Dr Ng Eng Hen amuses me.
Firstly, I will state categorically that I agree with what Dr Ng had said separately at both interviews, but the contrast in the two interviews is glaring.
On 15 July 2012, Dr Ng had advised that Singaporeans should “play their part in helping to achieve such a balance” between “economic growth and foreign talent”. He had also said that “if you tighten too much (on immigration control), your jobs are at risk. And not only your jobs, because you become less competitive. But not only that, for example in essential services, we need people to build our homes, man our hospitals, so on and so forth. Your quality of life will be affected.”
But on 30 June 2012, Dr Ng had said said that, “Singapore’s fertility rate has come down and the SAF has been preparing for this demographic change. “So, moving forward we have to continue to find ways to optimise the contributions of each NSman. It’s not only in terms of the skills and capabilities which we have to enhance our systems, to be able to train them, it’s also about how the SAF functions,” he said.”
The difference in approaches cannot be more obvious. Both issues are matters of national security – fertility rate in the former (and thus the need for immigrants) and defence. For defence, Dr Ng said that the government could “enhance our systems” to “optimise the contributions of each NSman.” – so really, looking at the existing population and equipping and training them with the technological know-how to maintain SAF’s lead. No competition lost here. But when it comes to fertility rates, Singaporeans need to support the government (and the open door policy for migrants) because “your jobs are at risk”, “you become less competitive” and “your quality of life will be affected”. Doomsday scenario.
Same issue – fewer number of people – but different approaches. For defence, we can use technology to make things work. For fertility, we will bring in people and you better help to make it work. Why the fundamental difference in handling issues which are fundamentally the same? Can the government also not look into using technology to improve the productivity of Singaporeans, so that we can improve the skills and output of each Singaporean, to maintain economic growth – the way the government has decided to do with NSmen?
Dr Ng had also said on 30 June that, “the SAF is moving from a hierarchical to a flatter command and control structure. Rank and file soldiers will be able to make important decisions quickly.” However, on 15 July, Dr Ng had said that “to strike a proper balance between economic growth and foreign talent… the balance depends very much on what Singaporeans are willing to support.” The question here again, is, why does the government keep on with its discourse of how much Singaporeans should support their decision – a decision made by few at the top which is to represent the 3.5 million Singaporeans, who have not had our voice adequately heard, but must yet support a decision which we have no ownership over? Is Singapore able to “move from a hierarchical to a flatter control structure?” Can we be respected to make important decisions for ourselves as well?
Dr Ng had also said that for SAF, “there will not be any major policy changes as the Defence Ministry had taken into account the impact of Singapore’s demographic changes.” The SAF could amend the law to allow foreigners to also serve in NS, yet, “there will not be any major policy changes.” The SAF has chosen to use technology to improve the efficiency and productivity of SAF, to manage the expected reduction in the number of NSmen. However, for Singaporeans, the Singapore government instituted a policy whereby a large migrant inflow has been allowed to replace the projected fall in the local population in years to come. Again, the government is willing to creatively explore options, such as using technology to increase productivity for SAF, but for Singaporeans, we will replace the locals with foreigners. Is technology too expensive for investment in the capacity of Singaporeans? Is it cheaper to bring in migrants than to finance programmes to increase the fertility rate of Singaporeans?
Dr Ng had also said that, “for our defence spending, we spend what we need. We have said that we can spend up to 6 per cent (of GDP), but in actuality, we spend less than that, so that will continue to maintain.” The government has also revealed that for the spending for pro-parenthood programmes, it amounts to only 0.5% of our GDP. The government is willing to spend 6% on defence, but only 0.5% on increasing the fertility – which is less than 12 times that of defence – even though both are matters of national security. Is it me, or does it look like our priorities are misplaced?
Finally, Dr Ng had mentioned that, “the SAF is also not dependent on the inflow of new citizens nor permanent residents to grow the number of enlistees.” But the government has been quite reliant on the inflow of migrants to Singapore to grow the number of workforce. The migrant population in Singapore now stands at nearly 40%. Why the double standards?
See, the problem lies in this. For SAF, by default, the government can only use Singaporeans and PRs. For Singapore as a country, there isn’t such a limit. When faced with a constraint, it forces SAF to think creatively for solutions. But for Singapore, the government can take the easy way out, and bring in migrants. This saves on costs, as there is no need to invest in higher amounts on increasing fertility among the local population. What this also makes us question is that does the Singapore government value Singaporeans enough to build our capacity and strengthen our abilities? Or are we seen as just another economic node which can be easily replaced? Is our citizenship to this country and our value of being born here respected, as a right with dignity?
Now, don’t get me wrong. I am in favour of the ease of movement of people across borders, because from a philosophical point of views, national borders are artificial and people shouldn’t be limited to operating within boundaries they are born to. This smacks in the face of human rights and freedom. I, for one, would appreciate the ability to move to another country and be able to explore opportunities there as well, so I understand the value that people would attach to this. What I am against though, is how, because of an overall porous policy of migrant flow, this has resulted in the lower income earners in Singapore having their wages depressed. Since the migrant flow had sharply increased in the mid-2000s, this has been followed by an increase in the number of people in Singapore earning less than $1,000 every month. Having an open policy of immigration isn’t the issue. The issue is how the government has not put in place policies to protect local workers from having their wages depressed.
My question to the government is this. If we are able to explore creative ways to manage the manpower crunch for SAF, such as by introducing technology and training NSmen to handle newly-introduced technology, can we not also devise other creative ways which involve Singaporeans as well? Can we not introduce technology to improve the productivity of Singaporeans, so that the output per Singaporean increases, and we would still be able to contribute to economic growth?
Dr Ng had at the community sports festival that, “we are reaching the limits of some of our land, our ability, our transport, our housing, so we have to adjust to that. And I don’t think that it’s only the government that will have to decide this. Singaporeans must also support the balance.” Conversely, the government must also support the balance. It is the government that had thrown open the doors without putting effective management plans on the migrant population during the earlier years in the mid-2000s. It is the government that had not introduced a more aggressive fertility increment programme to assist Singaporeans to have better work-life balance, and thus for higher fertility. Now, the government needs to support this balance too.
Finally, the government is obviously taking the right steps to mitigate the issues that Singapore faces. But it can be better, as all matters in life. The government has already implemented policies to manage the migrant flow and is now looking to improve the policies to increase the fertility rate. I would like to urge our government to take a more dynamic approach in the improvement to pro-parenthood policy by looking beyond just encouraging births but by looking holistically at the overall well-being of Singaporeans. There is a clear association between how people who are happier and have a better overall well-being are also more likely to want to have more children, because they will be in a position to do so, and do so for the well-being of the child. By improving the well-being of Singaporeans, it would mean having shorter work hours, more affordable education and housing and adequate leave support and support from the management of companies in a flexible work-life policy. The government has been ongoing with this discourse – however, as I have described in this article, the government has to move beyond discourse to looking at structural reforms which support this discourse. Research has shown that the proposals highlighted here would not reduce the competitiveness and productivity of the Singapore economy.
Now, what it takes is for the government to have the courage and humanity to do what is right for Singaporeans, and Singapore. Our government needs to support this balance too.