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The Population White Paper - Time to revisit an unpopular policy?

Issues raised in 2013 paper, such as ageing and shrinking workforce, remain urgent and need to be tackled

Three years ago in January 2013, the Government released the now infamous Population White Paper. To say the reaction was negative would be an understatement: not only did the White Paper elicit the normal grumblings that Singaporeans are well known for, but it also sparked online protests and real-world ones at Hong Lim Park where one rallying cry was "Singapore for Singaporeans".

Since then, populist anti-immigrant anger has swept through several developed countries in the West. The political tidal wave produced Brexit in Britain and helped propel Mr Donald Trump to victory in last November's United States presidential election.

Since 2013, the Singapore Government has, out of political necessity, rolled back immigration and tightened the inflow of foreign labour; for all intents and purposes, it seems that the Population White Paper is on ice and few politicians now mention it in public.

If these developments are being read by Singapore critics of the Population White Paper as vindication of their opposition to it, they would be wrong.

POPULATION ASSUMPTIONS STILL HOLD TRUE

Firstly, and most importantly, every single assumption that led to the proposals in the White Paper still holds true. Our population is still ageing and baby boomers are still entering retirement. The number of working-age Singaporeans will still start to decrease from 2020, which is now three years away, not seven. The citizen population will still start to decline in 2025 - now eight years away, not 12. The total fertility rate has barely budged despite various efforts.

The crowd at Speakers' Corner in Hong Lim Park on Feb 16, 2013, at a protest against the Population White Paper. None of the assumptions in the Population White Paper has changed since then, and on some, the outlook has actually worsened, not got bet
The crowd at Speakers' Corner in Hong Lim Park on Feb 16, 2013, at a protest against the Population White Paper. None of the assumptions in the Population White Paper has changed since then, and on some, the outlook has actually worsened, not got better. ST PHOTO: NEO XIAOBIN

Disastrously, some things have actually got worse. The White Paper said that in order to achieve an average of 3 to 5 per cent gross domestic product growth up to 2020, Singapore will need 2 to 3 per cent annual productivity growth, whilst maintaining 1 to 2 per cent workforce growth. The recent cuts in foreign manpower put downward pressure on total workforce growth, which has to be made up for by even higher productivity growth. That is not happening; productivity growth has instead stagnated, with 2015 even seeing a fall in productivity of 0.1 per cent.

It is worth reiterating at this juncture: None of the assumptions in the Population White Paper has changed, and on some, the outlook has worsened, not got better.

SINGAPORE IS DIFFERENT

Secondly, there are next to no parallels between the situations in Europe, the US and Singapore.

In Britain, much of the anger was directed against the free- movement-of-labour policies of the European Union - any citizen of a qualifying EU country, including less developed countries such as Bulgaria, Romania and Poland, had a right to move to Britain to seek work without visa restrictions. There is genuinely an open-door policy for these foreign workers moving into Britain.

Singapore never had such a policy and nothing in the Population White Paper argued for such a policy. Immigration and the inflow of foreign labour into Singapore have always been controlled, and will always be controlled through visa and work-pass requirements.

The refugee crisis in the EU also has no parallels in Singapore, which does not take in refugees.

In the US, on the other hand, Mr Trump's rhetoric was targeted at illegal immigrants, especially Mexicans. Again, Singapore does not tolerate illegal immigrants. Not only does Singapore jail them, but it also canes anyone who overstays by more than 90 days.

Local xenophobes and populists should make sure, in drawing comparisons to situations abroad, that their arguments are not built on sand.

OPEN IMMIGRATION IS KEY TO SINGAPORE'S EXISTENCE

Thirdly, Singapore's very existence is built on being open to immigration. There are few Singaporeans whose forefathers were not themselves immigrants. As one of Singapore's founding fathers, former culture minister S. Rajaratnam, said: "Being a Singaporean is not a matter of ancestry. It is conviction and choice."

An immigrant nation rejecting immigrants is not only an irony, but it is also a tragedy. We cannot and should not contemplate closing our borders to immigrants and foreigners.

THE TIME TO ACT IS NOW

For these reasons, the People's Action Party (PAP) Government cannot afford to sidestep the very real issues the Population White Paper highlighted any longer.

The Government must realise that in 2013, unlike now, their political capital was at an all-time low. Not only did the PAP just lose Aljunied GRC in 2011 in the worst general election performance since independence, but it was also soundly defeated in the Punggol By-election, days before the White Paper was released.

The PAP paid a political price, not because the reasoning behind its immigration policies was wrong, but because it messed up the execution. One cannot expect the people to support a policy with no immediate benefits to their daily lives, whilst enduring daily infrastructure deficiencies in the present.

Many of these problems have now either been solved or, at the very least, are in the process of being solved. Housing prices have stabilised, and the cooling-off measures should stay in place for now. Real efforts are being put in to correct the deficiencies of public transport, with the de-listing of SMRT and the implementation of the bus contracting model.

The Government must also continue to differentiate between sectors where wages can be pushed up by restricting foreign labour while maintaining competitiveness, and those that cannot.

Raising the wages of cleaners and security guards by hiring only locals will not directly impact on national competitiveness, because a Singaporean security guard does not compete with a security guard in Mumbai. But denying a talented banker or IT professional an employment pass in Singapore will just mean she moves to another country where she still competes with Singaporeans, just without Singapore reaping any benefit.

Technology is making the world more global, not less, despite the best efforts of isolationists. Foreigners will compete with us whether they are physically here or not. If they are physically here, we can at least make sure that companies that produce for the region and the world stay in Singapore, instead of relocating elsewhere in order to have access to the manpower they need. The arguments in the White Paper that explained that foreign workers are necessary for a dynamic economy not only still hold true, but they also become ever more urgent as technology globalises jobs.

The Government thus needs to redouble efforts to once again explain all of these to the electorate, especially since our population and manpower issues have not improved.

The best opportunity for it to do so is coming up, with the Committee on the Future Economy (CFE) due to deliver its first report soon. It is also the middle of the electoral cycle, after a PAP landslide win in 2015, and the most opportune time to spend some political capital.

No plan on the future of the Singapore economy can be presented without addressing the elephant in the room: how an ageing, shrinking population can have a future economy without addressing its population concerns.

If the electorate continues to reject the proposal of the 2013 Population White Paper, the Government cannot address the acute problems that an ageing, shrinking workforce brings. Without addressing these problems, how then can we bring in new plans of growth that will require an even higher increase of a productive workforce, and attract the best global talent to Singapore to help us execute these plans?

It is thus my hope that when the CFE presents its report, it does so anchored on the issues that the Population White Paper unsuccessfully sold to Singaporeans three years ago.

Now, more than ever, Singapore needs to implement the manpower and population policies the White Paper proposed, together with plans for our economic future. There cannot be one without the other.

The PAP may yet pay a political price for this, but the pioneer PAP leaders built Singapore by convincing the people to allow them to do what is right, not popular.

It is time the current leaders do the same.

• The writer is a media and technology entrepreneur and former Nominated MP.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 09, 2017, with the headline 'The Population White Paper - Time to revisit an unpopular policy?'. Print Edition | Subscribe