Two weeks ago, I was quizzed by undergraduates doing seminar series on biomedicine about the Government’s handling of the Sars crisis in 2003. Did its efforts go against the need to protect civil liberties? Did it go too far? I replied that civil liberties wasn’t much of an issue with Singaporeans who were facing the prospect of being wiped out by an infectious disease. Sure, there were quarantine orders and penalties for flouting them and plenty of rules and guidelines and tourist “suspects’’ being herded into government chalets, and I added: “You know, I don’t think we really cared.’’
I told the students that in such a crisis, the people expected leadership, strong leadership. We were grateful to be told what to do.
That was my take anyway.
I was reminded of my experience of Sars when Emeritus Senior Minister Goh Chok Tong raised it in Parliament as an occasion when the government and the governed acted as one. Now, we are told that we are facing yet another crisis – a population crisis that could explode our infrastructure and implode our economy. We are looking at the figures and dissecting every paragraph – but you know what? We can’t see the crisis because it isn’t here yet.
(And it doesn’t help to have dark scary scenarios – emptied villages in Japan – painted to help us imagine the crisis. Why couldn’t Lee Yi Shyan put up positive more positive examples of villages which overcame the population dilution? Why has no one brought up examples of Canada’s population White Paper or Japan’s White Paper for reference on how other countries try to solve their demographic problems?)
The debate on the White Paper is an occasion for strong leadership, but it is also a good time for the leaders to get the followers on board because they want to, and not because they have to. It is a unique time for a broad consensus to be forged between the government and the governed – yet it looked to be in danger of being fractured because of the focus on a few things.
When old war horses get up to speak in Parliament, I always find them worth listening to (although some will say that the PAP must be desperate if old warriors had to be brought in from “semi-retirement’’.
A consistent thread in both Mr Goh and Mr Mah Bow Tan speeches seem to be: Let’s not get too fixated by that 6.9 million number and proportions of locals and foreigners. In fact, Mr Goh said he was personally not comfortable with the figure. (His predecessor, by the way, said much the same thing about a lower population number a few years ago)
Mr Goh also said: “What the optimal, stable and long-term population should be is a legitimate question, an important question. What the proportion of citizens and foreigners should be is another important question to resolve.
“But this is not the time for us to resolve this. We should debate this in the future.’’
Now, that is a very useful thing to heed. I mean, what are now discussing? Whether projected population should be 6.9m or 5.9m. Whether productivity can go beyond 2 per cent. Whether 15,000 new citizens every year is ok. Whether we can have a higher TFR. Looks like we are competing in some Mathematics Olympiad….
Mr Goh brought it back to three points:
a. Whether we can agree that we should grow slower economically. And, I suppose, to also realise what slower growth would mean in real terms after the grow at all cost stress in the past.
b. Whether we should have a calibrated slow down in the expansion of foreign workers. Which, I gather, is to see if some sort of middle ground can be found between the screaming employers and the huddled masses and to come to terms on what sort of foreign workers we should bring in.
c. Whether we should be expanding the infrastructure and housing programmes to meet needs. I think this is a no-brainer. Of course we will agree, except that we will also have to think about the loss of green spaces and how this should be financed.
I think the three points is a good way to get our minds off specific numbers. It will lead to an agreement on principles and strategy rather than a quarrel over tactics. (I wonder though why he didn’t raise a fourth: Do we agree that every effort must be made to get Singaporeans to reproduce themselves.)
Mr Mah, on the other hand, injected a dose of realism into the debate. Face it, not many of us like this idea that we are just inputs for a GDP growth figure, but the money must come from somewhere to finance our standard of living.
From three days of debate, it seems that MPs want to see something done now to fix the problems we have now, before the people would put their faith in the G for the future.
You know, maybe the G shouldn’t have released the report and just quietly ramp up the infrastructure…That population target/projection can be classified as an official secret. We go with central planning. No discussion.
I say this in full expectation of being flamed and derided: Let’s not be too hard on the G.