By Benjamin Cheah
Mr Benjamin Pwee, Acting Secretary-General of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), introduced today three new faces to the public. They are Mr Winston Lim, Ms Juliana Juwahir and Ms Fatimah Tamizzudin. This move is set to revitalise the DPP, a formerly dormant party last seen in the 2006 General Elections. The four held a press conference, discussing the recently-released White Paper on Population, followed a walkabout in Toa Payoh Hub.
The New Guard
Mr Lim and Mss Juliana and Fatimah are all professional architects. This was no coincidence, as the DPP approached the White Paper from an urban planning perspective.
Mr Lim, 45, was an Urban Redevelopment Authority scholar who studied in National University of Singapore (NUS) and obtained a Master’s degree in the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He worked for URA, Nikken Sekkei Architects International, Gensler Architects in Los Angeles, and currently runs his own architecture firm.
“I first got to know [Mr Pwee] through YouTube,” he said. “During the last General Elections, I was living in Jakarta and followed the elections on online media.”
At that time, Mr Pwee was a member of the Singapore People’s Party, contesting in Bishan-Toa Payoh. Observing Mr Pwee’s speeches, Mr Lim asked his old friend Ms Fatimah about Mr Pwee. Like Mr Lim, Ms Fatimah also obtained a bachelor’s degree in architecture in NUS. Ms Fatimah has an international portfolio of clients, having worked in Japan, Australia and in Southeast Asia, and works in a global architectural design firm in the Fortune 500 that is active in the Asia-Pacific region.
Ms Fatimah reached out to her old dormitory mate, Ms Juliana. Like Mr Pwee, Ms Juliana was then a member of the Singapore People’s Party (SPP). Having studied architecture in NUS, she is working in a local architecture design firm with experience in Hong Kong, China and Brunei.
Following the 2011 General Elections, Mr Pwee and five high-profile members of the SPP, including Ms Juliana, left the party and tried to find a new direction, choosing between joining an existing party or registering a new one.
Explaining the decision, Mr Pwee said that a political party could serve as a voice in the community. “It would be an additional platform to interface with people,” he said. “As individuals we couldn’t make comments in a political capacity.”
The six held talks to join other political parties. However, as the six independents had different political preferences, they could not decide which party to join. Then Mr Seow Khee Leng, Secretary-General of the DPP, approached Mr Pwee.
“I’ve been in politics for over 20 years,” Mr Seow said. “Now most of the old guard have passed away.”
In 2006, Mr Tan Lead Shake, then in the DPP, collaborated with the Singapore Democratic Alliance (SDA) team contesting in Tampines. In the 2011 General Elections, the DPP signalled its intent to contest in Tanjong Pagar and Marine Parade, but in the end fielded no candidates.
Indicating he wished to retire, Mr Seow offered to hand over the reins of the DPP to Mr Pwee and the five other independents.
They accepted. “It was a very good, quick and easy way to get back into the political scene, and use DPP as out new platform for continued political involvement,” Mr Pwee said.
Mr Seow took leave from the party. On 30 March, the DPP will hold its Annual General Meeting to confirm the new positions of Mr Pwee and the other independents, all of whom are now on the Central Executive Council.
When the six independents joined the DPP, some of their supporters followed them. Among them were Mr Lim and Ms Fatimah.
Mr Lim’s reasons were personal. “First, I felt that the initiative and the [party’s stance] on public policy is something I can agree with. Second…[Mr Pwee] was in the civil service and so was I. In general our thinking is along the same range.”
Ms Fatimah spoke of stepping off the well-travelled road. “I feel that there needs to be more connection to the people, more representation across all segments. Right now I feel the decisions are too specialised in an issue without stepping back to look at the big issue. I felt that the solutions are too expedient. I felt this is the best platform because…we need to step off and see holistically again.”
Ms Fatimah is currently transitioning from her old job to being a full-time member of the DPP. “It’s a big step; it requires stepping off from a very stable job with a very good position with a very good company, which is a huge risk.”
Ms Juliana is no stranger to politics, being a member of the SPP. “I’m not a confrontational sort,” she said. “Among all the opposition, I think DPP is in line with my general style of thinking. I’m in line with [Mr Pwee’s] style of collaborative leadership. We also stepped off from the same platform and we share the same camaraderie.”
When asked if the trio would stand as candidates in the next General Elections, Mr Pwee said, “Right now they’re just new faces. It’s too early to tell.” He added that the DPP is currently focused on rebranding itself.
A minority in our own country?
It was no coincidence that the three new faces are professional architects. The DPP approached the White Paper from an urban planning perspective, with the trio taking the lead.
The DPP approached population growth with a set of assumptions. Looking at historical trends from 1960, they extrapolated a yearly population growth of 1.8%, an annual Singaporean growth rate of 0.8%, 30000 new Permanent Residents every year, and 20000 new citizens per year.
“These are conservative estimates,” Mr Lim said. He noted that population growth in 2012 was 2.4%, and 2.1% in 2011.
The White Paper on Population projects Singapore’s population in 2030 to be between 6.5 to 6.9 million, with resident population between 4.2 to 4.4 million, a citizen population between 3.6 to 3.8 million, and a non-resident population of around 2.3 to 2.5 million. By contrast, the DPP’s paper projects a 2030 population of 7.3 million, a resident population of 5.3 million, a citizen population of 4.2 million, and a non-resident population of 2.1 million.
Comparing the population figures of both papers, Mr Lim said, “This additional four hundred thousand people will need housing, jobs, take public transport. This will affect the congestion level.”
Commenting on the White Paper, the DPP said further study is needed in three fields. First, the assumption that population growth was necessary for economic growth. Second, the Paper did not explain the economic growth attainable while keeping the population at current numbers. Third, the DPP’s projection that local-born Singaporeans will be a minority in Singapore by 2026.
Speaking of her experiences in Dubai, Ms Fatima said, “I think Singapore followed Dubai’s model of increasing population in order to ignite growth. What we think is an experiment right now has already been done elsewhere. The pros and cons are already out there. They’re just not doing a comparative study effectively.”
The DPP’s paper questions the assumption that population growth leads to economic growth. Citing economies like Scandinavia and Luxemburg, they point out that other countries have been able to improve economic growth despite having small populations. The paper points out that Singapore’s labour productivity is equivalent to Third World economies, and asks if the government considered increasing productivity instead. The paper also says that the government assumes that non-residents are needed to take undesirable jobs, while in Scandinavia local citizens take up jobs like garbage cleaners and kitchen help as the jobs pay well, require skills, and are highly respected in society.
The DPP also argues that the low fertility rate required a multi-prong approach. Arguing that low fertility rates, low labour productivity and ineffective frameworks to address workplace practices are linked, the party compared Singapore to Denmark. They say that Singaporeans work long hours at low productivity rates, causing businesses to shun productive practices involving capital investments in favour of labour-intensive processes. Working long hours would rob Singaporeans of time to have a personal life or have more children. The DPP says naturalised citizens also do not reproduce when subject to Singapore’s working conditions. On the other hand, they say, Denmark reversed its low fertility rate to 1.93 in the 1980s, even though Danish citizens work from 8am to 4pm and produce more work.
“The message that’s been put out there has not changed since seven years ago,” Ms Fatimah said. “Even though the model has not garnered the rate of success it was meant to achieve, we don’t see out of the box thinking. If it’s already not working, why tweak the same model? Are we going to waste seven more years?”
The party also focused on the notion that current immigration policy would make local-born Singaporean citizens a minority in Singapore. The DPP’s paper states that there is no strong framework that ensures Singaporeans get jobs before foreigners. They say there are workplaces with Singaporean workers in the minority and serve Singapore’s top Foreign Direct Investors. During a recession, they argue that the non-resident workforce will not be an economic buffer. They also argue that the non-resident workforce would not serve the FDIs with Singaporean standards of efficiency and transparency, which may adversely affect the Singapore brand.
Apart from economic concerns, the DPP also touched on national identity.
“Population growth will lead to increased physical infrastructure,” Mr Lim said. “Since Singapore is limited in land size, this will lead to demolition of buildings. This causes urban amnesia, where we forget where we grow up.”
“Bringing in foreign talent benefits everybody living in Singapore,” Mr Pwee said, meaning both local-born Singaporeans, and foreign-born naturalised citizens, permanent residents and non-residents. “These two groups should be distinguished. Singaporeans want to see policies that benefit them first.”
Mr Pwee believed that the White Paper could have been seen as an issue for a national referendum. “We are not calling for a national referendum, but we agree it could be a topic for a referendum,” he said. The National Solidarity Party called for referendum yesterday on the White Paper.
“The PAP (People’s Action Party) sidestepped it being a referendum by releasing it after the by-election,” Mr Pwee continued. “If the White Paper were released before the by-election, I believe the by-election would have been [seen as] a referendum.”
A party reborn
The DPP’s paper is representative of the party’s approach. Mr Pwee said the DPP has many policy working groups focusing on different issues, such as banking, finance and urban planning. The party’s Central Executive Committee acts as a coordinator, working with the policy group to present the party’s position.
“We want to be a moderate and credible party,” Mr Pwee said. “We won’t want to rock the boat. We recognise what is good, and what are [policy] gaps in objective ways. We look at processes, not just what the data means.”
Discussing the kind of people the party wishes to recruit, he said, “We are trying to bring in people who have lived overseas and are able to see local issues in a broader context. I think politics in Singapore have become too parochial, and we need a more global perspective on issues and find solutions that will put Singaporeans first.”
Mr Pwee is currently studying for a Masters in Public Policy at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy. He said he hoped to send at least one member every year to study public policy, so that by the next election the party would have a minimum of four to five trained public policy experts. In addition, Mr Pwee said he would hold an internal workshop on public policy for the DPP tomorrow.
The old DPP was known primarily for cooperating with the SDA in 2006 and promising to contest in the 2011 elections. The new DPP seems to focus on public policy, preparing members for public policy analysis and bringing fresh perspectives from around the world.
Over the next six to eight months, the DPP will embark on a marketing and branding drive, introducing new members and releasing statements on policy concerns. Mr Pwee said the DPP has about 35 “deeply involved” members, with more members to be revealed in the future. The party will also embark on various programmes to engage the public, ranging from walkabouts to recreational trips to regular happy hour sessions at a pub in Clarke Quay.
Despite the workload, Mr Pwee appears fresh and unfazed. “There is no difference between my professional and personal life,” he said. “It is an arbitrary divide.”