COMMENTARY: Reframe the Great Population Conversation
Photo Credit: TODAY
Controversy followed the Government’s White Paper on Population, from its introduction to the last day of Parliamentary debate, when Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong addressed Parliament. Even after the clear Parliamentary majority in favour, that public debate continues, a fact Mr Lee welcomed. But from which departure point should the Great Population Conversation continue?
Last Saturday, an event was organised at the Speakers’ Corner to protest the 6.9 million population projection figure, which has become a lightning rod for many. The numbers who turned up sent a message of opposition and ire.
There are, however, other points from which to continue the discussion. Some of these will allow future policies to be more closely considered.
Not set in stone
One starting point is to note the clarifications subsequently made to the 80-page White Paper. The speech by Mr Lee in Parliament gave a considerably different emphasis, stressing the aim to strike a balance rather than to maximise capacity. The Government also gave the assurance that 6.9 million is not set in stone and that future governments would look at the situation afresh.
Additionally, the Parliamentary motion was amended by a backbencher to re-emphasise issues of concern for many. These included encouraging Singaporeans to have children, the Government resolving infrastructure crunches and taking steps to ensure Singaporeans benefit from growth.
These reflect the Government’s concessions in part to public concerns. We can anticipate further adjustments to both the content and the manner in which the main issues are discussed. The upcoming Budget Debate and the ongoing National Conversation will no doubt pick up threads and key points.
Three aspects would bear particular attention and merit prompt action.
First, trust needs to be rebuilt. MPs and public voices alike have stressed that concerns over public transport, housing and cost of living must be addressed. Drawing up new plans and policies are a start, but the benefits have not been felt viscerally. Visible and immediate action are needed.
One step that has been taken is that the council reviewing public transport fares has been directed to look more deeply into the issue of affordability, especially for low-income earners, the disabled and polytechnic students.
If the resulting recommendations - the release of which has been postponed to May - are substantial, this can help temper the frustrations of commuters, who would be averse to the idea of paying more for what they perceive to be sub-par services.
An even bolder step would be for the Government to mandate a freeze on transport fares until service problems are resolved. This is neither token populism nor quasi-nationalisation; it would be a small but real way to show that the Government means well and can deliver better.
A second measure concerns the Government’s pledge to maintain a Singaporean core.
How to do this without pandering to anti-foreigner sentiments will be a difficult balancing act. Ours has been, and still is, a very open society, so even a ratcheted tightening will be felt.
Companies, both local and foreign, who require foreigners in different sectors and with different skill sets should speak up more. Only then can citizens see that the Government is serving to moderate commercial interests, rather than opening the gates to the maximum.
A first step would be to remove “foreign talent” from the official lexicon - simply call them foreign workers. A second step is to bring some scrutiny to employment practices. The process should not be cumbersome but neither should it be fully online and automatic.
Government agencies should ask employers to verify in writing that they have tried to hire a Singaporean before a work permit for a foreigner is issued.
More, since there is talk and the perception that some MNC chieftains favour their own nationalities, larger corporations should report their employee balance in nationality (as well as gender and age) as part of their commitment to diversity and to Singapore as their base. No law or penalties are needed; just good faith and transparency.
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