Singapore Population White Paper 2013: What’s Next?

By now, you would know that “Parliament had passed motion” for the Singapore Population White Paper 2013.

According to Today, “Parliament today passed the amended motion to endorse the White Paper on Population with 77 ayes and 13 nays. Nominated Member of Parliament (NMP) Eugene Tan abstained from the vote.” This means that 85% of the MPs had endorsed the amended motion and 14% did not.

All the 77 PAP MPs present endorsed the amended motion while, all the “Opposition MPs (including the 2 WP NCMPs and SPP’s NCMP Ns Lina Chiam), who all voted against the motion, NMPs Faizah Jamal, Janice Koh and Laurence Lian also voted ‘no’.”

The amendment was was proposed by PAP MP Liang Eng Hwa “to do four things:

1) Place priority on resolving current strains on infrastructure, particularly in transport;
2) Plan, invest in, and implement infrastructure development ahead of demand;
3) Ensure that the benefits of population policies, such as better job opportunities and salaries, flow to Singaporeans; and
4) Carry out medium-term reviews of population policies and assumptions to take into account the changing needs of Singapore and Singaporeans, as well as changing domestic and external circumstances.”

Why Was the Motion Amendment Proposed?

I believe that internally, at the start of parliamentary debate, because PAP knew that they couldn’t salvage the white paper by then as they had already released it, they had then decided to propose the amendment, so as to frame the white paper as focusing on solving the current problems that’s facing Singaporeans at the current moment. It was only after they had released the white paper did they realise that they had to get buy in from Singaporeans on the white paper, before they could start selling it. But they had jumped the gun and had started selling it before anyone saw value of it.

And thus PAP proposed the amendment. I would argue that this amendment can stand independently of the white paper. Essentially, this amendment is akin to PAP saying that, oh shucks, we know that Singaporeans don’t believe in this white paper at all, so we need to sell them new things. They couldn’t retract the white paper and only propose the amended items, as it would look like bad planning on their side, so they decided to propose an amendment, whilst keeping the white paper as the main discussion point. Silently, what they are saying is this – we might need to actually bring the white paper back to the drawing board but we aren’t going to tell people this as its too embarrassing. Or they might push ahead anyway.

With this as the backdrop, this is why some PAP MPs started debating their points along the lines of these amended points, suggesting that the government should put the white paper on hold, to look at implementing the white paper proposals in phases, or to look at ensuring existing problems are resolved as well. So much so that online, some people began to also propagate the same ideas. Why? There are two reasons why people started associating themselves with the amended motion. First, the amended motion is about the present and the foreseeable future, so for humans who naturally gravitate towards short terms gratification, the amended motion of fixing their current problems had a lot of appeal. Second, this amended motion was actually proposed to appease the PAP supporters. PAP would have read that their supporters would somewhat believe that the white paper might not be an issue though they had certain qualms and needed to be convinced that PAP could execute the plans, and the way that PAP needs to prove it is by resolving existing issues. You can sum up to say then that the PAP supporters would generally be people who believe that PAP has the solutions and the capability to resolve Singapore’s problems, but the white paper represents one of the few times they aren’t fully convinced. PAP had smartly predicted that if PAP could suggest that if they could resolve the current issues well, that they would be able to retain the buy in of their supporters of the white paper. For now, PAP has managed to retain the support of about 25% of the Singaporean voters, yet again. They have 3 years to prove that they can continue to be capable, to gain the solid trust of this 25%.

So, actually, seen in this light, even as much as the white paper and the amended motion seems to most people a facade, it had a strategic aim of appeasing PAP’s core supporters (at least for the amended motion), and in influencing the tide of the conversation for another 20% to 30% of the population, to shift the discussion away from the 6.9 million population projection figure, to a discussion that is more manageable. For some 50% of Singaporeans, they didn’t buy it. But PAP’s strategy would have abated disaster for 50% of the population, and was actually a good PR move.

A lot of focus was given to PM Lee Hsien Loong’s speech in the mainstream media. I wouldn’t go into the detail of his speech. You can read the coverage here. However, what I do want to discuss is that internally, PAP still believes that PM Lee has a positive image to sell. Somehow, they are still in the believe that when you put PM Lee up, Singaporeans can be appeased. For now, I am unable to assess the impact. At PAP’s last rally just before the Punggol East by-election, PM Lee was also the speaker who had the longest speech, at more than 30 minutes. However, his speech wasn’t convincing enough to save PAP from the 10% vote share loss. However, I wouldn’t yet attribute the loss to PM Lee, as there were other factors at play. In a survey conducted by Blackbox Research and reported on Yahoo Singapore, only 25% of respondents said that the results of the by-election was intended to be a “report card” on PAP. Also, the more important issues for voters were the cost of living and that the government not listening, which were highlighted as the two main reasons for voters to have voted away from PAP. Perhaps PAP and their PR team continues to believe that PM Lee is able to project a non-threatening and softer image, and thus he is, they hope internally, the secret weapon for PAP. However, we should be able to have a better idea in the coming weeks how Singaporeans would truly respond to PM Lee’s impassionate appeal. When I read through the speech, it felt like the same-old lip service that PAP usually plays to, but I suppose the answer would lie in, as they had managed somewhat to shift the discussion towards, their resolve and capability to fix the current problems (and not the opposition!).

Do Our MPs Represent Our Viewpoints?

In the second part of this article, I would like to discuss if the 85% of MPs who had voted to endorse the amended motion are actually representative of Singaporeans. In the by-election, PAP received only 43.71% of the votes whereas WP won with 54.52% of the votes. In the general election in 2011, PAP won an overall 60.1% of the votes in the constituencies that they had contested in. In the presidential election in that same year, the candidate aligned to PAP, Mr Tony Tan, won by a very close margin of less than 1% to win 35.2%. I will roughly surmise there is about 35% to 40% who are core supporters of PAP, by looking at their vote share. According to MARUAH, “a significant share of Singapore voters – approximately 10% – still cast their vote in fear that their ballots may be traced back to them by the authorities.” Accordingly, this would suggest that the core supporters of PAP would be about 25% to 30%, which explains the figure of 25% used above.

If this is the case, this would mean that PAP would securely only represent 25% of Singaporeans. As discussed in a previous article, WP, on average, has been able to attract a 40% vote share among Singaporeans, which would suggest that there are about 40% of Singaporeans who would align themselves on the other side of PAP. At this point, I’m going to make some assumptions. I am going to assume that as PAP governs according to economic principles which favors businesses, so the core supporters of this white paper would predominantly be business owners, since it favors businesses (as much as PAP claims it’s meant to put Singaporeans first). According to the Ministry of Manpower, about 50% of workers are self-employed. Assuming that of these, half (or 25% of the voters) are core supporters, we can make an unscientific assumption that of the rest of the 25% self-employed workers, they can be split with some who support the white paper and others who don’t – which means that we would be back to roughly a figure of 35% or 37% of voters who would support PAP no matter what.

In the context of this discussion on the Singapore Population White Paper, it is without a doubt that for one of few times in Singapore’s recent history, the majority of Singaporeans are up in arms against the white paper. Assuming thus that 35% are somewhat agreeable with it, we might be able to assume that about 65% are not agreeable. However, in Parliament today, 85% of MPs had voted in favour of the amended motion, even as only 35% of Singaporeans might be agreeable with it. If all the MPs were present today and all PAP MPs have to vote according to party lines, 81% of MPs (all 80 PAPs) would have endorse the amended motion, and 13% would have not endorsed it. The views of the rest of the 5% (all 5 other NMPs) are unknown. So, even in this scenario, the 81% who would have voted along party lines won’t represent the 65% of Singaporeans who would be against the white paper.

By now, we would know that the problem is because the seats in parliament is determined by the seats won directly at the election and is not representative of the proportionate votes of Singaporeans. If the seats were distributed according to the voting proportion of the population, PAP would have 52 seats (60%) and WP would have 35 seats (40%). Together with the NCMPs and NMPs, the non-PAP seats would be 47 seats. Even then, PAP would be able to endorse the white paper by 53% and will still not represent the 65% of Singaporeans who would be disagreeable with the white paper. But of course, the opposition would have been able to block the paper, if they would be able to garner at least a one-third representation.

So, what this inherently shows is the flaw of our governance. First, the proportionate affiliation of our MPs do not proportionately represent Singaporeans. Second, the MPs, at least for PAP MPs are required to vote along party lines, which means that even as they have been voted in to represent us, they are unable to do so, because they would have to vote along party lines. Third, and a philosophical one, if our MP was given the free will to vote, what are the considerations that our MP would use to determine how he or she would vote? Would our MP ask us to take a vote separately, so that with that, our MP will then vote in parliament accordingly? Or will the MP speak to us and find out what we think before he or she comes to a consensus. But, in PAP’s case, it’s obvious that MPs aren’t voting for residents, but are voting for their party, which then is weird, right? In a democracy, the MPs are elected to represent the people in his or her constituency. But our MPs are elected by us to represent their party (at least for PAP), which means that we are not voting for our rights, but voting to keep PAP in power.

Now, I will make a comparison. In Britain, their parliament had 3 days ago “voted in favour of the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Bill, by 400 to 175, a majority of 225.” The Coalition government in Britain is led by the Conservative Party. The Conservative MPs were given free rein to vote on the issue. 136 Conservatives opposed the bill, whereas 127 were in favour and 35 did not vote. But the bill was passed with the support of the Liberal Democrats and Labour parties. There wasn’t such a thing as voting along party lines for the Conservatives, just because they did not hold similar views towards the issue. Which was exactly the situation with the PAP MPs for the white paper – that a minority if them didn’t share similar views to the majority of PAP MPs, yet all of them had voted to endorse the amended motion.

Interestingly, the Singapore Population White Paper has actually heightened the consciousness of many Singaporeans, especially since it also focused on their livelihoods and future. At this point, Singaporeans would asking why the white paper was passed even as many of them were concerned that it didn’t adequately address issues, but as much as their MPs had said that they were on the people’s side, why then did they still pass the motion, and not forestall it if they were truly on the people’s side. As said, the endorsement was on the amended motion and not on the actual white paper, so perhaps MPs were voting along this line. Still, whether PAP will still proceed with the plans anyway is unclear.

At this point, Singaporeans would also start asking, if my MP isn’t able to be independent and isn’t able to fairly represent my rights, and if by my voting, I am not voting for an MP to represent my rights, but to vote for an MP which helps to consolidate his or her party’s power, maybe I need to decide if this is the kind of MP I want. As of now, after all the debate, not only have we not dealt with the key issues behind the white paper, we are none the wiser as to how, and whether the plans will be executed and how the plans will meet our needs. If our MP had been responsible, he or she would have forestalled or halted the endorsement of even the amended motion, so that more research could be conducted, and so that we are able to make an informed decision and to be able to voice our views to our MPs. Yet, this won’t be done.

Thus this episode has exposed the workings of our parliament, and the representation of the MPs not for our rights but for their party, and how we need to now be a lot more discerning with our votes and vote for someone who can really speak up for us and be our voice, and not a meek voice of their party. You see, voting for someone into parliament is to vote for someone who is able to speak up on our behalf and to consolidate what we think to formulate broad strategies. The white paper was a proposal compiled and researched by the people working in the civil service. Any government would be able to put it up for discussion and vote for it. So, we need to vote in MPs who are able to adequately perform their roles, without having to face barriers from within their party. PAP, to some, have enacted unnecessary barriers, which compromises on their fighting for our rights.

This means that for the next general election, we need to be quite clear about how our we vote, and to vote for representation that is able to clearly represent us.

Fundamental Issues about the White Paper

After a week of debate, the debate still doesn’t cover the depth and scope of the white paper. Much of the debate has centered around how the government believes that it’s on the side of Singaporeans and how we should continue to trust the government to do its job.

Yet, we haven’t dealt with the fundamental questions. What are the governing principles of PAP. PAP is primarily wealth-driven and also, driven by their want to stay in power. Thus their core idea is to maximize profits, which means they would enact high rents on businesses, whereby businesses will then translate these costs into depressed wages for their workers. Consequently, productivity decreases because of businesses who do not have the incentive to invest in technology or programmes to boost productivity due to low profits, and also because of workers who do not feel that they are compensated enough to work more efficiently. From such a perspective, it thus seems like there is a need to bring in more people to compensate for a workforce which isn’t motivated to be productive, just so that we can continue to increase economic output. Clearly, the fundamental problem isn’t to increase the population or to look at the population as the problem. A deeper and more urgent problem needs to be tackled, and that is to revisit the government’s rent-seeking and profit-maximizing behaviour. However, if the government is unwilling to relook their ideals of governance, which are the key impediments to the sustainability of the Singapore economy, then one would need to ask if PAP is still relevant to the governance of its country if it holds on to principles which will adversely harm Singapore.

I will leave you with some very good articles which also explore the deeper underlying issues behind the Singapore economy. Lucky Tan, of the Diary of a Singaporean Mind, had explained how the economy of Singapore had developed into the situation that it is now. He explained that, “Since the mid-90s, Singapore has evolved what is known euphemistically as an “open” economy. It is a combination of low corporate taxes, less financial sector regulation, less restrictive labor laws, less protection for workers, etc. Businesses escaping the regulated environment back in their home countries came here for the “open” environment where they can escape high taxes and tight labor regulation. In the past, businesses came primarily for our local human resource – Singapore’s number one workforce in the world. But in the last decade, we attracted business that came because they were able to hire liberally from anywhere in the world and not because they want to build their expansion on the skills of the Singaporean workforce. The existence and expansion of these businesses that hired foreign labor curtailed and stifled those that build on the strengths and training of the Singaporean workforce. Now we have an economy that grows by taking in foreign labor – one that depend on suppression of wages not on advancing the skills and wages of Singaporeans.” Please visit his blog here to read further.

Alex Au had also looked into how we should look into exploring using technology to boost productivity and to look into fair wage compensation as the inherent issues to also look at. You can read his article here.

Finally, the vice-presidents of the Economic Society of Singapore have also penned a very excellent article which debunks the logical fallacies in the thinking behind the white paper and proposes alternative ways to relook the Singapore economy and population, so that we are able to develop a more sustainable approach towards managing our economy and population. You can read the article here.

I’ve also written a series of articles to explore the principles and thinking behind our government’s planning of the Singapore Population White Paper, and to look at how we can rethink the philosophies behind understanding the governance of Singapore, as well as to understand the deeper issues of our society. You can read the articles here.

Collectively, this article and the articles in the links should allow you to have a deeper appreciation of the population and economic issues of Singapore, and to understand why we need a fundamental philosophical shift in approaching the solutions of our country, so that we can develop a more sustainable future for Singapore.

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11 comments

  1. Nelspruit

    Just 1 thing, I couldn’t help ignoring while the debate was going on until the vote. It’s a bit conspiracy theory thingy – I think the whole idea from the start was to start with the White Paper and then steer it to an amendment (given to a newbie MP – so add gravitas to his stature). to show the Govt was ‘willing to consider the cries of the people’.
    The draw down to 6.9 only being ‘plan’ not a permanent target, was not unexpected I think. This gave an opportunity for the PAP to show that their MPs were not different from the WP’s. They could and would ask hard questions. Perhaps they took the negative comments about the WP being ‘soft and silent’, as chance to prove it further and got their own MPs to point out some flaws.
    This will likely be a consistent theme from now on, ‘don’t worry’ we’ll play close attention to this and your PAP MPs will also listen and help change policy to better suit or solve problems.
    I think besides other factors mentioned here and elsewhere, this White Paper was also a PR exercise to shore up the credentials of some lesser known MPs.

    Finally as to the voting pattern – I think you can’t compare the Commons vote on gay marriages with this. For that issue in the UK, the Whip was lifted and that’s why it sailed thru. If the Whip wasn’t lifted I think a much closer margin would have occurred. There have been a lot of times since this Coalition came to power when the Whip wasn’t lifted as compared to when it was.
    Here it’s always been the norm not to lift the Whip, I can’t remember the last time it was done.
    But the bottom line is you vote for parties (as far as House majorities and Govts are formed), and it’s expected that MPs you vote in, will always toe the party line most of the time. It’s the same here as in the UK, Canada, Australia and elsewhere. Without the Whip it might become difficult for Govts to function. But I suspect here, the PAP MPs will almost always toe the Govt,line Whip or no whip. I think voters here know that by now already – it will only be different if you vote in an opposition MP.

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