Reflections On The Protest Against The Population White Paper: Part 1

It is perhaps somewhat disappointing to see the initial media coverage that the foreign news media had thus far reported about the protest.

Yesterday, more than 4,000, or perhaps 5,000 Singaporeans protested at Hong Lim Park. Officially, the protest was intended to protest against the 6.9 million population figure that the government had projected for Singapore in 2030 in the population white paper that was recently released.

CNN had reported that, “Protesters on Saturday insisted they didn’t fear foreigners but worry about the loss of Singaporean jobs to foreigners, depressed wages and overcrowding that has taxed Singapore’s infrastructure, including housing and transportation. Protesters also say the government’s plans will make them a minority in their own country. “Imagine a place where you can be a stranger in your own home,” a protester said.”

According to BBC, “Many locals blame immigration for rises in property prices and living costs … (and that) many local people say the surge in foreigners in recent years has already put a strain on the small, wealthy island state’s resources, and has pushed down salaries while raising property prices.”

Bloomberg has also reported that, “Protesters expressed unhappiness with the policy that could see citizens, including new ones, making up only one of every two people on the island smaller in size than New York City by the end of the next decade should the population reach 6.9 million.”

What was disappointing was that the media coverage had, so far, been framed about the xenophobic sentiments that seems to pervade the Singaporean society. It is unfortunate that as much as the organizers and speakers had tried their best to frame the protest as one that isn’t about Singaporeans being unwelcoming towards foreigners, this was possibly the most consistent theme that had caught the media’s attention. It did not help that the day before, the organizer, Mr Gilbert Goh, had released an article which had described the characteristics of foreigners in Singapore. This caused an uproar among Singaporeans who were against such profiling and what they thought was xenophobic sentiment. Mr Gilbert retracted the article after the uproar. He also apologised at the protest.

Are Singaporeans Unhappy with Foreigners?

Yet as much as he might have shown seemingly xenophobic attitudes, the truth was that, there are also many Singaporeans who were adopting attitudes and beliefs similar to his in their arguments against the white paper or the 6.9 million figure, or about their unhappiness with the current state of Singapore. When the article on the profiling of foreigners came out, what it did was to put it in writing what a segment of Singaporeans had been thinking about all this while – the article put a mirror in front of Singaporeans and showed them how ugly they had turned the conversation into. As unfortunate as it was, it was a blessing in disguise. If Singaporeans had continued on the path of sidelining foreigners, simply because of their unhappiness which they have not thoroughly understood, there are dire implications. This should hopefully help put a check to their beliefs.

If we put aside our unhappiness for a while and think about Singapore for a second, we would remember that as the 4th largest financial centre in the world at the current moment, we would need to be open to foreign investment, being that we have no large MNCs on our own. We need to be open and welcoming to foreigners because they also partake in making our economy vibrant and progressive. Unlike South Korea, which is the 5th largest financial centre, there is perhaps lesser reliance on foreign investment, because of the strong presence of local companies. However, Singapore doesn’t. Now, what then is the problem? Is the problem because foreigners are coming to take our jobs away, or because we did not develop strong global companies to start with?

Then again, we do have global companies, if you could count Singtel and DBS Bank, as among some of the companies which have ventured beyond our shores. Yet, have they developed products which have an appeal such as that which Korea’s Samsung and LG, or Japan’s Sony has? Our companies merely invest in the telecommunications or banks of the other countries, and even when the money flows back to Singtel and DBS, they go back to Temasek Holdings and the government, where the people hardly receive the benefits of our local companies’ global investments. Back to the question, is it then a problem of foreigners or that we do not have global companies? Well, we do have companies with global investments, but definitely not comparable to the likes of Samsung, Apple, Google or even McDonald’s. Can we then blame foreigners for coming in, because of our lack of ability to create companies which can go global?

The Problem Isn’t With the Foreigners – It’s With the Government

Or, if we look deeper, we’ve heard from others how our government’s efforts to grow local companies seem to lack steam. But why is this so? There are many reasons, some of which we are not privy to because of their behind-the-scenes decision-making. But one big reason, as companies have continually cited, is the high costs – high rental and transport costs among others. And as I’ve explained, the high rental and transport costs are in the control of the government, which can decide how much they want to charge businesses. Now, the question then is, is our government interested to grow local businesses, if they continue to keep costs high, and price businesses out of the competition? It does seem that the government isn’t interested in creating local companies because their main agenda is to increase their own coffers and profits. If that is the case, we will always need to import foreign MNCs and wealthy SMCs into Singapore, to make up for what Singapore isn’t able to do for itself – build local companies.

And if you’ve been following my train of thought, you would know that the issue isn’t about putting our displeasure on foreigners, but directing our questions directly at the government – why do you insist on earning money that the sustainability of Singapore is put into question? Without our own local companies which are able to make their mark globally, Singapore doesn’t have a company which is able to help hinge Singapore in the global economy and solidify Singapore’s status as an innovation hub. And I’m not talking about companies like Singtel which identify investment opportunities. Singtel is acting more like an investment company, like Temasek Holdings, an not as innovating company. In fact, our major local companies and also owned by the government, seem to act as investment companies more so than anything. Otherwise, the closest we’ve come so far with, is Creative, which is no longer as influential and possibly Hyflux, which has developed an expertise in water destination.

The Problem Is That The Government Is Also The Business

So, to be very clear, our anger shouldn’t be directed at foreigners. That’s misplacing our anger. The problem is with a government which has learnt so much to rely on its rent-seeking behaviour that it has priced our own local businesses out of the market. Unlike other countries which enact protectionist policies to help their local companies grow in the short term, our government adopt a protectionist rent-seeking behaviour to protect their own profits, while side-lining even local businesses. The problem with this government is that it wants control.

In another country, very broadly, there is the government, and then there are businesses and there are people. So, the government relies on businesses to make money which uses the labour of the people and then pay the people. In turn, the government will obtain money from the businesses and people and redistribute wealth to equalize the society. In Singapore, the government wants to be the business. The government wants to be the one to make money and to then obtain the money. But what isn’t happening is that first, by right, the government should prevent businesses from paying the people low wages. Yet, because this government also owns 60% of the economy, this government wants to pay people low wages. Second, because this government is the business, it has thus not decided to redistribute wealth back to the people.

And therein lies the first fundamental problem for Singapore – a government which is a business which has decided that making money is of a higher priority and that taking care of the people’s needs is secondary, and of more lesser importance. When the government had decided to play such a controlling role in Singapore’s early years, if we could try to appreciate that they might have good intentions, it could be because they had believed that if they could control everything, that they would be able to make key decisions faster and implement them faster. Because they had wanted to grow Singapore as fast as they could, they might want to have control over key areas in governance and the economy. Yet, this very belief has overpowered them. Now, because they’ve institutionalised the control by making themselves as the business, they’ve assumed this role more pervasively than their role of government. Essentially, they’ve neglected their role of governance – of taking care of the people.

This Is Why The Government Wants To Increase More People

And this is why, when they had developed the population white paper, their mindset towards the white paper was based on this – on making money, and not on taking care of the people. And looking at how they’ve been thinking, they want to continue to implement high rents and costs on businesses. In doing so, they know that businesses won’t have enough profits in the short term to want to innovate to increase productivity. So, if they want to squeeze businesses in terms of costs, they would need to allow businesses to be able to take a breather for other costs not within their control – wages. And this is why they want to bring in people which companies can pay low wages for. And this is why the government wants more people – 6.9 million people.

Now, I’ve tried many times to explain this because it is essential that you understand this. Because once you can understand this, you will know where to direct your unhappiness at. On the surface, when we look at the 6.9 million people figure, we process this information to be – oh no, there will be too many people! If Singaporeans are not giving birth, then the additional people are foreigners. We should not let these foreigners in! These foreigners are here to take our jobs.

But wait a minute! These foreigners would go anywhere where there are jobs! So would you! So, it’s not about who is coming but why the policies are so lax that it does not cater to a balance in the number of people who are coming. And as I’ve described above, the problem is with a government which wants to earn money off the rents of businesses which has given businesses very little incentive to restructure their operations, and so without restructuring, they will continue to employ low-wage workers, which the government is very willing to give, so that it allows the government to continue to collect high rents from businesses. Now, you need to be very, very clear on this.

When we talk about protesting against the 6.9 million figure? What are we talking about? We are talking about the government’s profit-making motives and their bad policies to manage foreigner in-flow, rooted in their ideology in profit-making. And we are talking about a government which does not care about the people.

You can continue to read Part 2 of the article here.

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15 comments

  1. c.j. Ng

    While I do agree that the Government owning 60% of the economy is detrimental to entrepreneurship and innovation in Singapore, the reason for the Foreign Media to report on Singaporeans’ xenophobic tendencies is that we are intolerant of foreign practices ourselves!

    Having dealt with the Ascott Group (a wholly-owned subsidiary of Capitaland), I can first-hand relate to how the GLC is not only not innovative, but also high on extrating value than on creating it. I have also been a victim of the GLC’s practice of not supporting private Singapore businesses overseas (I was awarded a contract by Ascott Group, but ONLY when the decision maker was a Hong Konger, who was asked to leave following a “restructuring” some time later). In this context, yes, there is much fo the Government to be held accountable.

    However, in view of the Population Debate, must of the recurring phrases tend to focus on how home feels like overseas, and how uneasy one feels when there’s too many foreigners.

    While some Opposition parties tried to portray themselves as “not anti-foreigners, just anti the pace of immigration and influx of foreign talents”, many people (incl. many posts on Social Media) displayed disdain for foreign practices and ways of behaviour.

    Granted, such foreign practices and behaviours can be disruptive and irritating, it’s also a matter of having mutual tolerance, respect and understanding. Do we seek to understand them, while asking them to understand and accept our ways of living?

    Again, we can point to the Government and say that integration efforts are dismal, which is true. However, are we as a people willing to be less conceited about the outside world?

    • My Right to Love

      Dear c.j.,

      Thanks for bringing this up. It’s a very good point and something which I had forgotten to cover.

      If I may add, as to why Singaporeans do not seem to exhibit accepting attitudes towards others, you are right and this doesn’t isn’t just reflected on our attitudes towards foreigners, but on other races and other populations as well.

      There are two attributions to this – first, the people need to be more aware and need to learn to look within and deeply to reflect on themselves and their own attitudes and second, this can be attributed to the government’s policies.

      Why do I say this? The government’s policies of segregating the races, for one, has inevitable created a situation where the races has as well have a less understanding of one another. Whereas in our parent’s and grandparent’s time, where they have close kinship with their fellow neighbours of all races, is this as prevalent in Singapore now?

      Also, because discourse on racial and cultural issues are strongly frowned upon and the Singaporean society is not encouraged to reflect and think about social issues, because of laws in place which causes people to inhibit social and political thinking, it has bred a people whose ability to think critically and deeply is severely stunted.

      So, when people judge another, do they step back and take the time to think about and understand why they judge another, and in doing so, learn not to do so? They don’t? In our culture where we’ve learnt to be look at things on the surface, we’ve inevitably created a people who judge because they think reactionary and do not explore their reactions deeper.

      Do I blame them? It has to be an equal share where both the government and the people play a part. But I would attribute more blame to government policies. You see, I know of some people who are able to learn to be aware, and it requires a mind that is willing to challenge the system and think beyond the system to be able to then learn to identify with the fellow human person and to learn to understand what another person go through, so that we can then learn to accept them.

      With government policies which causes stress among people, where day in, day out, they have to think about their own survival, people are unlikely to spend time empathising with another. Not only that, more than 40 years of education and control has created a people who have been severely limited in their minds and imaginations to be able to think otherwise. Yes, we might have a well-educated population, but one which is educated in hard sciences, where our ability to understand the human psyche and society has been severely compromised.

      Do I blame the people for not being able to appreciate and accept differences? Yes, because we should try to break out of the mould and learn to think deeply and show acceptance. But, I would attribute more blame on the government for refusing to tear down or reform a system which has created people who are unthinking and obedient, and because of this has created people who have become so sorely self-centred and self-protectionist. This government has to allow for people’s rights and autonomy to be respected if we are to move the Singaporean society into a first world society. We have a first world economy but hardly a first world government or society.

      Do I blame our people for behaving like cultured barbarians when their government, which isn’t too far off, has set the tone and standards which they are made to abide by?

      Thanks!

      Roy

      • Anthony Sim

        Roy, you are so spot on. The government is to blame for the result it has created which inadvertently infested in Singaporeans. The hard push for academic success is too entrenched. Where is the quality of live? When everyone is pushing to the limit to succeed, quality of live is compromised.

        Take a look at the children in school. Are they allowed to develop naturally? They are immediately segregated into 2 different classes of students. The highly potential breed and the ordinary. It is all fantastic especially when we are some of the most educated people in the world. So what. We are not all rounded. We lack humility because we are too competitive. We lack spontaneous humor and sophistication in many ways. Because we are taught to be subservient and “agree to disagree every time”. That’s what the PM said recently when asked about sexual equality.

        Take a look at all our PAP ministers. They are always up tied and lack charisma. Every time, I see them on TV making a statement or speech, every word that is poured out of their mouths are so rehearsed and dry as a cotton ball as PAP want them to be. The lack of emotions and empathy by our ministers sometimes embarrassed me to tell friends and colleagues I am still from Singapore.

        There we go. Some things must change. The current party or a new and dynamic one. I await the GE 2016.

      • c.j. Ng

        Hi Roy,

        Perhaps instead of using the word “blame”, we can change to “hold someone accountable/ responsible”.

        “Blame” means it’s someone else’s fault, and NONE OF MY BUSINESS.

        Whereas “holding the government accountable” will be more like “yes, the screwed up, but let’s see what we can do from here”

        Just my 2 cents’

        c.j.

      • My Right to Love

        Dear c.j.,

        Sorry, it’s a poor choice of words! I agree with you in your definitions.

        By the way, thank you for your insights. It is very useful. I try to look at things from a broad perspective and to look at research, but in terms of on-ground understandings, things that you share provide eye-opening perspectives.

        Thanks! 🙂

        Roy

    • c.j. Ng

      Since I have been in China for many years, it can be a challenge “re-integrating” back to Singapore.

      Having been away from Singapore for 9 years, I find many Singaporeans weaker in Heart and Soul now as compared to then. And part of the reason is that we live in an environment that rewards obedience. Obedience to everything and anything that the authority says.

      Thinking is a privilege reserved for scholars, not farmers like some of us.

      It’s like do as you’re told, and you will get the promised rewards. Which kinda worked for many years when incomes were rising.

      Starting salaries may have increased, but the wage ceiling remains the same, AND we have severe asset inflation in the past few years.

      Since the 2011 GE, there has been a lot of frustration and anger vented by the once obedient people. The Punggol East BE’s results have shown that this frustration has increased with the very convincing WP win (which fortunately for the ruling party the White Paper was released after, and not before the BE).

      Unfortunately, decades and generations of non-thinking has made us vulnerable in exploring alternatives, in having the courage of our forefathers to venture into the unknown. Decades of dependance on authoritative guidance have left us incapable of independent thought and action.

      While I would like to hold the government accountable for some of its policies that result in weakening the spirit and vibrancy of the Singaporean Core, the Singaporean Core wld have to do its own soul searching on what we must do to improve ourselves, to be stronger and more resilient.

      The step to avoid xenophobic and racist expression is a good development. It shows the masses have matured and are able to established its own rules, without being told by the government.

      Let’s just see how the future unfolds. If a GE is called today, given the negative sentiments from all across with regards to the Population “Roadmap”, we could actually have voted in a different government. But a different government is not going to solve the challenges we face today. We, as a people, will have to put in our blood, sweat and tears ON OUR OWN TERMS, to create the future we want.

  2. layman

    Sorry about my being blur. It is true that the Government owns 60% of the economy, but how to know that the government doesn’t build profit-seeking economy?

    Do you have evidence to show that the economy run by government relies on rent-seeking behavior only to make profits?

    Thank you.

    • c.j. Ng

      Hi layman,

      Based on my knowledge after having had the Ascott Group as one of my clients, at least as far as the Ascott and its parent Capitaland is concerned, the answer is yes.

      When a hotel or service apartment ages over the years, the industry practice is to do renovation so that the property remains attractive to customers. Not for the properties under Ascott. They refuse to renovate/ upgrade, and choose to sell the property at a good price.

      Their rationale is that they could make better profits if they sell the entire property, than if the upgrade and provide their rooms at a higher price.

      While this is good for the short term, the long term implications is that some of the best properties in the most prime locations are sold prematurely. Meaning, had they owned the property longer, the value of that property will be even much higher.

      And just to clarify: upgrading the old service apartment is in a small way adding or creating value. Selling the entire property is value appropriating, or rent-seeking in Economics terms.

      Cheers,

      c.j.

  3. Pingback: Reflections On The Protest Against The Population White Paper: Part 2 | The Heart Truths
  4. eremarf

    @Roy, thought you’d like to know that Ngiam Tong Dow in 2004 shared some thoughts similar to yours about how government has chosen (not?) to control land and transport costs:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/User:Vsion/Ngiam_Tong_Dow (see items 11, 12, 13; his other points were also good – except I disagree with 6, about needing balanced budgets in recovery contexts.)

    (Sorry I don’t have access to a better source)

    @layman: it’s nearer to 20+% of our GDP than 60% (of what?). (BTW I’m also a layman – so please correct me if I’m wrong!)

    For example, see http://www.temasek.com.sg/mediacentre/medialetters?detailid=8258 (beats me why they would publish 1998 and 2001 data in 2011 though – probably have things to hide – but 60% is way too high… might include civil service + GLCs, lumped together as government – and might not be share of GDP, might be employment figures – someone please educate us – Roy?)

    Re: rent-seeking, from: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rent_seeking – “rent-seeking is an attempt to obtain economic rent by manipulating the social or political environment in which economic activities occur, rather than by creating new wealth”

    Singapore interferes heavily with both social life and the economy – I think people agree on this. Rent-seeking is also often realized through political lobbying (though it need not be) and resulting government (in)action. Given such a situation, it’s hard to differentiate if the SG gov’t is involved in rent-seeking behaviour, or is just interfering for good reasons, e.g. to solve market failures, provide public goods.

    One example is in transport. Are SMRT and SBS rent-seeking (create and maintain monopolies, so as to charge as high a fare as they can while providing as cheap and lousy a service as they can get away with), or are they providing public goods? A mix of both probably? This is the schizophrenia Roy describes right? Gov’t is business and business is gov’t. As so-called “privatized” entities, SMRT and SBS would be profit-maximizing, CEOs would be incentivized to cut costs, increase profits, etc especially in the short-term. But because they’re GLCs, and even receive direct gov’t susidies, you think they’re also subservient to the nation’s goals – that their monopolies are solely used to bring about economies of scale, and to run unprofitable routes so that all citizens get a minimum transport solution (but look at Punggol! no buses!), rather than rent extraction.

    There’re countless other examples. Telcos, energy, water, waste disposal, etc are in the same position. Defence contractors (Singapore Technologies) are in a more indirect way. There’s even less of a case for supermarket chains and childcare (no public goods provision, so private competition should be enough – letting GLCs get involved is asking for conflict of interest, asking for rent-seeking to occur).

    There’s an inherent conflict of interest here. Which is why WP’s call to re-nationalize some of these formerly state-owned enterprises make sense (beyond WP’s general critique of the transport subsidy in 2011, Yee Jenn Jong has called for an end to subsidies only to PCF and NTUC childcare – he argues childcare is a public good, so subsidies should go to all childcare operators). Either create a fully competitive market and minimise rent-seeking – or if that’s too difficult – keep it nationalized. The inefficiencies of state-run firms might not be as expensive as the inefficiencies of rent-seeking.

    Conclusion: some kinds of rent-seeking is very hard to identify in Singapore due to GLCs’ hybrid nature. It’s important to distinguish rent-seeking from gov’t provision of public goods though, e.g. not welcoming high foreign labour influx isn’t rent-seeking by Singaporean workers – it’s reasonable because high foreign labour influx brings many negative externalities. On the other hand, strong barriers to entry by the medical and legal professions are perhaps a kind of rent-seeking, which has been torn down by the influx of foreign doctors and lawyers (though some say the declining quality of medical care due to this is a real problem? I’m not sure. Doctors’ wages might be falling but healthcare costs aren’t!).

    Re: property, I think most people investing or speculating in property is rent-seeking. Their participation in the property market creates little value (most of the earnings come from extracting rent, not from creation of value), they’re just forking out money to secure rentier rights. It’s not just CapitaLand – it’s all private players. Our government should have tried to dampen such trends whenever they occur but it seems they’ve encouraged it by letting land prices surge. When rent-seeking is more profitable than honest business, honest businesses cannot prosper and flourish (good case in point as Roy points out is how so many GLCs seem to make more money investing than doing their core business).

    • c.j. Ng

      Great insights!

      In addition, I’d say the push to privatise is not wrong per se. It’s the privatisation without competition that is wrong. In that sense, the govt is simply creating a profit-maximising monopoly who is accountable only to profit-seeking shareholders.

      Cheers,

      c.j.

  5. eremarf

    Just a quick add-on – I’m not saying nationalizing all the industries GLCs participate in is good. Achieving a good solution depends on the industry.

    For supermarket chains, monopolies a la Walmart tend to occur – which has some nasty knock-on effects on consumer choice, on employment rights, on local wage levels. In such cases, however, it’s probably better to solve these negative externalities by regulating on labour rights, wages, consumer rights, etc than to nationalize supermarkets.

    Every industry has their peculiar and particular conditions that demand specific answers, not general ones. For example, Germany has managed healthcare very well by using private insurers regulated by a very clever set of laws (better than completely nationalised a la UK, or a very unregulated private sector in the US – in any case, the UK is doing better than the US – rent-seeking behaviour by insurers and big pharma is driving up costs very badly in the US).

    So – don’t look for a sweeping answer – there’s no ideological position that delivers “ideal” or “best” outcomes. The most efficient systems are often a mix of private sector activity with good public regulation.

    • My Right to Love

      Dear eremarf,

      This is very good insight. Thank you for all these!

      I will read through them to digest them!

      I agree that it’s about a mix of policy and regulatory controls that the government needs to implement, but based on the context and situation – and that the government shouldn’t over-regulate to stifle business and competition, yet regulate to ensure that businesses do not take advantage of the workers.

      And yet, the government has become a business owner by itself – the problem with this is because there are no independent checks and balances, which means we would need to delink the government’s role, or even as the government has a role that the decision-making and information should be readily available and transparent, so that the people are able to scrutinise the decisions and also be able to make counter-proposals to protect their needs, if necessary.

      Thanks!

      Roy

  6. Pingback: Reflections On The Protest Against The Population White Paper: Part 3 | The Heart Truths

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