Parliament endorses White Paper on Population
By Benjamin Cheah
Parliament moved to endorse the White Paper today with a vote of 77-13. Assistant Professor Eugene Tan abstained from voting. The vote brings to a close five days of intense debate in Parliament. Deputy Prime Minister Mr Teo Chee Hean said it was “[T]he longest debate in my memory on any single motion.”
Prior to the vote, a few speakers brought up issues previously surfaced by both the ruling People’s Action Party (PAP) and the Workers’ Party (WP).
The first was raising the Total Fertility Rate (TFR). Both the PAP and WP previously agreed that increasing the number of local-born Singaporeans was preferable to topping up the population with more immigrants. Parliamentarians had previously criticised Singapore’s baby bonus incentives and measures in varying degrees, and this criticism returned today.
“While I support the recent enhancements to the Marriage and Parenthood Package, these are just one-off incentives,” said Ms Mary Liew, Nominated Member of Parliament (NMP).
She brought up the argument that TFR could not be enhanced simply through monetary incentives; the government needed to create a conducive environment for parenthood. Ms Liew discussed the Scandinavian model, in which parents were given 13 months of leave to look after their children, which can be used by both parents; childcare facilities had the same standards and fees; and the jobs of pregnant women were protected by the state.
“The government needs to take a holistic approach,” she said.
NMP Ms Janice Koh criticised the White Paper, saying, “The White Paper failed to present countries that have reversed falling TFR rates.”
She called for the government to support women by making gender equality a part of public policy. In particular, she asked for the government to deter workplace discrimination against pregnant women.
She also spoke about overseas-born children born to Singaporean citizens, saying that they faced obstacles in attaining Singapore citizenship, preventing integration.
Another issue was support for the elderly. In previous sessions, speakers had previously mentioned that Singapore faces an ageing population, with about 900000 senior citizens by 2030.
Calling for a “more gracious society”, Pasir Ris-Punggol MP Gan Thian Poh brought up the needs of the elderly. “The government should consider zero GST (Goods and Services Tax) on all medical expenses for the elderly,” he said, adding that the government should also consider relaxing criteria for use of Eldershield funds.
NMP Assistant Professor Eugene Tan called the White Paper “disappointing.” He said, “It presented only one option: we need to have the requisite population size for economic growth.”
As Prof Tan spoke about the stresses parents face, with their children becoming “defined and deflated” by their homework. He also spoke about “leakage” of local born citizens through abortions, saying the government should do more to keep unwanted unborn children.
In addition, As Prof Tan criticised the local practice of paying foreigners more than Singaporeans. He said that while the salaries may be the same, foreigners also drew benefits and allowances not available to Singaporeans. He argued that while it might have been necessary in the past to attract foreign talent, when Singapore was considered a “hardship post”, it was not necessary today. “We need a level playing field.”
Moulmein-Kallang MP Ms Denise Phua brought up criticism that the government was too hasty in bringing the Paper to Parliament. “The White Paper exposes the government’s awkwardness in trying to engage Singaporeans,” she said. “The government must learn the lesson of more haste, last speed. If the people don’t know how much we care, they don’t care how much we know.”
She called the WP’s proposal “too rigid”, preferring instead an immigration policy akin to a beating heart, in which the numbers of foreigners can be expanded or retracted as necessary. She added that the White Paper should have been more robust, presenting a few scenarios instead. She proposed that the Paper be reviewed regularly as additional data came in.
Indeed, Mr Teo promised to do just that. “The government must keep an open mind and continually review its approach,” he said.
In an impassioned speech, Dr Janil Puthucheary, Pasir Ris-Punggol MP, said, warned against making false choices in policy decisions. “We should choose growth and happiness, diversity and a united people.”
He also protested the White Paper calling nursing a low-skilled job, saying nurses “are hardworking and skilled professionals, not warm bodies with interchangeable hands.”
This prompted Mr Teo to make a public apology in Parliament, and to push for a corrigendum to the White Paper to delete the section. It was passed unanimously.
Criticism from within the ranks
Thus far, ever PAP MP had expressed support for the paper in varying degrees. One PAP voice stood out, roundly criticising the White Paper. That member was MP for Marine Parade Ms Tin Pei Ling.
“I have very serious reservations about the White Paper,” she said. She directed her criticisms in two broad areas: infrastructure and lack of effective measures to improve the TFR.
“How much more can we build before collapsing inwards?” she asked. “We need to solve the pain points first before Singaporeans are confident they can accommodate increased population growth.”
These “pain points” related to housing, public transportation and other infrastructure woes Singaporeans face. She also criticised the White Paper for failing to account for increased water and energy use, as well as waste management.
On incentives to improve the TFR, she said, “Incentives are no longer seen as incentives. Indeed, many Singaporeans see the Baby Bonus as compensation or reimbursement.”
She argued that improving TFR would require improving the affordability and reducing the financial uncertainty of having children.
Concluding her speech, Ms Tin said, “I support the motion in the name of the honourable Mr Liang Eng Hwa. Otherwise, I would have great difficulty supporting the motion.”
The Prime Minister’s speech
“This debate is ultimately for our future in the long term,” Prime Minister Mr Lee Hsien Loong said. “The White Paper was drafted for the next two generations in mind.”
In his speech, Mr Lee reiterated the PAP’s key points and asked for support from all Singaporeans, stressing that the White Paper was for Singapore’s future.
He called for striking a balance between economic growth and managing the number of foreigners, saying “economic progress is not equal to turning off the tap [of foreign workers].” He focused on eldercare, saying foreign workers were necessary. He described it as hard work, with few Singaporeans willing to take up jobs in homes for the elderly. “We need to allow more foreign workers to help,” he said.
On this issue, Mr Lee spoke of trade-offs. He asked the House if it were better to let Small-to-Medium Enterprises hire more foreign workers, or to choke them, and whether Singapore should allow more foreign construction workers, or make Singaporeans wait longer for houses and public transport infrastructure.
“We have to have all sorts of people here,” he said. “We are not just a city. We are a nation. We need vibrancy and a sense of identity. We need to be cohesive without being closed, open without diluting our core, close to each other without being xenophobic.”
The PAP had long insisted on skills upgrading as the best way to help low-income families, and Mr Lee reaffirmed that belief. “The best way to help lower-income families is to upgrade their skills and make them more employable.”
Mr Lee made a case for more economic growth. “Unless the economy grows, I must rob Peter to pay Paul.” For economic growth, he argued, Singapore needed population growth.
He repeated the party’s stance on the projected population figure of 6.9 million by 2030. “The figure of 6.9 million is not a target. It is for planning purposes.” He also said population growth would not be indefinite.
“The island is finite,” he said, pointing out there was only so much land Singapore could reclaim before bumping up against international borders. “Eventually we must reach zero population growth.”
He expressed his hope that one day Singapore’s population would resemble a cylinder, with equal numbers of elderly and young citizens. “A population of 6 million will not be enough,” he cautioned, but added that the population of 2030 would be “significantly lower than 6.9 million.”
Wrapping up his speech, Mr Lee spoke about the difficulty of balancing economic growth with other objectives.”
The debate closes
Mr Teo delivered the last speech of the day, summarising the difficulties Singapore faces.
“Our population challenge is complex and multi-faceted, with many interlinked parts: raising birth rates, taking care of our ageing population, creating good jobs for everyone, ensuring a good living environment. In drawing up the White Paper, we sought to balance many demands and constraints. There are no easy or simple solutions. We need to find the right balance.”
He reminded the House that the point of the White Paper was to allow the government to build infrastructure ahead of demand, and to calibrate a carefully planned path between business as usual and a total freeze on foreign labour increase.
He said the government would encourage more Singaporeans to get married and have children, and supplement this with calibrated immigration to prevent the citizen population from shrinking.
He promised that the government would undertake a medium-term review of the paper, and the government would welcome points from both sides of Parliament.
“Voting for the motion does not mean that the conversation stops. The conversation continues and so it should. The end of this debate does not mark the end of the discussion on this very important issue. The discussion should and must continue,” he said.
After his speech, the House moved to vote on the issue electronically. During the voting period, Mesrs Chen Show Mao and Pritam Singh of the Workers’ Party were engaged in an intense conversation.
When the voting window closed, the initial results were 77-11 for the motion, with 1 member abstaining. Television screens mounted on the walls showed the names of members who voted, and their position. That was when Messrs Chen Show Mao and Pritam Singh realised their votes had not been counted.
“But I press already!” Mr Singh said good-naturedly, pressing the vote button repeatedly for emphasis. This drew chuckles from the parliamentarians.
Messrs Chen and Singh recorded their votes orally, bringing the final tally to 77-13. Assistant Professor Eugene Tan had abstained from voting.
The slow wheels of democracy
The past five days of debate felt like an exercise in inevitability. No matter how eloquent the opposition tried to make their arguments, no matter how many studies were cited in Parliament, the White Paper was going to be endorsed. As long as the People’s Action Party retains its dominance in Parliament, and as long as the PAP whip remains in place, every motion will be passed no matter how intense the debate.
Yet Parliamentary debates might not entirely be futile. Following intense criticism, the government acknowledged the need to periodically review its policies and consult Singaporeans, and apologised for casting nurses as low-skilled workers. The Workers’ Party got its point across in the public sphere, and the government expressed interest in listening to ideas from the WP. NMPs added new dimensions to the debate, such as Ms Faizah Jamal’s point that nobody had thought of the environmental impact of the White Paper, and Mr R Dhinakaran raising the concerns of Indians to keep Tamil a living language in the face of increasing Indian immigration from non-Tamil speaking regions.
The wheels of democracy turn slowly in Singapore. While the outcomes of Parliamentary sessions are never in doubt, the final form of the motion to be passed may yet shift. The Workers Party and other opposition groups are expected to keep a close eye on the government, ensuring they live up to their promises to consult the people and review their policies. But the opposition still only has a minimal amount of influence over government policy, inside and outside Parliament. To many Singaporeans, the road seems set for a population of 6.9 million, 55% of whom are Singaporeans.