A Sustainable Singapore with a Dynamic Singaporean majority – MP Low Thia Khiang

by MP for Aljunied GRC, Low Thia Khiang
[Delivered in Parliament on 7 Feb 2013]

Madam Speaker, I listened to the debate with wonder in the last few days. At first, the PAP seemed content on debating the Workers’ Party’s proposal more than the white paper. Then, some PAP MPs began to echo Workers’ Party positions. I appreciate the honour that is bestowed on the Workers’ Party by this kind of attention.

Mdm, I must remind the House that what is called a roadmap on a white paper requesting this house to endorse will change Singapore drastically in less than 20 years time.

 

Driving with an Upside-Down Roadmap

The Workers’ Party thinks that this roadmap is wrong. The PAP government is driving with an upside-down roadmap. We are not trying to be funny when we change the title around to “A Dynamic Population for a Sustainable Singapore”. As a rational and responsible co-driver, it is our duty to tell the driver that he is reading the roadmap upside down. Madam speaker, allow me to distribute a table to show the differences between the Government’s proposal and the Workers’ Party’s proposal. [Table of Different Solutions to the Problems]

The first problem is that Singapore has seen declining birth rates for nearly 40 years. Yet, all the government is doing in the latest enhancement to the Marriage and Parenthood Package is to increase incentives to get young couples to have more babies. Why is the government continuing to use a method that has not worked? Why does it not see there are serious roadblocks such as high housing costs, lack of family and social support, lack of quality childcare options, and bad work-life balance that are preventing young couples from marrying earlier and having more babies?

The second problem is that low birth rates are leading to a shrinking citizen core. Instead of focusing on removing the roadblocks to set birth rates on the path to recovery, the government wants to use immigration to top up shortfalls. At the highest rate of handling out new citizenships at current birth rates, there will be 25,000 new citizens to 30,000 citizen births a year. This is almost one is to one.

The third problem is immigrant integration. Given the friction between Singaporeans and immigrants in recent years, my confidence in the government to solve this problem is not very strong. The best way to integrate immigrants is organically through the family and the school; not the highly politicized People’s Association.

The fourth problem is the ageing population. Here, the government needs to have a serious mindset change. The government sees our senior citizens as fiscal and healthcare burdens. The government’s solution is again immigration, as though by increasing the support ratio, our senior citizens will be magically supported.

Is the government admitting that the CPF scheme is causing insufficient savings that our senior citizens will become a burden? Is the government admitting that healthcare costs are spiraling out of control that our senior citizens will need to be subsidized heavily?

The fifth problem is a slowing economy. The key plank in the Workers’ Party’s proposal is to increase the resident workforce through promotion of labour force participation of women and seniors. Like the government, we aim for the same stretch rate of productivity growth. But the government’s solution is contradictory. It tells businesses that they are addicted to cheap foreign workers and need to improve their productivity instead. Yet, the government is proposing to use foreign workforce growth to boost the slowing economy. Would not foreign workforce growth suppress productivity growth? This is like trying to go forward and backward at the same time.

The sixth problem is infrastructural strain. The Prime Minister recently admitted that the government lacked 20/20 foresight and failed to prepare the urban infrastructure to accommodate sudden immigration inflow. Instead of rethinking the immigration policy, it now promises to build ahead to accommodate more immigrants. The land use plan promises to build a high quality living environment for all Singaporeans. But the plan is drawn up to support the future population, which will be majority immigrants.

 

Kicking the Can Down the Road

The trouble with the government is not that it lacks 20/20 foresight in infrastructural development, but that it fails to recognize that the problem is its immigration policy in the first place. The problems of low birth rates and ageing population lie in a social and physical environment that is not conducive for family life. Therefore, the solutions must be sought by focusing on promoting the quality of life of Singaporean families. By focusing on immigration, the government is using the cause of the problems today as the solution for tomorrow.

What the government is doing is kicking the can down the road. The government has been using immigration to grow the workforce in the past 30 years. It is proposing to continue to do so for the next 20 years. The government said that it HOPES for an increase in the TFR to 1.4 or 1.5. This is a matter of national survival, and the government is only weakly hoping with an ambiguous target with no specified timetable. Without a TFR recovery plan with clear targets, our birth rates are not going to go up. So when 2030 arrives, what solution are we going to turn to?

Immigration again? Another white paper to project a population size of 10 million in 2050 as a roadmap? Anyway, let me tell this house, if we travel down this roadmap, Singaporeans will become a minority in their own country.

In 2001, the United Nations published a study to consider whether Replacement Migration is a viable solution to a declining and ageing population. The study warned that “The levels of migration needed to offset population ageing are extremely large, and in all cases entail vastly more immigration than occurred in the past.”

The study argued that comprehensive reassessments of many established economic, social and political policies and programmes in a long-term perspective are needed to address the challenges.

20/20 foresight requires the government to think long term and this must be 50 years down the road, not a mere 17 years. Birth rate recovery takes a long time. We need to start now. Stop kicking the can down the road. As long as immigration continues to be an easy option, there is nothing to stop the government from taking the easy path.

Focus on TFR recovery now. While we move towards TFR recovery, the Workers’ Party proposes that we increase labour- force participation rates to grow the resident workforce without adding to the population.

This is a much more sustainable solution than an ever-growing population on a small island. And let’s not forget Singapore is a nation, not a city in a big nation. A sustainable Singapore is one that keeps its national identity strong and this requires the population to be made up of majority Singaporeans.

Continued dependence on foreign workforce growth will just kick the can of economic restructuring down the road. Economic restructuring is necessarily painful. Immigration prevents us from moving away from labour-intensive industries to develop an innovative and entrepreneurial economy with capital-intensive medium enterprises. The government can help ease the pain by providing more support to local SMEs as we go through this economic transition.

Ultimately, the tradeoff is not between 0.5% GDP growth and 1 million more people. The tradeoff is between short-term economic dynamism or long-term economic sustainability.

 

A Roadmap without a Destination

The government has tried to downplay the 6.9 million population number for 2030. It is now a projection, a planning parameter, a worst-case scenario. Can the government clarify once and for all whether it has control over immigration or is immigration an impending tsunami we have to plan for? I don’t understand how 6.9 million can be a worst-case scenario. Don’t we have to pass through the best-case scenario of 5.8 million to get to 6.9 million? The government seems to be saying that it doesn’t have control of the bus it is driving Singaporeans to town, and is not able to stop at the good part of town and we may all end up in the bad part of town. This is unacceptable.

But even before we can talk about getting to town, does the government have a destination to bring us to? It has a roadmap, but a roadmap is useless without a destination. The government’s roadmap is saying, “just continue to drive straight ahead at the same speed”. But the Workers’ Party wants to arrive in a sustainable Singapore with a dynamic Singaporean majority.

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