COMMENTARY: Reframe the Great Population Conversation
On its part, the Government needs to more visibly recognise the talents of Singaporeans and promote national champions, especially those outside government and government-linked companies. Take our small and medium enterprises (SMEs).
As the cost of business goes up and foreign worker permits are reduced, there is a perception that SMEs are being squeezed out. It is economic logic that some should relocate but it is critically important how this is approached.
It is one thing to be assisted in this transition, as a Singaporean champion growing abroad while keeping key operations at home. It is another thing entirely to feel orphaned and driven out of one’s own house.
The Budget must look at providing ways to lower the cost of business and support the transformation of SMEs, with the aim of supporting the growth of Singaporean champions.
Another dimension of giving attention to the Singaporean core can be signalled with measures to assure that the elderly in Singapore are provided safety nets against illness and hardship, as well as incentives to keep working and renewing their skills. Again, the Budget can set the tone here.
Comparing with others
There is a third factor that should emerge, and this is involves seeing Singapore in a regional and global context. Ours is not the only society to age. Singapore is not the first to look at how to continue to develop even after achieving a high level of growth.
How do other countries approach the issues of growth, an ageing population and social mixture? How do individuals elsewhere deal with the pressures of work and family life, and how do their societies and governments support them to make the right choices?
In the debate so far, a bewildering array of analogies has been thrown up, from the Scandinavians and Swiss to Japan, Dubai and Bhutan. But a rational and more comprehensive analysis is lacking.
Perhaps Singapore is different.
Yet the goals of our people - for quality of life and social safety nets - are human needs that many others feel. Even our policy goals, like being a global financial and business hub, merit comparisons.
To supplement the ongoing national conversation, a dialogue with international perspectives is needed.
The possibilities of cooperation across borders also need consideration. The recently announced high-speed railway link with Malaysia, for example, can potentially ease concerns about overcrowding in Singapore. But sensitivities must be managed and win-win solutions offered.
Lessons from elsewhere can be learnt and adapted. There is no easy, single model to emulate. There will be dilemmas and hard choices.
Mr Lee is right to say that while the debate is over, a conversation can begin. But conversation must be reframed, if it is to avoid becoming merely an altercation among the deaf.
In time, those against the White Paper should temper emotion and suspicion with informed consideration, while the Government must rebuild trust and truly consult.
Only then can we - Singaporean and others with real stakes here - truly think ahead about what is best for the future.
Simon Tay is Chairman of the Singapore Institute of International Affairs and teaches international law at the National University of Singapore. The SIIA, an independent institute recently ranked as the best think-tank in ASEAN, will be launching its Future 50 programme to look at Singapore’s place in Asia and the world.
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