popiah filling ready for the family re-union dinner on New Year’s eve and arranging the flowers and decorations.

Actually I’m still going through the routine. But instead of focusing wholeheartedly on my tasks, my thoughts keep drifting back to that Population White Paper.

It’s not just the premises underlying the White Paper and the proposals that bother me. It’s also the vitriol underlying some of the responses. The xenophobia and self-entitlement displayed in some of the rants.

I need to unravel all the pieces of the argument and go back to heart of the matter, for my own peace of mind if nothing else.

What’s bothering me about the White Paper?

The White Paper offers an economically optimal way for Singapore to move forward as a vibrant global city.

It rests on 2 flawed premises:

(1)    All Singaporeans want to live in a buzzing global city.

(2)    Singaporeans cannot make the tradeoffs needed to keep the country going if we reduce foreign investment and foreign labour inputs at both the high and low end.

A buzzing global city is not enough

Living in New York City, London, even Hong Kong, is a choice for the citizens of American, the UK and China. Singaporeans don’t have a choice about accepting a higher paced city life style either for work, education or retirement.  It therefore behooves policy makers to remember to balance the needs of city and country.

How do we create national identity, roots and a feeling of belonging even as we try to create a city that provide jobs, opportunity and a tax base to pay for a gentler, kinder country?

It’s a conundrum no city-state has tried to solve in the last 50 years and I do applaud the government for its efforts. But I don’t believe the problem can be solved by an algorithm that optimizes the proportion of old citizens, new citizens and migrant labour against train lines, public housing and recreational spaces.

A plausible answer can only be arrived at if we go beyond the box of competitiveness and simple economic sustainability. Our best Singapore home is not just one that is economically vibrant. It has to be competitive enough for our hearts to espouse, sustainable in terms of loyalty.

The ultimate nationhood question is – What are we prepared to die for?

The ultimate nationhood question is – What are we prepared to die for?

Which leads me to the second flawed premise, Singaporeans can’t won’t make the tradeoffs to keep the country going

Yes, there will need to be tradeoffs.

A kinder gentler Singapore could/may/will mean a slower growing Singapore for at least some time. It means trading off fewer maids for more construction workers if we still want more housing. It may mean asking national servicemen to contribute a stint to the building and shipbuilding industry. It may mean enlisting national service women to be trained in nursing, social service and early childhood education skills! Are we open to these changes?

A Singapore with fewer foreign labourers means we’re going to have to pick up after ourselves. We’ll need to bus our dishes at the hawker centers. We’ll need more volunteers to sweep our parks and corridors.  We may have to pay more for our conservancy and cleaning services because folks, Singaporean workers will be doing it, and Singaporeans will expect higher salaries.  Are we willing to suffer these discomforts?

Some foreign MNC’s will  withdraw from a higher cost Singapore which puts caps on foreign labour? We will need more Singapore businesses. Who’s going to step up to the entrepreneurial plate? Will there be government funding to help Singapore companies restructure and grow?  Are there adventurous Singaporeans who’ll move abroad to build an external wing? Are we Singaporeans willing to think in terms of Gross National Income instead of Gross Domestic Income, i.e. are foreign based Singaporeans willing to accept a global taxation system like the American and Swiss, so those left at home can share in their overseas success?  Can we shoulder these burdens of leadership?

This is a national conversation. It’s about the type of country we all want to have regardless of party stripes. Is the opposition willing to engage constructively with the government and take a step back from the work permit ceiling proposal? Are government MP’s willing to get off their party posturing and working behind the scenes to make this conversation meaningful? Will the government really listen to what backbenchers have said and fix the infrastructure before moving ahead on the rest of the proposals? Will all parties step back so we can move forward together?

I’ve said before, the nationhood question is – What are we willing to die for?

It’s not continued GDP growth. It’s not better flats and more open spaces. It’s a Singapore home, Sunday mornings at the hawker center, Malay weddings in the void deck, that Chinese New Year re-union we’re all going to have to cater with take-away because there’s a worker shortage in the food industry.

If we’re talking about life and death, then what’s a few other trade-offs here and there?

I believe it’s because we’ve been talking about money and forgotten about blood, sweat and tears that we’ve become a country gradually losing its heart, where we oppose old folks homes and foreign worker dwellings near us because the reduce the value of our property, where we are more interested in what there is for us rather than what we can give.

Let’s get back to basics. Let’s get back to heart.

As for whether we can make it…

We shouldn’t get ourselves stuck in the mind-set that Singaporeans are destined to be price-takers. The Straits Times today (ST Page A26 Feb 8) features Mr. Tan Min Liang, the Singapore born CEO of Razer, a leading US based gaming company with triple digit million turnover. Look at Keppel Corporation, a truly global leader in oil-rig building. Look at Capital Land in China.

I also point to the example of Switzerland, the home country of Novartis, that country that’s ramping up biologics in Singapore (BT Page 2 Feb 7).  Switzerland is also the home of Nestle, of global somewhat less glitzy but still leading bank UBS. It’s a small country which has managed to be cohesive yet maintain the diversity of it’s four language groups for a very long time.  Switzerland has strict citizenship controls. It imposes global taxation for citizens. It’s not super vibrant but it’s not a nowhere backwater. It’s a place citizens are proud of calling home, able to contribute significantly to the world.

If the Swiss can do it, why can’t we?

What’s the cost?

We will be uncomfortable.We will all need to make the mental and heart trade offs I listed above. We will also need real dollars to make sure the transition’s a success. Where is that coming from?

The White Paper says infrastructure improvement will come from income, consumption and asset taxes, all of which will depend on economic growth.

If we accept  it’s not about growth but learning to go slower so we can be gentler and kinder as a nation, about increasing productivity, learning to work in new ways,  then revenue from falling economy dependent taxes will certainly not be enough to see the country through its transition to higher productivity.

Even in the dollars-and-cents conversation, something has been missing – a question about when it’s appropriate to draw down our reserves.

This is a momentous conversation. It’s about how we want to be as a nation, how we want this nation to be for our children.

When my mother and father bought a new house, all five of us children emptied out our piggy banks to contribute.

This is a hard heart conversation.

I’ve said we need to ask ourselves as citizens what we’re willing to sacrifice.  Those in charge of the piggy bank for a rainy day must also ask if this is the right time to take something out of the kitty.

Can we do it together as Singaporeans? How do you feel about this? What do you think? Take the first step forward. Share. Leave a comment. 

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