Naturally, the White Paper on population – grandly titled “A Sustainable Population For A Dynamic Singapore” – is the talk of the town. The numbers “6” and “9” have never been so closely scrutinized as they are at the moment. The White Paper speaks of grand ideas and even bigger hopes – of the “three pillars” which will be the foundations of the aspiration in the Paper’s title; it speaks of “maintaining a strong Singaporean core”; of a “high quality living environment” and so on.
However, the Paper comes across as bureaucratic speak, with its customary charts and even smiling faces of children. [It’s a little strange to see such pictures in what was expected to be a highly-technocratic piece of document.] The Paper, with all its grand ideas, fails to inspire. Instead it has stirred up an entirely different reaction from the public, a reaction not unlike a swarm of bees awaken unceremoniously from its sleep.
Singaporeans’ reaction to the figure of 6.9 million – the projected population number in Singapore in 2030, given various scenarios – is one borne out of real experience and empirical evidence. It is a reaction visceral and authentic.
We, the average Singaporean, have experienced and indeed are experiencing the consequences of ill thought-out and ill-prepared policies and their implementation the last few years. On the other side of the fence, however, the Government and its ministers seem oblivious to these, ensconced as they are in their ivory towers. How else does one speak of a better life when the existing and daily experience of a larger foreign population is already proving the contrary for many of us?
Many a time, when one goes to the foodcourt for a meal, one is met with a packed situation; when one queues at the bus stop, one has to jostle to get on the bus; it is not uncommon to miss a train or two before one is able to get on board, and even then one has to fight one’s way to have a foot in the train; whichever shopping centre one goes to nowadays, it is so crowded the shopping experience becomes a stressful time out; when one goes to the beach, it is crowded with people.
When one goes home, there is a different language one hears in the elevator, and in the bus, in the trains; at the supermarket, you are surrounded by different peoples; your neighbor is no longer Singaporean but of another nationality; your roads are more congested; your hospitals and polyclinics are just as packed; the cost of living has risen markedly; your public housing is getting to be out of reach of the average citizen; cars are already beyond the reach of many.
The list goes on.
Here’s the funny thing: all these things happened largely, one would argue, because of the huge influx of foreigners into Singapore over the last few years. So large an influx that the prime minister himself said they were basically caught off-guard by it.
Here’s another funny thing: despite all these ills, the same government which says it was caught off guard by the population explosion is telling us that a further increase of this population is actually good for us! Yes, the very same government which said it was “blind-sided by the outcome of some international events” and how “the population grew faster than we expected” and how “our infrastructure didn’t keep up.”
Of course, it is wiser now and assures us that it has learnt its lessons and will not let the same problems arise.
Not so fast.
This is the same government which had also, after the general election of 2011, admitted that it had interpreted ground feedback incorrectly – leading to its loss of a GRC for the first time. More recently, it too seemed to have misinterpreted ground sentiments in Punggol East, which eventually fell to the Workers’ Party.
But more damning for the Government is the fact that it has been unable to deal with the problems which will become more acute as we go forward – the very serious problems of a growing income gap, a growing social divide, a slump in productivity, depressed wages for the lower income for the past 10 years, a growing tension and friction in our society which has led to the appearance, in recent times, of racist and xenophobic expression, the emerging problem of religion creeping into the secular space, and a politically polarised people.
And then there is the question of a dilution of a nascent Singaporean identity, and its consequences.
In the Singapore of 2030, if what the White Paper recommends is taken up and implemented, I do not see a bright future, or one where we live in harmony, in peace and in a better quality of life.
Instead, I see a further stratification of society – not the least of which is a class divide between Singaporeans and a “lower” class of foreign workers doing the menial tasks for our benefit. We would, in fact, become not unlike our colonial masters of the past. It will be a society which continues to run at breakneck speed, still entranced by this god of the economy which we must always bow before and worship. Singapore in 2030 would be country where we have very little of nature, where our parks and so-called “natural” places are in fact artificial – just as our present “supertrees” are fake and plastic.
Singapore of 2030 would in fact be a more fake society, with all enslaved to assuage the unquenchable thirst of the dragon of “economic prosperity”.
Somehow, some time, sobriety will have to come and we will have to wean ourselves off the addiction to cheap labour, and the senseless destruction of our natural land in order to build, destroy, re-built, underground and overground, endlessly.
It is not a Singapore I want.
And certainly, it is not a Singapore into which I would bring a child.
It is the peak of irony that a Paper which is supposed to lay out a plan to bring us a “high quality living environment” is instead making us fearful for our children, and deepening our determination not to have children – the very cause of the low population numbers which the government has been trying to resolve in the first place.
10 years ago, Minister Vivian Balakrishnan related, in Parliament, how his son had asked him if one should be prepared to die for Singapore. 10 years on, this question is again being asked, but perhaps with more urgency now.
Indeed, more Singaporean parents are feeling that it is pointless for their children to serve National Service, let alone lay down their lives for this country.
And this, more than anything else perhaps, tells us where the government’s policies have taken us – and it is apparently quite far from that “heart” which Singaporeans are supposed to form the core of.
But when your own people start questioning their own identity and place in their own society, as a result of your policies, you can’t seriously expect that they will buy into your vision of – basically – more of the same policies.
In short, you can’t keep pumping your economy with cheap labour (and all its attending exploitative practices) in the hope of leading your nation to prosperity. The balloon will burst sooner or later.
And you certainly can’t expect your people to disregard their everyday experience and to blindly place their trust in you – not when you seem oblivious to what they are and have been going through. For Singaporeans to accept your White Paper would be to accept more of the same – but only worse.
So, what are we to do? I believe the answer lies in addressing the low birth rate. And I also believe that the government has not really put its entire heart and soul into addressing this. I wrote about this for Yahoo here, and here. [And it seems the Workers’ Party agrees with me. Read here.]
I also believe that we should not try and get people to marry and have babies. What we should be doing is to focus on existing families and help them more, as I explained in this article earlier.
There is much more we can do and need to do, to raise our birth rate, even before we talk about artificially creating this so-called “Singaporean core” by introducing new citizens to the mix.
Recently, I was at a foodcourt and observed this cleaning lady who was doing her rounds clearing the tables. She looked about 60 or so, a little hunched. And I wonder what elderly Singaporeans like her can look forward to, in this great 2030 vision which we are talking about presently.