The White Paper has stated that it places Singaporeans at the Core.
The question is – has it really?
What does it mean for Singaporeans to be placed at the Core?
I will argue that the White Paper has not placed Singaporeans at the core.
And Singaporeans must reclaim our rightful space – at the Core. This is the singular message in my speech.
There are many arguments that have been made on the content of the White Paper – that because the White Paper focuses on economic growth as the Core, other issues have become incidental.
But today,I would like to discuss the process behind the White Paper, rather than the Content.
To me, if Singaporeans are in fact at the Core, the White Paper, a complex and important document, should not have been pushed through Parliament. With ruthless efficiency, and without an open public consultation.
Where was the voice of all of us Singaporeans in the White Paper?
Here, various government agencies have done numerous public consultations (including public briefings) on issues which are of lesser significance than the White Paper.
Doing public consultations was something that was familiar to the bureaucracy. Yet, it was not done.
That only morphed any emotion of concern on the part of Singaporeans, to one of anger.
Was it not important to listen and carefully consider the thoughts, fears and aspirations of Singaporeans? If we are in fact the Core?
The Government could have leveraged on SG Conversation. This was a ready platform and outreach strategy. But it did not.
Within the MMC, an independent Committee called Suara Musyawarah was formed to to get feedback on the aspirations and visions of the MMC. Again, it would have been easy to leverage on this platform. But the Government did not.
After the fact, PM had said that we must keep conversation going after Parliament has discussed the White Paper – but what is the channel for public feedback? It has been more than a week since motion was passed on the White Paper, and there is no clarity on this process.
How is it that the entire machinery of state missed out the need for engaging Singaporeans?
Why was there no consultation of civil society groups? The view taken by the Establishment is that civil society groups are viewed with suspicion with “hidden agendas”. This is regrettable. Because civil society groups can be useful platforms to represent the interests of many diverse groups within Singapore. And they can actually give meaningful feedback.
Various members of the govt have been dismissive of views on social media or blogs – saying that these are “noises”. This is regrettable because the Govt risks shutting itself to many important sources of feedback.
So we are now left with a rather peculiar situation where Parliament has technically approved the White Paper, but the people at large has not been consulted. And there has in fact been a lot of disquiet about the White Paper.
And this raises more questions.
Why only encourage feedback after the White Paper was rushed with brutal efficiency in Parliament – it gives people the impression that any further conversation would be futile, as a decision has been made.
What if from public feedback, there is actual validation that most Singaporeans do not support the White Paper?
Will Parliament reconsider the motion that it has passed?
Fundamentally, Govt must engage Singanporeans, especially on an issue as important as those in the White Paper.
By engagement, we mean emotional involvement and commitment. You go to the issues of heart – emotional connection.
It’s about listening, celebrating and even encouraging a diversity of views – so we can arrive at the best decisions, and develop resilience as a country.
Singapore already runs a high risk of Group Think – largely brought about by misplaced perception that “elites” are the only ones capable of thinking and deciding for us.
An editorial editorial in Sunday Times in the aftermath of the White Paper parliamentary debate said this:
“…. Because it [a low fertility rate and rapidly ageing population] is a complex problem with many issues in the mix – demographics, the structure of the economy, immigration policy, even questions regarding what it means to be Singaporean – it isn’t possible for ordinary Singaporeans to absorb and fully understand all the arguments and implications.”
To me, these patronizing comments smack of elitism that permeates through many levels of our administrative machinery.
I say that it is wrong and bordering on delusional to say that elites have an innate right to decide for the intellectually-deficient masses. And meritocracy perpetuates this.
Oftentimes, Group Think – reduce our resilience. We shut ourselves to alternative ideas, checks and balance – all essential ingredients for resilience.
Singaporeans want to have a stake in setting the picture for 2030 and beyond.
Because the White Paper touches on issues of Singapore identity (who is a Singaporean, what values does he/she share with us)
Had there been a consultation – I am sure that many assumptions in the White Paper would have been rethought. Or certain issues reconsidered.
For instance, the issue of the TFR of 2.1. We have taken that as a given, but there are now views that we may not need to hit 2.1 in light of the fact that we have a more educated group of Singaporeans.
Another example was the lack of focus on discussing social mobility for disadvantaged communities – an issue close to heart. This was not discussed.
Yet another is the impact of White Paper the current income gaps in Singapore – which has a very high GINI coefficient. One study pitched by the UN placed Singapore as the 2nd highest amongst certain developed countries. Another omission.
Immigration in past has led to widening income gaps. Increased immigration will widen the income gaps. Poor become poorer. Rich become richer. Is this the Singapore that we want. Why did the White Paper not address this?
Other points that should have been discussed – what is the impact of increased immigration on prices? Will there be more intense competition for schools and universities?
Will there be more transparency in immigration policies – before we seek to induct people into this Singapore core?
So these are just a snapshot of some issues that could have been surfaced had there been a Public Consultation.
The White Paper should also provide different scenarios, or policy alternatives for Singaporeans to consider. There cannot only be one solution.
Let the public debate this. And let us collectively decide as a nation.
I come back to another ST commentary, which had urged Singaporeans to get over the “Emotional Hump”.
I think this misses the point.
The issues in the White Paper are also emotional issues. THE White Paper is about very emotive issues on what it means to be a Singaporean, and the physical and social space we live in, the world that our children will live in. So the White Paper must win the hearts of Singaporeans. Inasmuch as it has to appeal to our logic.
Lest we run the risk of a disenchanted people, and growing anger.
This will not augur well for Singapore.
You don’t win the hearts of Singaporeans by ruthless efficiency and rushing through a WP in Parliament.
Now the approval in Parliament rings hollow in the minds of Singaporeans. Put another way, the overwhelming support of WP in Parliament cannot be taken to reflect the sentiments of Singaporeans.
The Government must not this of Singaporeans as a disempowered people who are incapable of understanding and contributing to the discourse.
There is still room to make amends.
The Government can issue a Green Paper. Have an open public consultation. Consult various interest groups and civil society.
The Green Paper will then take precedence over the White Paper.
As Singaporeans, we must reclaim our space at the core.
Because that is our rightful space. As Singaporeans.