Although it’s a longish segment, the discussion here largely centres around one theme: the trade-off between economic growth and population stability. All panelists agree that any discussion about population policy must involve the question of the economic model, though also that it’s not a simple trade-off. Naturally, each one has a different take on the question.
Zaqy Mohamed at several points highlights the risks that come with renegotiating the present framework, suggesting that he was adopting the defensive position that the present policy, while not perfect, is not far off from optimal. At around 2 minutes 35 seconds, he speaks of globalisation, and then (2 min 47) points out that Singapore has “a very narrow economy”. The bigger context, he says, is “What’s the economic make-up of Singapore?” He speaks about what changes people might want, but quickly characterises them as “a 180-degree turn” (3 min 00). In doing so, he was casting the question as an either/or one, when I think most people – I’m sure he himself included, at other moments – would agree that it’s a matter of calibration.
As Andrew Loh put it (25 min 08) “Government will say there are trade-offs: do you want economic growth or do you not want it? It’s black and white. But it’s not . . . because you may have your economic growth but your society is going to fall apart.”
At various points, one glimpses the assumed equation behind Zaqy’s comments that
being open to immigration = economic growth.
Starting at about 4 min 30, Zaqy cites some numbers showing how we need more people to power our economy. At that point, the equation seemed to have been extended into:
open to immigration = economic growth = more jobs for Singaporeans.
For example, he speaks of “the other impact” (15 min 15) and “how to manage the survivability of the SMEs right now”(17 min 08), and how the government is “also tasked to make decisions that also impact the lives of people who are employed today.” (18 min 26). The subtle suggestion was that tougher limits on immigration would jeopardise SMEs and thus Singaporeans’ jobs. He said he has this “fear for the ordinary Singaporean who has his family to look after.” (19 min 30).
However, towards the end, he made it clear that he had not put the whole basis of his views on economic, GDP growth (30 min 55), but on people’s wellbeing.
I had to step him to remind him that economic growth is not inescapably tied to population growth (12 min 40).
And then when Zaqy spoke about how the government was being consultative, presenting various scenario papers and so on (around 13 min 50), I cut in again to say that what pisses people off is that “every time we are going to discuss options, [the question] is being placed before the people as do or die. You either take this or you sacrifice this and all your good life will simply crash. I don’t think we should present it that way.” (15 min 27)
The audience murmured in approval.
In general, however, the panel was agreed that a far more consultative approach is needed. A thorough discussion is overdue as to what direction, population- and economics-wise, Singaporeans want.
Andrew Loh pointed out that the lack of such a discussion and a sense of control lies at the root of the current unhappiness. “We’re not sure where we are going” (0 min 45).
So “when we want to deal with anti-foreigner sentiments, to get right to the root of it, the government needs to come out and tell us” (1 min 33). Tell us about population projections and not in a piecemeal fashion, he said.
Ravi Philemon spoke about the need for greater efforts at assimilation (28 min 20), and that it must be based on a more wholistic approach.”I think you need to take a more holistic view of assimilation… Everybody’s got a part to play in this assimilation process. Unless we take a holistic view of this assimilation process, it’ll be very difficult going forward and trying to have more reasoned conversations on xenophobia.”
Martyn See’s final point is that we shouldn’t get angry at the foreigner, but get angry with government policies (29 min 15). “It’s like someone has turned on the tap outside the house and the water is seeping through to your room and you are getting angry at the water, mopping up the floor every day. All you need to do is to go outside and turn off the freaking tap.”
But people, it’s not as simple as it sounds. There are going to be trade-offs. Andrew Loh speaks of a sweet spot (25 min 50), but even then, I’d be careful about assuming there is any single sweet spot we can all agree upon, or assuming that we know all the pros and cons in advance. It’s necessarily going to be a complex issue with no clear, risk-free answer however much we try. Sadly, what makes the debate even harder than it should be is the government’s manner of seeing Singapore in perpetual crisis – a product of the insecurity at the heart of their psyche – as well as resistance (born of arrogance?) to any questioning of their foundational policy principles and priorities. This produces a touchy defensiveness and contempt for alternatives (speaking generally, not referring to Zaqy). At the same time, on the part of the anti-immigration crowd, there is a complacent assumption that we can somehow turn back the clock to a less globalised age.
We cannot. The Singapore of the future must necessarily be different.