The White Paper Debate

It is ironic that as I compose this blog that I and several other thousands of PMETs are waiting for our train to bring us home. Looking at the crowd, I anticipate I will need to wait for at least 3 trains before there is a remote chance of getting on.

Now what was the debate about? Population growth and infrastructure planning. A lot has been said online and in the media over the last two weeks since the release of the white paper.

If you have been following my blog, you would already know my frustration over the overcrowdedness, the number of foreigners and the competitiveness in our education system.

This blog is not about these. Instead I want to talk about the parliamentary debates that have been ongoing for the last few days.

I want to thank CNA for uploading videos of these debates on their website for public viewing. I never knew that they were so accessible unless of course this is a new initiative in light of the heatedness of the debate.

Nonetheless it has been incredibly enlightening and insightful to hear our ministers and members of parliament speak. For one, it puts a face and personality to these names.

Honestly other than PM Lee and the various WP members, I do not know the other MPs well. And we wonder why our younger generation are not interested in politics.

Because we don’t know who our politicians are, what they fight for and what kind of discussion goes on behind doors.

No wonder one has the impression that our government is all about PAP vs Opposition.

Although I now am suffering from a massive headache after listening to hours of parliamentary debate, I feel like I can finally appreciate how our government works and the 1001 tradeoffs they have to make in every decision.

I admit the population paper is not an easy decision and while I was initially villified by the population target, the emotions have somewhat abated and I am ready to think about how we can solve this problem aka crisis together.

By the way the 4th train has passed and we have started to form queues to file into the train.

Many MPs both PAP and Opposition have given their views about the paper and I am heartened to hear that they both share the same reservations and concerns for the motion albeit from different angles.

It almost seems to me that the MPs are clamouring for the government to rethink this paper and to proceed with caution.

Wait. Aren’t MPs supposed to form the government? Well I thought so initially but from what I have observed, it seems like most decisions are made by the Cabinet ministers and MPs’ role is to reflect sentiments from their constituency.

That makes sense. No wonder even PAP MPs speak up against the motion. However in an ironic twist, I find it amusing that even if their speech is laden with anti-support, they end their delivery with, ‘I support the motion’ while it seems like the Opposition are the only ones who oppose.

Is there some unspoken rule that PAP MPs cannot disagree?

Now I want to end off with a summary of the exchanges that has drawn my attention and I think is worthy for further deliberation in the policy planning.

1. The paper was written on the premise of certain GDP targets. But it does not show how this translates into real income effect on every day Singaporeans. What is the point of growth if our cost of living grows with it? We are not better off but rather increasingly stressed.

2. Stats were given that over the last decade, wages’ share of our GDP growth only constituted 40+% while the other half was dominated by company profits. In fact, the ministers’ defense for their policy is that by cutting off foreign labour supply, local businesses will suffer and may decide to relocate, causing many to lose employment.

One cannot help but feel that our govt may be liberally pro-business with the hopes that the fruits of a vibrant economy will naturally flow into tangible benefits for its citizens. I cannot help but wonder if a profit generating mechanism would readily transfer their gains without government intervention.

3. The issue of productivity growth is brought into light and all parties agree that we need to raise productivity on all fronts to counter exodus of our older workers from the labour force. It was also argued that if the govt continues to allow companies to tap on foreign labour, there is little incentive for them to increase productivity.

A few MPs highlighted measures that are worth considering. Mr Seah Kian Peng, CEO of NTUC Fairprice spoke about the management’s commitment to retain a 80% Singapore core in their employment despite not being able to meet their headcount requirements and expansion plans.

It is laudable to hear that we have home grown businesses who are devoted to their national identity and truly should be emulated by other local enterprises. I know that this is something MNCs will never understand.

As a Singaporean, I will be willing to spend the extra dollars to support Fairprice since I know the money will flow to our people.

Mr Liang Eng Hwa, MD of DBS, pointed out the need to radically rethink the way we look at foreign labour. Do they need to be physically in Singapore to lend their services?

With the advent of technology, businesses should explore the opportunities of offshoring jobs. In the same light, Singapore should consider using GNP instead of GDP to measure our success in our ever globalising economy.

4. Both Ministers of Transport and National Development painted a picture of Singapore in 2030 with upgraded infrastructure with additional capacity to fit the worst case scenario of 6.9 million population.

Both spoke well and I can feel their heart even admist the fire they are under. I know that at least they have acknowledged that the govt has learnt a valuable lesson in infrastructure planning.

I wonder if anyone caught on that for once they have admitted that they had been careless in their planning in the last decade. Can we forgive them for the lack of 20/20 foresight?

As Mr Liang pointedly raised is that while the plans sound good in the long term, govt has lost the confidence of its people to fix problems. It has become a govt that can do no right it seems.

Until they can decisively solve all short term problems on housing and transport, they will never get buy in for the paper.

And it seems that our dear ministers are asking for our understanding on why there will still be continued dependence on foreign labour probably in a larger scale over the next 8 years to build our homes and rail network.

In other words, expect even more congestion before hoping to see improvements… I cannot help but foresee that PAP will lose a lot more ground in the next election. They have simply dug themselves a difficult hole to climb out of.

5. Lastly, this paper suggests a fundamental shift in approach to planning. From a build on demand to a build before demand approach.

I really have mixed feelings about this. Yes I want our infrastructure problems to go away, and yes I don’t want it to be repeated. But can the govt confidently say that there will be continued demand for whatever that will be agressively building?

Not withstanding our shrinking population and matured economy status, we are also giving up our precious land resources to accomplish all these.

I cannot help but be skeptical about how we are managing our environmental concerns in light of the denser land use. Will we see a Singapore that will sink under its own weight, or collapse of our massive underground network or even more frequent flooding?

Mr Gerald Giam said that Singaporeans have no hinterland to retire to unlike other countries. So whatever we do to our city state will have bearing not only on our future generation but for all of us who have only one place to call home.

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