Discussion on the Singapore Population Paper 2013: Part 3

Key questions addressed in this article:

  • Understanding the planning principles behind looking at Singapore as a country vs a city

This is part 3 of the discussion of the Population White Paper 2013.

I would like to discuss further the conceptual underpinnings behind the thinking modalities behind the government and Singaporeans, and how it has resulted in the current divergent thinking.

The divergent viewpoints between the government and Singaporeans come down to one thing – perspectives. Basically, there are two trends of thought that underline our subconscious thinking – between thinking of Singapore as a country and as a city.

I had previously reminded Singaporeans how Minister K Shanmugam had described Singapore as a city. When viewed as an economic node, Singapore is a city. But when viewed as a cultural entity, Singapore is a country. It might be difficult to make a distinction for Singapore, as Singapore is a country which is a city which is a country. Thus it might be difficult for Singaporeans to imagine Singapore separately. Let’s take a look at another example then. For example, let’s look at the New Yorkers. For a New Yorker, New York is a city. They bath in the dynamism and in the bustling excitement of city life. The energy that is felt in New York is tied to the economic fortunes of the city. Yet, for the New Yorker who sees himself as an American, he would envision himself differently – with the shared history of the country, the struggles that America has gone through and all the civil rights changes that America had undergone to make the people who they are today. As an American, a person would think about the cultural and emotional ties that tie him back to his country. So, you see, thinking as a city dweller and as a citizen is quite different.

Yet, for Singapore, when we talk about our emotional ties, what do we think about? Do we sometimes think about how well Singapore is doing in international surveys of liveability, or how proud we are to be ranked tops in some economic surveys? When we talk about emotional ties, are we talking about emotional ties to our country or our city? Do we think of ourselves as a city dweller or citizen?

To be clear, it isn’t necessary to distinct our emotional attachment to Singapore, as a country or as a city. If we want to be proud of Singapore, what is there to stop us from being proud of Singapore for whatever we have achieved?

The issue arises when we come into conversation, and the Singapore Population White Paper is one obvious one. When the white paper was released, Singaporeans were shocked and in disbelief. They didn’t understand why the government had projected for a population of 6.8 million for Singapore in 2030, when the people have been lamenting about overcrowding in Singapore. Yet, the government believes that it’s doing what it believes is genuinely good for Singaporeans. Why is there a difference in their perspectives, and what is the reason for this difference?

The reason is primarily this – when the government does its planning for Singapore, it looks at Singapore as a city, as one of the top tier cities in the financial world, and how it needs to maintain a productive workforce to maintain Singapore’s dominance economically. So, for the government, they look at increasing the population and infrastructure, to increase economic viability, but all this for Singapore, as a city.

But for the layman, they do not need to think about Singapore on a broad global perspective – as a city. To them, what matters is their livelihood. What matters is whether they can have a comfortable standard of living and to do the things that they want. As much as the people live in a city, when they are not at work or shopping, they go on in their daily lives as citizens of a country. They leave their work lives in the city and start reliving their emotional attachments to one another and their shared history and upbringing. To the people, they do not think about economic productivity. They think about living a balanced social, emotional and psychological life.

For a city, economic growth is key. You take care of the people’s work-life balance only because that will help increase economic productivity – people’s welfare needs are a by-product for economic necessity, if any. But for a country, the person’s well-being is key. And you will look out for that, first and foremost.

So, when a government plans for a country and a city, they will look at different planning variables. When they plan for the country, they will plan to enhance the people’s rights and accord them the basic respect and welfare needs needed to protect their emotional and mental growth. When the government plans for the city, they will plan for increased business efficiency, connectivity and ease of doing business infrastructurally.

Now, where is Singapore when the government does its planning? The government doesn’t necessarily plan for Singapore along clear distinctions of a country and city, but the government will no doubt take into account the values that both would have, so the government would rightfully ensure that business-wise, it continues to create efficient systems and yet at the same time, try to cater for the people’s rights. I say, “try”, because, necessarily, creating an efficient business system means you have to also make certain compromises to the people’s rights. If you have a system where people are proned to speaking up for their rights, the idea is that it will create economic instability somewhat, which means it goes contrary to what is expected of an efficient business environment. Effectively, the ideals of planning for a country necessarily run counter to the ideals of planning for a city.

When you are a country-city like Singapore, which are you more likely to sacrifice in your planning? The government has spoken, and thus business efficiency is given a priority focus, whilst the government is resistant towards enacting anti-discriminatory laws, minimum wage law and allowing people to freely demonstrate and speak up. Thus the government’s planning principles for Singapore are geared more towards Singapore as a city, not a country. But you see, when the government renegades on it’s role as the protector of the people’s social and welfare needs, the government has abdicated on its role. Is it a responsible government then?

For a long time, this has worked well for Singapore. However, over the past 10 years, sentiments have changed, aided by several factors – the people feel that they’ve been gradually disadvantaged and marginalised by the system, and they feel socially pushed out by the system. Even as Singapore becomes richer, the people do not feel that they’ve benefitted from it. So, when the government tells them that we need many more people so that you can become richer, the people no longer buy the story. And they no longer see eye-to-eye with the government’s planning principles, and begin to create their own narrative.

What compounds this is that this white paper is released after PAP’s worse general election performance in 2011 and also, a substantial defeat at the recent by-election. What this means is that the people are at the highest state of their displeasure towards the government, they have shown that they are willing to act on their displeasure at the by-election, and now a white paper which makes an announcement which goes against the very bugbear they’ve been feeling for the past year takes the cake.

And thus, on top of the people and the government having different perspectives, not only of them understanding Singapore differently as their home, and as the economy, we are also faced with a more politically attuned population who are also at their most willing to let things rip. And let rip they have.

To be fair, did the government completely neglect the people’s social welfare and rights? Not completely, for example, in the white paper, the government talks about having accessible green spaces for the people. However, arguably, the setting aside of green spaces is so that infrastructurally, we create spaces for workers in the Singapore city to take a break, before they resume work.

But what about social rights and welfare that citizens in a country should be accorded? This hasn’t been planned, because the government doesn’t primarily plan Singapore as a country or for the social and welfare needs of the people, and principles for the planning of a country is compromised by principles for the planning of a city. Essentially, when the government says that Singapore is not a welfare state, what the government is saying is this – we are not a welfare city, we are a capitalistic city and we’ve reengaged on, or perhaps, forgotten, our role as a state.

So, our government is astute at planning for Singapore as a city but not as a country. To put it down in the simplest terms, when you plan for a city, you pretty much plan along economic lines. But when you plan for a country, there are many other softer aspects, such as culture, tradition and the passion and ties that bring people closer to the country.

And this is how the people are appreciating the issue: to the government, 7 million is just a number – for economic planning purposes. For the people, 7 million isn’t just a number. They imagine the many meanings it bring – a loss in the quality of life, competition, the question of belonging etc.

Then the question is, can there be an alignment of perspectives? In order for there to be an alignment of views, the people need to learn to look at the planning parameters from a broad, global level, by appreciating the global circumstance that the Singapore city is in and the complexities of the Singapore country-city, and to understand that in order to grow the economy in the present manner that we know it, we might need to increase the population, or not. For the government, it means that the government needs to learn to not just see Singapore as an economic node, but to also remember the traditions and cultures that Singaporeans want to imbue Singapore, as the country, with. Essentially, the government needs to remember that it plays dual roles – as the economic manager of the Singapore city and the government of the Singapore country. For now, the government has forgotten one of its roles.

Can you see where Singapore is now? We’ve learnt to talk more and more about ourselves as a city – and it’s not just the government doing it, but the people as well. Thus when people talk about Singaporeans as materialistic, why do they say that? It’s because we’ve learnt to adopt the city ‘culture’ as our social culture, so we’ve learnt to adopt the city’s ideals of consumerism and materialism as our social and cultural ideals for Singapore, when in fact, we have conflated our identity as a country and a city, and allow both to be seen interchangeably. When we talk about what we think about ourselves, we talk about how we are competitive, and how we want to we strive for the best. We have allowed the defining characteristic of a competitive economic individual in a city to also become our social and cultural identity as a citizen of a country. What else is there to ground us? We’ve conflated our identities – essentially we’ve learnt to use economic principles to define our cultural selves, and therein lies the root of the problem – where is our country’s soul?

See, the people don’t realise this is the issue. The government doesn’t realise this is the issue. We don’t understand that we are looking at things from different perspectives, because we appreciate our understandings from different meanings – country vs city. And we don’t realised that we’ve also conflated two disparate meanings, so much so that we live in intertwined identities, yet unfulfilled because both identities are not meant to be lived interchangeably.

The introduction of this white paper has exposed the gaps in our understandings of our nation, because we’ve confused our understandings, having lived in an environment and nation where the meanings overlap and become conflated – the country is the city is the city is the country. As the government learns to plan Singapore more and more so as a city, the resultant loss to Singapore is that we’ve learnt not to attune ourselves to the social and cultural aspect, as much as that is an important aspect of being. We’ve thus lost our sense of rootedness and emotional and cultural sense of well-being. We learn to become unhappy and discontented.

And because we’ve not attuned ourselves to that, and feel a sense of loss, this sense of disengagement is becoming to rise. This is also the why in spite of how much the government believes its doing its best for Singapore and in spite of how the people are unhappy, both sides do not understand why their efforts to reach out to the other isn’t enough – we are looking at issues from fundamentally different perspectives, without yet understanding why they are different and thus are unable to bridge the divide.

But this need not be.


  1. Anthony Sim

    Again a very interesting article well researched.

    I was just wondering if the PAP government has forgotten why they made us learn and recite the National Pledge in the first place. Or is it an underlining brainwashing process because we are politically ignorant in our early learning years.

    The National Pledge reads:

    “We, the citizens of Singapore,
    pledge ourselves as one united people,
    regardless of race, language or religion,
    to build a democratic society
    based on justice and equality
    so as to achieve happiness, prosperity and
    progress for our nation”.

    Then in 1984 we got this patriotic song to sing loud and proud.

    “Stand up for Singapore, do the best you can
    Reach out for your fellow man
    You’ve got to make a stand
    Recognise you can play your part
    Let it come right from your heart
    Be prepared to give a little more
    Stand up, stand up for Singapore”

    In my early years, I never realized or paid attention to what it means. Or maybe I was apolitical at that time. Or I was to afraid to voice out in fear.

    Times are a changing!

    I now realized what the above means and I think every concerned Singaporeans should read these again. We are still the believers and that’s why we cannot allow the government to decide what they think is best for us.

  2. James Tan

    The culture of papism is way too entrenched in every level of society it will take a lot of upheavals to change things hopefully for the better

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