(Image - gov.sg YouTube channel)

The 6.9 million issue – Part 1: The productivity story, and other cultural folklore

By Howard Lee

The ruling People’s Action Party would indeed be naive if it were to believe that the issue that drew a massive bone of contention following the last general election would be quietly forgotten.

No, we are not talking about the Prime Minister suing Roy Ngerng or the arrest of Amos Yee, raucous a these were. The 6.9 million target for the Population White Paper is still very much with us, in spite of the many moons that have passed since it was first mooted in February 2013. Has the government’s position changed since then, when it decided to couch it as a “planning tool” rather than a “projection target”?

Without doubt, this single proposal that drew the largest organic turnout at Speakers’ Corner left a smarting wound in the PAP’s side, to which no opposition party had, wisely, even bothered to offer sympathies. Faced with public transport congestion, competition for jobs and the squeeze in leisure spaces, Singaporeans have openly made their displeasure known.

Where does the government currently stand on the population influx issue? Judging from a recent quote by Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, where he compared Singapore’s population woes with China’s, not much has really changed:

“So, we slow down the foreign intake — we have corrected the policy. But we need to let people know more about our dilemma, that we have this responsibility as the country’s leaders,” he said. “This is a hot potato for the Singapore Government, but we’re the leaders, and we hope people will accept that we have good intentions.”

The wound still smarts, if it takes the PM to make at attempt at justifying it, particularly so close to the next general elections. But it seems to have gotten back to an issue of “letting people know”, or as it was famously put after GE2011, a “communication problem”.

workProductivity as (conditional) lever

The government has clearly taken note of the displeasure from the ground, but it remains to be seen if there were any real significant changes to manage the population issue.

The moderation of foreign worker numbers was first mooted in 2014. However, there are reasons to believe that the actual numbers have not really gone down. In addition, we need to remember that this is a temporary freeze, and while the former Manpower Minister has indicated that there would be no u-turn to more stringent foreign manpower curbs, he was also mindful to “provide flexibility in industries such as healthcare and landscaping, where there is an essential economic or social need.”

In addition, “sector-specific needs have already been catered for through the different Dependency Ratio Ceilings for the five sectors – Services, Manufacturing, Construction, Marine and Process.” Other solutions for raising productivity seems to revolve around throwing more money into the sectors in question, such as S$450 million over three years for the construction industry to adopt more technology to reduce manpower reliance.

The success of such measures remain to be seen, but meanwhile, the threat of a return to earlier foreign labour grown currently hangs over us with one benchmark – productivity. Whereas the White Paper had earlier suggested that foreign workers are needed to make up for our slow population growth – as if babies can be put to work to support our economy – the new mantra is now to focus on Singaporeans’ contribution to economic growth.

Essentially, would a further drop in productivity signal the government to salvage faltering GDP figures by returning to unrestrained foreign labour growth?

(Image - gov.sg YouTube channel)
(Image – gov.sg YouTube channel)

Cultural persuasion

Beyond this supposed management of foreign manpower, efforts have also been made to inculcate a greater acceptance towards a growing population of foreigners or “new citizens”. The

Nowhere is this more apparent than in the government creating an entire series of videos to encourage Singaporeans to “Think About It” and hopefully bring a different perspective on why foreign workers are important to Singapore society and our economy.

The series consists of mini “dramas” that depict Singaporeans presumably xenophobic attitudes countered by a more restrained logical evaluation. There are also forums held with media personalities, community leaders and politicians to debate the issue.

Comments to the video series had been disabled, so there is no way to ascertain public response to them. Nevertheless, there is a good chance that they have been produced by the government, as they are all hosted on gov.sg’s YouTube channel. We might not ever know the amount of tax-payers’ money specifically spent on the series, but what is clear is that they are in line with the PM’s hope that “people will accept that the government has good intentions” in proposing population augmentation.

Also read “The 6.9 million issue – Part 2: Still short-sighted?