What the Debate on the White Paper Has Taught Us: We Also Have Solutions

By now, it should be obvious to you that what the debate over the white paper has taught us is this – Singaporeans have the answers and we have the solutions.

After all the government’s fear mongering that we need a strong government with majority control because only they have the answers and that only they know what needs to be done, by now, we should realise that:

1) First, the government does not know everything that needs to be done. In fact, for the white paper, they had relied on old solutions to fix new problems, and

2) That Singaporeans, when we are given the chance to think and to debate, we are able to coherently think through issues, think through them deeply and propose alternative solutions and ways of working.

PAP’s Inherent Flaw: Their Own Trappings

One common idea that is propagated is that this government is made up of politicians who are part of group think. But what exactly do we mean? This group of current government politicians are a by-product of the education that has favoured them, at least most of them, who have been to good schools and who have been educated with an elitist mindset that they were born to be the best achievers in life. Once they enter the PAP’s machinery, they are expected to align themselves to their topmost leadership’s beliefs. And by and large, they do because their education has also wrought them into believing that wealth generation, even if it’s at the expense of Singaporeans, is necessary and right.

But what this debate around the white paper has shown is this – actually, they don’t have the solutions, well, not all anyway, and in fact, they’ve run out of ideas. When asked to increase economic growth in Singapore, what is PAP’s solution? Increase the population. And what was their previous solution? Improve productivity. That started more seriously to do so three years ago, but they haven’t seen outcomes. But does that mean that improving productivity is not the right solution or that Singaporeans can hardly be made more productivity? No, the problem lies exactly with what the Worker’s Party has described of PAP’s efforts – “half-hearted” attempts.

Why Productivity Didn’t Work and Why They Had to Turn to Population Growth

If you want to improve productivity, you don’t just set money aside. You go speak to companies, you speak to workers, you find out which companies need to improve their productivity most, and you work your way up, helping each sector develop new ideas and innovate. So, you don’t just throw money but you work with them and collaboratively come out with new ways and new methods. Sitting on your high horse won’t do anything. And you don’t just give money. You look at how companies can be made more nimble. You reduce their rents. In fact, this is one bugbear that companies have been hoping that the government will do more about, but the government has refused to reduce their reliance on their rent-seeking behaviour and this government continues to be part of the problem. And most importantly, you speak to the workers and you listen to their needs, you reduce work hours, give them higher wages, so that from all these, you create a workforce which is motivated to be productive, businesses who have the impetus to innovate and we would by now, start to see the seeds of innovation sowed bring about higher productivity.

But the government had refused to look at the whole issue of productivity growth as one that needs to be looked from multiple angles. They thought that setting aside some money will resolve the issue without looking at the structural impediments within the business, their policies and the workforce. And thus the “half-hearted” attempt. But the government wouldn’t want to implement a full-hearted solution! That would have eaten into their profits.

And so, after 3 years of not being able to improve productivity, and not being able to understand why, being trapped in their own dogma and thinking, the government decided that they needed to think of new solutions. And so, they figured – if improving productivity doesn’t work, then we need to increase the number of people. New solutions? The government is stuck with their dual-perspectives for economic growth – we can only increase economic growth by either increasing productivity or population. And so, their new solution was to rely on, well essentially, what’s an old solution.

And this is why they’ve decided to release the white paper as a ‘Population’ paper. To them, increasing the population is the solution, and so they had decided to frame the title of their white paper as the solution. But worse still, for the white paper, not only will there be more workers, wages will still continue to be low. This is hardly a solution!

Singaporeans Start Offering Better Solutions

And then, that’s when the new solutions started coming in. And these solutions aren’t even from the government! Given that the people only had a week to really sieve through the content of the white paper, they started telling the government – it’s not the population, silly! You need to restructure the economy, you need to look at how we attract companies which are able to operate in a tighter manpower environment where they would be able to compete and use new technologies to work. You need to restructure the economy, allow for a more competitive market and attract the right industries and not those that rely on freely and cheap labour. In fact, you need to reduce rentals so that businesses will have the impetus to innovate. You need to increase the wages of your workers so that they will become part of your solution, and altogether, productivity will grow. And when productivity grows, our economy will grow, and there you have it! We won’t need to increase the population by that much and we will continue to have a strong economy.

And all these solutions came from Singaporeans. All these solutions and ideas came from Singaporeans who came together to look at the issue, look at other statistics and information, develop their own ideas and together, put together a more convincing framework of how we can understand our economy and reenvision it. Not only that, we were able to look with different lenses and look even more deeply at the issue, and realise that we cannot just look at our economic situation at the surface, but that we need to look within to look at how we need to undo some of our current practices so that it will create breathing spaces, precisely what the Worker’s Party and many Singaporeans were talking about.

Singaporeans, we are the solution! We have ideas and we know what can be done to improve our country! For a long time, the government says that only it knows what can be done and Singaporeans need to trust the government. But from this episode, not only has the government shown itself to be lost and actually quite helpless, Singaporeans took on the mantle and took on the responsibility to take care of ourselves. I am very impressed by how Singaporeans got our act together and did what we did. We should all give ourselves a pat on our backs.

PAP Continues to Want to Hold the High Ground

This is so much so that that Minister Heng Swee Keat was reported to have said today that, “economic restructuring is of “utmost priority”. Before the debate on the population white paper, “population growth” was their buzz word, but after the debate, “economic restructuring” is now the new buzz word. But isn’t this what Singaporeans started saying first? Isn’t this what was being proposed by us as the solution to mitigate population growth? And now, the government is starting to adopt our ideas. Well, it’s good that they are listening but the problem with PAP is that they do not like to admit that they are wrong and they like to think that they are the holders to new ideas and new thoughts, so even as Mr Heng or any other PAP politicians were to utter, “economic restructuring” as the solution now or in future, they would want to think and believe that they came out with the idea, when it was Singaporeans who started discussing the idea. The danger with this is that then, they will keep thinking that they know everything that is needed to govern for Singapore, and forget that they need to work with Singaporeans.

To PAP’s credit, we do have to thank them for messing up, for releasing the white paper without sufficient detail, and also releasing a paper which does not address the key concerns of Singaporeans enough, and all these right after they’d suffered one of their most embarrassing defeat at the Punggol East by-election. We have to thank PAP for messing up, so that we were given the chance to realise that even without them, we have the power, we have the knowledge, and we have what it takes to resolve problems in our own country, in our own home.

We Do Not Need Smart Leaders, We Need Leaders Who Can Listen and Think

If anything, what this should show you is that no matter who is in the government, we have the ability to create solutions for our country. If that’s the case, does it matter who is in government? It doesn’t, because what is it that you truly need? You need a government and politicians who know how to listen and who know how to put what they hear from us together and frame them into solutions.

So, it’s not about getting the smartest and best people into government. It’s about putting in thinkers and listeners, who are able to put what they hear from you together, philosophise what they hear, understand the deeper issues and with that all, create an overarching way of approaching the issue and then, check in with you again to see if the proposed solution makes sense, and if this is what you want and what is good for the country. This is the kind of leaders we need. Not just surgeons, lawyers or engineers who are able to analyse something mathematically or logically. We need not just these but anyone from all walks of life who can weave things together and who can understand the philosophies behind why things happen and understand the psychologies about how people feel and dynamically create a solution from it all. We need leaders.

Given a choice between smart people, and people who can listen, draw connections and put things together based on what they hear, what would you prefer? It’s easy to find many smart and well-educated people, but to find someone who has the humility to listen and the ability to think – “I don’t have all the answers but I’m willing to listen to everyone to create a communal solution”, I think I will take the latter anytime.

How Should You Vote at the Next Election?

At the next election, what you should be looking out for isn’t who has the masters, the PhD, who is the doctor, engineer or lawyer, but who is listening, and who knows how to listen without letting it all get into his or her head. You get people who listen, you put them in government, and when it comes to the time when we need to find solutions, they should then open up, come back to all of us and ask us about what we think, listen, go back and put everything together, then come back and ask us if what they’ve thought through is what we want. By then, chances are that the solutions would most probably be what we want, and all of us will have a stake and say in this country we call home.

How the government should work is to consult us, consult the think tanks and consult all stakeholders, such as government agencies, businesses, civil society etc – not just create a one off conversation but regular conversations, always listening and allowing people on the ground to brainstorm and discuss issues, so that ideas develop organically and there is always a constant boom of ideas among Singaporeans.

From this debate, we now know that Singaporeans are capable of doing this and being part of a Singapore where they have a stake. We know we have the knowledge and the ability to create for Singapore. Now, we need leaders who can acknowledge that and allow for that to happen. We need leaders who are willing to work with us, listen to us and have the humility to walk with us. This way, we will then learn to trust that they have our interests at heart.

Will PAP Heed the Signs of Change?

Is our current government willing to do this? There are now many people asking for the government to open up and to remove laws which impede on our freedom of speech. The only way this government can go is to give us our voices back and let us be part of the solution. If this government continues to want to protect their power to refuse to do so, this will be their downfall. There’s no two ways about it. If this government continues to disrespect the people’s rights, the people will only do what’s right for themselves at the next election and vote this government out.

From this current debate over the white paper, the people should know that they don’t need a government to do everything for them, now that they know that they can also do things for themselves, by themselves. By now, they would know that they need a government who knows how to listen and to be humble. And the people would know by 2016 to vote someone who will respect them according to these.


  1. Jentrified Citizen

    Agree wholeheartedly with your commentary that the government has gone about it the wrong way. It should be bottom up and there must be a sincere outreach to understand the needs of the people and what motivates them before one can even start seeking solutions. They have failed on this score. I would also add that we not only need a government that listens and thinks, but one that listens sincerely and thinks out of the box. They must not be afraid to try new ideas, even if it is from the people, and to step out their comfort zone of tried and tested ways.

  2. The

    /// First, the government does not know everything that needs to be done. In fact, for the white paper, they had relied on old solutions to fix new problems… ///

    This is not even correct. They are relying on old solutions to fix old and recurring problems which have already been proven to be ineffective.

  3. Me

    Today’ssolutionswillalways be tomorrow’s problems. Think back to the stop at 2 , growing a second wing, allowing hdb prices to be driven by the market, the privatization of transport etc.

  4. Homesick in Brazil

    “You go speak to companies, you speak to workers, you find out which companies need to improve their productivity most, and you work your way up, helping each sector develop new ideas and innovate.”

    I disagree the government must do those – that’s micromanaging. The government can encourage tie-ups between industries, with academia and places like PSB. That’s all.

    I can’t imagine civil service teaching SMEs and entreprenuers about productivity and efficiency. Can you? Small government is the way in this area, not big government.

    • My Right to Love

      Hi Homesick,

      Thank you for your comment.

      Though this is also something the companies have hoped that the government can look into – the government needs to set the tone as to what kind of productivity growth that they are looking at, and what they are willing to assist in. I think right now, the companies do not have clarity on this and they would like some guidance on it.

      I think in the example of the Nordic countries, I understand they had set up a government agency to look into innovation for the companies.

      What needs to be done is not micromanaging the companies, but to assist with educating them, by giving them more guidance and training, so that with that, they will have better skills to restructure their businesses with. This is what the companies are asking for as well – what do you want us to do when you talk about increasing productivity? As much as companies should have the ability to innovate, they would need to have guidance as to what is expected from a policy perspective.

      I don’t agree with micromanaging as well, but there’s education and training to kick start innovation and productivity, and then there’s dictating to companies that needs to be done.



  5. Pingback: Daily SG: 13 Feb 2013 | The Singapore Daily

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