By: Travis Tan
The dust has settled somewhat on the Population White Paper. It is perhaps time to really examine this document especially in light of the on-going Budget debate because, fundamentally, the key tenet of this Population White Paper is whether the Government can deliver on the accompanying infrastructure development plan to buffer the impact of a rise in population numbers.
The fact that the White Paper has become one of the most contentious issues since post-independence Singapore can be traced to the fact that the average Singaporean has developed an irrational xenophobia which has been deeply accentuated by a real lack of space in Singapore. So it could have been 6.9 million, 6 million or any other arbitrary figure, this xenophobia will continue to persist so long as infrastructure development does not keep pace with population increase. Public sentiment on this issue has evolved into an irrational, sensitive and hence, unpredictable psyche among Singaporeans.
The key then is to alter the daily reality for Singaporeans, in the words of the White Paper, to give the people a “good quality living environment”.
Imagine a Singapore where the trains run smoothly with multiple redundant lines to ease congestion and where a young couple seeking to start a family is able to afford high quality public housing options without being saddled by crippling loans.
The sad reality is that such a Singapore could have existed today if not for the myopia of our economic planners.
A former senior Government bureaucrat, Donald Low, had in his post-2011 GE analysis revealed that, “MOF routinely turned down requests from MOT and LTA to finance new rail lines”. There are other pointed revelations in his thesis which suggest that perhaps, the crux of this Population White Paper for 2030 rests primarily on our Government’s money men to overcome their tendency to run Singapore like a giant profit-driven MNC and to stop equating Singapore’s growth purely in terms of dollars and cents.
It can be argued that it is this profit-minded mind-set of our fiscal planners which has basically eroded the carefully built-up trust or social compact between Singaporeans and the Government. Nowadays, it is a commonly held perception that this Government may give you one dollar through market subsidies or other cleverly disguised cash hand-outs, but at the same breath, devise even more clever schemes to take back two dollars; the ERP and COE policies are prime examples of such puzzling fiscal earning schemes which irk Singaporeans tremendously. As one of my friends wryly remarks in colourful Hokkien, “they give you a drumstick but take back a chicken”.
The greatest irony is perhaps that these civil servants from the Ministry of Finance, so tight-fisted with public expenditure that can help Singaporeans, are strangely very generous and have no qualms whatsoever to provide a mind-boggling $4 billion loan of our taxpayer money to a reviled international organisation like the IMF. In this now forgotten episode which happened last year, I truly applaud Mr Kenneth Jeyaretnam for having the courage to doggedly challenge our DPM and Finance Minister, Tharman Shanmugaratnam, on the legal constitutionality of this loan.
The Population White Paper, in the end, is just a piece of paper with numbers and words. The test is not in the White Paper. The test is in the resolve and will of the Government to fully fund the implicit infrastructural development plan required to accommodate 6.9 million people by 2030 without worrying about imagined investment returns or financial risk and to stop devising cunningly disguised plans to claw even more money from us, the true Singaporeans, to pay for this new infrastructure plan.
The test for the next 17 years is to grow in a manner that does not feel like what Singaporeans have painfully experienced in the past decade or so. To match that desire for growth among Singaporeans that is not measured on statistical investment returns but on emotive intangible returns like quality of life and happiness indices.
In short, the Government has to gain back the trust that Singaporeans used to have in our public institutions through development policies which have the Singaporean at its core. If not, the political price the Government has paid thus far over this issue will be pittance once the anger in the Singaporean core evolves into flames that will not subside.
About the writer: Travis is a fellow blogger at Unfortunately Singapore. He describes himself as an average Singaporean and “a typically unfortunate Singaporean struggling to grasp why we have this inherent urge to continually establish ourselves as unique, as different, as important.”