By Howard Lee
Watching the unfolding of the Population White Paper was like watching a Channel 8 drama serial.
The debate in Parliament was filled with emotional ups and downs, overflowed with conflict, and even featured on of its key actors close to tears. The ending – 77 ayes to 13 nays – was predictable, although the future is left hanging, as if in anticipation of a second season.
But while we might finish the soapie with a few kleenex and look forward to yet more of the same, the same cannot be said of the White Paper.
To an extent, soapie followers depend on a certain predictable formula to be entertained, so that they will return to the same channel day after day, season after season. Same plot, different storyline. But the White Paper, leading to policies, cannot possibly follow that predictable route.
It is not hard to imagine that, a decade or so back, Singaporeans would have accepted the White Paper as the government doing its level best to deliver economic growth. We would have gritted our teeth and set our hands to the tasks laid out for us, in the confident hope of more glorious days of golden opportunity.
The ruling People’s Action Party must realise now that, with or without its trashing at the Punggol East by-election, it has lost command of the imbued trust that its earlier generation of leaders have built with the population.
Is the PAP leadership then either naive, blissfully ignorant or plain arrogant to think that it can simply pass the White Paper in Parliament without stirring up a hornet’s nest? Does it really expect citizens to trust it is doing it for their good, when all the angst pent up the past years has been signalling in the other direction? That we would finally be convinced with a week of Parliamentary debate on a poorly substantiated policy direction?
If the PAP leadership has any good sense, rather than cower safely under the blanket of excuses and half-baked rhetoric that the traditional media has weaved on its behalf, it must now stick its neck out to ask the most important question: What have they done wrong to lose this trust?
In a way, Singaporeans are now more critical and thinking, better educated and hence more ready take apart something like the White Paper and call out parts where it does not make sense, has things on backwards, or is just plain rubbish.
But more importantly, the government must understand that the key issue is its failure to listen to the woes and interest of its citizens, again and again, when it came to population issues. Indeed, all that the PAP-led government has done the past two decades, willy-nilly augmenting our population, has been at best a raid on the rights and well-being of citizens.
How do you believe that a policy direction if for your good, despite all the hands-on-hearts statements by Ministers during Parliament, when this government has thus far failed to prove it has considered citizens first?
Perhaps a redundant question. It is clear that the PAP’s trust account with us is at an all time low, possibly in debt for some individuals. And the PAP has learnt, rather painfully through the storm stirred up by the White Paper, that the right to govern is not about how many ballots it received every election, but the constant demonstration through affirmative action that it has placed the people at the heart of its policies.
It did not do that. The basis of trust is not about talking your way out of an initial bad decision. It is about starting with the right position to begin with, a position that places citizens first.
If we focused on the wrong figures, such as the 6.9 million, if we are sceptical about whether it is a really a target or planning tool, if we are doubtful that we can ever upgrade our infrastructure in time for the impending population boom, if we question the effectiveness of the plans to integrate new citizens, raise productivity and improve the fertility rate, it is not because we don’t understand the White Paper or are just trying to make things difficult.
Rather, it is because we are exhausted and exasperate that the people tasked to run our country still think that governance is about communication, rather than commitment.
That is a point that most opposition parties that voiced out against the White Paper – National Solidarity Party, Reform Party, Singapore Democratic Party, Singapore People’s Party among them, and also the Workers’ Party in Parliament – have taken at the start when formulating their counter proposals to the White Paper. You might find fault with their specific matrices, figures and methodologies – indeed, so would you for the White Paper – but they all keep citizens at the centre of their proposals, rather than economic digits.
The PAP-led government has no choice now but to seriously rethink its position on policy-making and place people at the heart of it all – for instance, spending more effort and resources to enhance the capability and productivity of working citizens, or creating a family-centric environment that places parents, not parenthood, as a priority.
When it finally embarks on this change, this government, and the entire public service that actually drafts the policies, might realise that there are actually a lot more options to play with, rather than the old balancing act between GDP and workforce size. Such a decision is not about populist policies, but about making common-sense decision that are more sustainable and manageable in the long term.
If it doesn’t change, this drama serial would be one of those with a really bitter ending – family broken and divided, money at the centre of the conflicts, and possibly divorce (come GE2016).