SINGAPORE: Fifteen members of Parliament on Wednesday tackled the issues of a declining total fertility rate (TFR), an ageing population and cost of living in the debate on the Population White Paper.
MP for Chua Chu Kang GRC, Zaqy Mohamed argued that an area which the White Paper on Population has not addressed substantially was Singapore’s cost of living and economic competitiveness from a cost perspective, and how these will be projected into the 2030 scenario.
Speaking in Parliament during the debate on the White Paper on Population, Mr Zaqy said he appreciated the plans for Singapore to provide quality housing, quality education, attract quality investments and so forth.
But reading the booklet, he noted that while there is a lot of mention of ’quality’, concerns on ’affordability’ is not covered in the same depth.
Mr Zaqy said Singaporeans appreciated the government being upfront and transparent on its planning projections.
However, he added this has also created fear not just about the perceived lack of space but also on managing costs as Singapore tried to move towards high value—add industries, higher quality housing and education.
Mr Zaqy said the narrative about ’quality’ lifestyle became synonymous to high—cost.
Mr Zaqy said: "The government needs to make clear where we stand on managing our cost structure. Should we make it a goal to reduce our cost structure to move our ranking down the ladder? And on the wages benchmark, we should be conscious of how real wages move in line with inflation and cost of living indices.
"In fact, the government should avoid statements that aim to compare our costs to other global cities as the primary indicator. On February 5, I noted the Transport Minister’s statement that our public transport fares have not increased compared to other global cities. It is a credit that the ministries try to keep our costs low by comparing to similar economies. But in addition to such comparisons, the government should consider and share with the public how our fares and other public costs are also benchmarked to increases in real wages, especially at the median and the lower income groups."
In his speech, MP for Bishan—Toa Payoh GRC, Hri Kumar touched on the Workers’ Party plan which places less emphasis on foreign workforce growth and focuses more on local workforce and productivity growth.
Mr Kumar said: "What about other effects, would we have to pay more taxes, what will it mean to our retirement age, would we have more workers in essential services like domestic, health and geriatric care and construction to meet the additional infrastructure and healthcare services we needs. These are all important for the daily lives of Singaporeans.
"Under the Workers’ Party plan, there will not be enough and it is a pipe dream to think that Singaporeans alone will make up the difference. These and other questions will have to be answered if there is to be a credible alternative or at least a meaningful debate. It is not enough to say simply there has to be structural changes.
"It is simply not enough to say you empathise with SMEs which kill off with your plans and say it is for the government to find a solution to help them. It is also not intellectually honest to suggest that shareholders will suffer and Singaporeans will not when what we are dealing with is Singaporean owners, Singaporean employers, Singaporean shareholders, all Singaporeans supporting Singaporean families in Singapore."
Pritam Singh from the Worker’s Party urged the government to take the White Paper back to the drawing board and seek the views of ordinary Singaporeans.
Mr Singh, who is MP for Aljunied GRC, said: "The White Paper needs to be reworked with more aggressive measures to raise TFR as a start and it has to be populated with more detail about the quality of life of Singaporeans should anticipate when the projected figure is reached."
For newly—elected Punggol East MP Lee Li Lian, her maiden speech focused on tackling the declining total fertility rate.
Ms Lee said: "Singapore sees an average of 12,000 abortions a year and four out of ten women who went for abortions were single women. Reducing the discrimination against single mothers may reduce the likelihood of single mothers having to resort to terminating their pregnancies for fear of lack of support. Furthermore, for a country suffering from a fertility crisis, each child should be valued and not punished because he or she is born to unmarried parents."
A sobering picture of an ageing population and shrinking workforce was of concern to Senior Minister of State Lee Yi Shyan.
"Singapore is not operating in silos. The world around us will continue to move forward regardless of Singapore’s demographic and internal problems. In fact many Asian cities will grow, attracting talents, ideas and capital from their hinterlands. It is against this dynamic and larger picture that Singapore has to define its path forward," said Mr Lee.
In his first speech since he became a backbencher, veteran MP and former National Development Minister Mah Bow Tan urged the government to deal with the White Paper in two parts.
"Leave the debate on post—2020 scenarios to another date but continue to improve our infrastructure. Second, in five years’ time, review the White Paper’s assumptions and estimates for post—2020. This will give everyone a clearer picture of whether our trains and buses are getting less crowded, our housing prices have stabilised, our people having more babies, our companies more productive and learning to cope with less foreign workers, will these happen and if so by how much. It will be a much more informed and meaningful debate by then," said Mr Mah.
Mr Mah added: "Let us not be sidetracked by numbers. Numbers can change, numbers are not targets. The real target and the objective of the White Paper must be the well—being of Singaporeans — happy, confident, optimistic, hopeful now and into the future. Population is a means to that end."
Another 25 more MPs have been slated to speak on the debate which continues on Thursday.
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