More than 2 weeks have passed after Parliament has passed a motion approving the Population White Paper on 8th Feb 2013.
More than a week has passed since the landmark public protest at Hong Lim Park on 16th Feb 2013, attended by more than 5000 angry Singaporeans.
And yet, there remains no clarity, to-date, as to how the “debate” on the White Paper will continue.
Singaporeans are still left in the dark .
Mr Heng Swee Keat, who spearheads the controversial SG Conversation initiative, has yet to provide clarity whether his Committee will provide a framework for discussion of the White Paper, since his statement on 10th Feb 2013 that he “would issue a formal statement”.
It does not help that the Government reaction on the Hong Lim Park protest was in the form of a lone (and dismissive) voice of ESM Goh Chok Tong, which have only served to fuel more anger on netizens.
This impasse and lack of information on the manner and form of the public debate give appearance that Govt is either (1) unsure as to how to proceed with the public debate; or (2) disinterested in having a public debate.
Singapore’s parliamentary rules actually provide the issuance of a Green Paper:
A Command Paper in the nature of a preliminary discussion or consultative document, usually issued in advance of the formulation of Government policy.
In comparison, a White Paper is defined as:
A policy document issued by the Government to explain or discuss matters. White Papers are often presented for debate in Parliament.
The issuance of Green Papers is common practice in developed countries (e.g. EU, Hong Kong, Canada, UK and the US). A Green Paper is typically statement by the government, not of policy already determined, but of propositions put before the whole nation for discussion.
A Green Paper usually presents a range of ideas and is meant to invite interested individuals or groups to contribute views and information.
Crucially, a Green Paper contains no commitment to action, it is more a tool of stimulating discussion, but it is often the first step towards changing the law.
After publication of the Green Paper, the suggestions contained in the paper will be up for public consultation and debate. The Government then talks to citizens and civil society groups to find out what they think. Only then will these discussions feed into the next stage of the process – the production of a White Paper.
The White Paper is an official set of proposals that is used as a vehicle for their development into law.
From our Parliamentary website, Singapore has issued a Green Paper. This was in 1988 entitled “Agenda for Action: Goals and Challenges” . This was presented by then PM Goh Chok Tong as a blue print for Singapore as it approached 1999.
It is clear that the Green Paper would have been the appropriate document issued to discuss the Singapore that we want in 2030.
This is not just a matter of colour or form.
“Going Green” would have signified a sincere commitment to present and alternative future scenarios to Singaporeans, alternative solutions to get to our destination. And to also listen to the aspirations, fears, and suggestions from Singapore.
Now that the White Paper has been passed in Parliament, are we flogging a dead horse, or are we, to borrow and adapt from Sim Wong Hoo – debilitated by a No U-Turn Syndrome (NUTS) ?
Withdrawing the White Paper will not make the Government look good. But it is the lesser of 2 evils.
Let me argue why. The one thing that resonates between proponents and opponents of the White Paper alike is that the approach that the Government took was disastrous. Even PM Lee admitted to this. There had been no attempt at engaging Singaporeans on a very important topic.
And so, it is really the lesser of the 2 evils to withdraw the White Paper, and then issue a Green Paper.
This will provide the Government an opportunity to re-address many fundamental issues that have emerged in public debate since the passage of the White Paper, but which have been overlooked or inadequately discussed in the White Paper – e.g. whether we need a TFR of 2.1, how we can refocus efforts on enhancing TFR for Singaporeans, how we can push for greater productivity, addressing increasing income gaps and cost of living (which can worsen with more immigration).
It is better for the Government to accept the mistake of pushing through the White Paper without a public consultation, and remediate. The passage of the White paper, does not, and cannot reflect the collective voices of Singaporeans. There is little value in holding to Parliament’s passage of the White Paper.
In fact, leaving the White Paper as is would only serve to remind Singaporeans of the chasm between Government and citizens, and that our voices are ignored. It would be a constant thorn that would prick the Government, and Singaporeans. Nobody wins.
As an analogy, it is better to overhaul and fix the faulty engine in a car that the driver knows will not take Singaporeans to the destination that we want, rather than to use duct tapes to hold an engine that is clearly falling apart.
The Singapore Government will not be alone. Canada had issued a Green Paper in 1975 after the Government had already passed legislation.
And the topic of the Canadian Green Paper? Population and Immigration.
Going Green is not an option.