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Bertha HarianBertha Harian

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Deciphering Day 1

OKAY, I am asking this question again. What happens after five days of Parliamentary debate on the White Paper? Doubtless, the paper will be endorsed given the People’s Action Party’s majority in Parliament. And then what? Will it be revised in any way to take into account comments and views made by the PAP MPs and Opposition MPs? Will we see the revised version? Or is this a done deal?

I agree with an MP who talked about the haste with which this White Paper seemed to be proceeding. ST commentator Chua Mui Hoong said the PAP was doing business-as-usual and tried to make the point that this debate was NOT usual. She stopped short though of saying anything more beyond giving reasons for the difference between this debate and others.

So we have DPM Teo Chee Hean sketching out the plan, arguing that the G was not pro-foreigner but intent on keeping the Singapore “core’’. I don’t think his points in Parliament went very much beyond what the White Paper said. I guess he’s saving some bullets when he has to round up the debate. Oh my, the dozens of civil servants who must be taking notes….

So, the WP opposes the plan. Of course it does. So do the National Solidarity Party and the Reform Party. The NSP wants a referendum while the Reform Party went into full scale attack mode on almost every point.
The WP thinks the upward boundary could be 5.9 million, if we squeezed the retirees, housewives etc back into the workforce and thought harder about getting more Singaporeans to have babies.

Actually, this is one point that the PAP should explain – its “resigned’’ attitude towards future TFR, as WP’s Sylvia Lim put it. How did it come to conclude that its marriage and parenthood package would only raise TFR to 1.6, from the current 1.2? Do we need more radical thinking?

Also, the policy changes to get Singaporeans back to work or to work longer – they have just started. So it doesn’t have much faith in them either? There’s the Special Employment Credit which encourages hiring of older workers, re-employment legislation which just kicked in last year. The latest labour force statistics comparing last year and 2011 showed that the employment rate of women aged 25-54 is up (from 73.0% to 74.0%) and the employment rate for older residents aged 55-64 is up from 61.2% to 64.0%. Is this not a helpful sign? Or still not enough?

I wish the White Paper gave more insight into how the planners do projections. I mean, the sort of statistics that would explain how the big numbers that so plague us come about. Economist Donald Low has pointed out that the White Paper seemed to lack research. I agree – or maybe the planners think most of us wouldn’t be able to understand the research anyway? That this is a paper that’s pitched to the general population? If so, shame on them. For a paper as important as this, it should justify all its numbers.
Instead, we are supposed to take the big numbers at face value, trusting that the planners have worked through the numbers? But the same question can be thrown at the opposition as well. How did it come to 5.9 million as the upper limit? It’s not enough to say “our projections show’’…Hmm. What underlying numbers are we talking about?

Also, did the planners look at how other countries do it? Did they remove the bias against welfarism, as MP Seah Kian Peng put it, and keep an open mind about the practices that can be adopted/adapted from, say, the Nordic countries? Because you know what…without such references, the planners looked like they were planning Singapore’s future in an ivory tower. Someone, somewhere must have done something right that we can copy – no need for a uniquely Singaporean solution right?

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As for the White Paper’s productivity targets – well, the employers seem to agree that they can’t achieve productivity by much and that’s why they need more foreign labour. Looks like all employers, big and small, are united on that front. No ifs and buts. This is going to be interesting….Which MP is going to speak for them in Parliament? Speaking for business will go against the grain so to speak. It will be highly unpopular to the people at large who want fewer foreigners in future. I suppose Nominated MPs – not accountable to the electorate – can play the role…

By the way, I like what Mr Seah said as reported in ST:

The Government does not always know best, he acknowledged. “It may only know what is efficient, what is rational, what costs the most, or the least.”
Sometimes, he pointed out, it is right to do what the people want. “Not because we think it is right, but because they do.”
The Government must resist the “self-righteous, sanctimonious chant that ‘We do what is right, rather than what is popular’”, he said.

Hmm. I think PAP Ministers should take heed and think hard about how they come across to people especially on this topic. Win their hearts first, then their mind.
In this case, I don’t think ST did the PAP a service. Its coverage seemed focused on giving Mr Teo the stage, to the extent of excerpting his speech. It’s way too much. All it does is make him come across as defensive.


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