National Conversation – another failed promise ?

National Conversation – another failed promise ?

By Walter Jayandran

Call me a skeptic, but I doubt this invitation to Singaporeans to participate in a conversation will be a useful exercise.

In 2002, PM Goh Chok Tong conducted something similar to restructure Singapore with public participation – apparently to the dislike of Singapore’s founding leader. The Government was going to give Singaporeans, where the influence of the Government is pervasive, and where it is commonplace for people to look to the Government to engineer solutions to problems — more space for expression and participation. With the then state of the economy and the challenges faced, and amid worries that the wealth the island republic had accumulated could disappear, there seemed to be a national conversation.

The committee headed by Dr Vivian Balakrishnan, outlined some wide-ranging  reforms like a less regimented educational system as well as more political dialogue. Among other things, bar-top dancing would be tolerated, bars could open all night and  homosexuals were to be allowed into the civil service and voice their sexual preferences publicly. After ten years I am left wondering how much has been achieved with those reforms that should have positively impacted Singaporeans. Sadly, we have been disappointed. So ten years later, we have another chance at “Remaking Singapore”? I am not confident that we will have much to cheer ten years from now.

Firstly a large proportion of the population has been alienated by the “growth at all costs” strategy. Over the past 2 decades, the middle and lower income Singaporeans are finding it difficult to identify with a nation where their incomes have been depressed and dwindling but have to contend with increasing cost of living.  That 20% or more of Singaporeans are living below subsistence level income and the  gap between the rich and poor is among the highest in the world, confirms the view that growth and success are for the rich and upper middle income earners. Of course the traditional media sings out loud of the support that the Workfare Supplement Scheme and the Community Development Councils’ support for the needy will ensure the poor are not left out in the cold. Are these really solutions for the current dilemma, let alone the long term? And if you really look at the schemes’ conditions of grant, we can conclude that there will be many who will not be eligible for such handouts, or that the amounts given out are paltry. So long as the income divide keeps widening, no amount of conversation will be of use to the man-in-the-street.

 In the PM's rally speech this year, he again spoke about an inclusive society highlighting "heart, hope and home". The speech fell short on how we can narrow the income gap, or the other critical issues facing the elderly, the sick and the poor, and the exponential population growth. How can we be an inclusive society without tackling the most divisive forces in our society? 

Secondly, there is a growing sense of frustration among the electorate at the out-of-touch-with-reality policies and actions. According to a poll of over 2,000 citizens aged between 21 and 64 conducted last year by the Institute of Policy Studies (IPS), two out of three respondents felt that national unity would be compromised by the presence of foreigners, regardless whether they were here to settle down or were transient workers. Over 60 per cent of respondents felt “the policy to attract more foreign talent will weaken Singaporeans’ feelings as ‘one nation, one people’”, a significant increase from the 38 per cent of respondents who felt the same way in 1998, when the survey question was last posed. Yet the PM spent part of his recent rally speech berating Singaporeans for negative behavior towards foreigners. He said Singaporeans cannot be "one-eyed dragons", and “we cannot afford to be xenophobic”. The Prime Minister also pointed to foreign publications picking up on stories of anti-foreign sentiments in Singapore and how these reflect on us: "It speaks poorly of what sort of people we are, what sort of people we want to be." .But isn’t it true that this sentiment is a result of the government's own ambitious policy to import foreigners in large numbers? Singaporeans had, in the past, been very graceful and welcoming of foreigners when the numbers were reasonable. Which country in the world would have people behave more gracefully when its government allows foreigners to form 40% of the population competing along side locals for jobs, housing and public transport? The fact that some Singaporeans have reacted negatively is a reflection of how badly constructed that policy is. To now use terms such as "anti-foreigner" and "xenophobic"  is not only unfair but shows the ignorance of the government to the plight of ordinary Singaporeans who have been adversely affected as a result of this policy. One can only conclude that our leaders are oblivious to the sentiment and suffering on the ground – there are workers who have lost their jobs when employers hire foreigners to replace them, there are many middle-aged PMETs  unable to find good jobs  due to structural unemployment because employers can now hire younger, cheaper foreign workers. And there are Singaporeans pushed and shoved on walkways and trains and buses as a result of the influx of foreigners. Even Singapore’s infrastructure isn’t ready for this massive import of foreigners.  When we talk about "heart", do we feel for our fellow Singaporeans who have been displaced?

Thirdly, there is a loss of confidence that the government will be able to fulfill the desires and expectations of the ordinary Singaporean. The government’s preaching and exhortation of the first world standard of living is nothing more than propaganda. The truth is there are many who do not have “first world comforts”. Let’s take one example – the casinos. A recent article in the newspaper here highlighted the proliferation of pawnshops at estate centers in the HDB heartlands. Let’s examine the statistics:

  1. June 2012 shows the largest increase in pawnshop pledges. Loans increased to $622M for just one month.
  2. Pledges in pawnshops increased from 2.98M in 2010 to 3.5M in 2011.
  3. The amounts of loans increased from $2.7B to $4.9B in 2011.
  4. Projects loans are expected to hit $7B in 2012 given the current rate of growth.
  5. Consumer debt is heading towards the $200B figure.

Seems like good news for the business. But something is not right and whatever is wrong is probably masked by temporary benign economic conditions. All the attendant repercussions and consequences are becoming more evident in just three years of the existence of the casinos.   


Fourthly the electorate is by no means as ignorant as the ruling regime thinks it is. Let’s look at the TFR issue, one which we are told is causing the problem of a future Singapore. The National Population and Talent Division (NPTD) paints a sad picture of the declining birth rates, a shrinking workforce and an ageing population: “our economy will shrink – there will be fewer opportunities for all. The government understands the problems faced by Singaporeans in the form of competition for schools and various integration and play its part to mitigate these problems. The government will moderate the immigration numbers. It has done plenty and will do more to improve fertility, it will do more to improve productivity, mobilize our resident labor resources like women and encouraging people to work longer”.  We don’t need a rocket scientist to tell the NTPD that it will not solve the TFR problem until and unless the government solves the rising cost of living in Singapore. If housing cost is high, couples delay marriage and having children because of the heavier financial burden of owning a home. Expensive homes means one has to service a larger mortgage stretched and that reduces the financial resources of married couples. In short, higher debt, smaller homes, higher financial burdens…all lead to lower fertility rate. A large part of the so-called incentives is given out as tax rebates benefiting only higher income earners. Giving money to someone who already has plenty is less of an incentive than giving it to someone who needs it to help them support their children.

Any baby shortfall today can only be addressed by importing a baby today or an adult 20-30 years from now. Our current problem is because of the fertility rate of 1970s -early 1990s, that created the workforce demographics of today. However the government brought in 5 to10 times the people needed to make up for our shortfall in fertility rate. These numbers do not include the non-PRs here on work permits and employment passes. Basically, when you look around and see a lot of foreigners and new citizens, they are here not because our fertility rate is low.
Consequently, through this huge influx, the government created a bigger ageing population. In the past the government had put forth many other reasons for the foreign influx – businesses find it hard to get Singapore workers, there are jobs Singaporeans won't take, there are skills we cannot find among Singaporeans.  Maybe this time the government has chosen to use the low fertility rate of Singaporeans as a justification for importing more people.

Finally, more and more Singaporeans are beginning to discern the issues confronting them and sieve the truth between the traditional mass media and the internet. They are able to see through the smokescreen that news producers make. The potency of the new media does make politicians worried. Now it would take a lot more convincing of their arguments for their policies to be believed. I quote a pertinent statement made by a Singaporean professor:  “Intolerant of criticism and paranoid of opposition, the government had pre-empted many political opponents and private initiatives in civic activities”. A nation cannot exist in a political vacuum and the empowerment of stakeholders is necessary to engender the sense of ownership that can elicit the best performance from citizens as well as foreign talents.” (Dr Linda Lim, Professor of Strategy at the University of Michigan).   

Today, Singapore society is bombarded by several polarizing forces. Many of us feel a need to stop and really bring our society back together to be "one people" with a truly Singapore outlook. It’s not the fertility rate that will make Singapore disappear. It’s the loss of “feeling as a Singaporean” and the disenchantment that has set upon us as a people that will disintegrate us. If we are losing local home-grown talent by the thousands every year to countries where quality of life is treasured, I hope our leaders and all politicians realize the damage that has been done, and start the healing before it’s too late. This goes beyond the "inclusive society" bandied about by our leaders.  We want Singaporeans to be welcomed and valued in their own homeland; we want shared success and balance in pursuit of quality of life judged by how well we care for the weak, the meek, the poor and sick and elderly among us. Yes we want a society with heart where less fortunate fellow Singaporeans will not be economically exploited or unjustly treated or left behind by progress. Will the national conversation achieve that? I guess it may not, in my lifetime.