Monday, February 25, 2013

White and blue: A tale of two papers


The Workers’ Party (WP) has released its own paper on population and it should be commended for its efforts in putting to paper its thinking on this important issue

25 Feb 2013

The Workers’ Party (WP) has released its own paper on population and it should be commended for its efforts in putting to paper its thinking on this important issue.

There are four points about the WP’s so-called Blue Paper that stand out for me. The first concerns the timing of its release. Budget Day is today. The WP released its paper on Saturday, so the Sunday papers are filled with reports of the Blue Paper.

This is an obvious attempt to seize the initiative from the People’s Action Party (PAP) by keeping the population issue front and centre, and potentially force a reaction through the Budget statement. This shows the continuing sophistication of the WP’s political tactics.

Electoral and parliamentary politics are becoming more interesting and, for the incumbent, more eventful. The PAP had been used to setting the agenda and terms of political engagement. It now faces an Opposition that is attempting to seize the political initiative and beginning to show it is able to organise policy responses.

More significantly, the WP, through its grassroots political profiling and in the ideas contained in its population paper, is clearly attempting to characterise itself as the party of the man-on-the-street and the advocate of concrete, tangible measures. By implication, this casts the PAP as the party of the elite and the champion of the abstract.


Furthermore, the PAP is widely regarded as having poorly managed the rollout of the White Paper. It adopted its familiar “Father Knows Best” approach in communicating its plan, informed though that was by the best of intentions and richly textured as it was with carefully considered policy proposals painstakingly interconnected to ensure coherency.

In other words, from a planning perspective, the PAP was trying to get right all the things it did not do well in the past decade.

In the midst of the heat of the ensuing debate, however, it has largely gone unnoticed that although the PAP knew the White Paper would be controversial, it nevertheless persisted in putting it forward for open debate. This is — by any measure — a remarkable act.

The Prime Minister deserves credit for his political courage in acting thus — and what is more, setting a precedent for the Government to be more ex ante in being accountable for its policy intentions. The indifferent quality of the process of communicating the White Paper should not subtract from the quality of the Government’s noble intent in presenting it for debate.


The second point is that the WP population paper, despite its repeated protestations that its proposals are different from the PAP White Paper, is actually a cupboard empty of original ideas.

All its policy recommendations are borrowed ideas from existing or proposed policies of the PAP. Boosting the Total Fertility Rate (TFR), raising the Labour Force Participation Rate (LFPR) of women and keeping the elderly employed and active are policies that have been in place for several years.
Instead of original ideas, the WP population paper makes its principal stand on the argument that it differs from the PAP plan in emphasising the boosting of TFR and LFPR in lieu of increasing the intake of foreign labour supply. However, even should we be able to reverse our declining TFR immediately, the effect of that on the labour force would take a generation to materialise.

Furthermore, there is only marginal headroom for LFPR growth because we have been making progress in this direction over the past decade: Indeed the labour force participation of our elderly males is the third highest in the world, just after Japan and South Korea.

The paper takes the simplistic view that imposing a freeze on foreign labour supply will not damage the economy. This is not only wishful thinking — it is a sign of the absence of informed thinking.

Conversely, the White Paper could be accused as suffering from an abundance of thinking. There are many aspects of the White Paper with which I take issue. However, what I would not deny is that the Paper also reveals what the Government is capable of, in the face of policy complexity and uncertainty. It has the capacity and the ability to generate ideas, coordinate them and organise the financing to put them into action.

The White Paper has a wide spectrum of policies. The articulation of all of that was compressed in an attempt to make the Paper more consumable.

To compound the error, there was little time allocated to fully flesh out its thinking and clarify its intent. It strived for “simplicity” and, ironically, achieved its goal in a perverse way — the public became captivated by the number “6.9”. Classifying nurses as low-skilled and treating the passage of the plan as a technical exercise rather than a political experience did not help either.

Good policy ideas are not enough any more; they need to be channelled through good political arguments.


This brings me to the third point. The WP’s paper is riddled with populist slogans and proposals that I am sure no Singaporean would dispute as being good and worthy. Flexi-work, work-life balance, environmental preservation and lower density —these are all admirable ideas.

But how do we realise them? That is left unexplored by the paper.

More so, there is a lack of realism in terms of managing the trade-offs that inevitably accompany policy decisions at the margin. That is really where we are, at the margin: Ageing rapidly, running out of horizontal space and pedalling furiously to stay competitive.

The WP paper instead asks us to believe in a dream-land where making hard choices is unnecessary and the options before us are self-evident or self-fulfilling. They are neither. While I think it is admirable that the party has put in the effort to put out its own population paper, I am disappointed to find that its narrative is in effect a series of kitsch slogans hung on a line of wishful thinking. I am all for the romantic visioning, but I also want to see decidedly unromantic policy prescriptions to realise that vision.

In an ironic comparison, the PAP White Paper could have benefited from fewer calculations and more argument about what it was trying to do and, more importantly, why. It should have also adopted a more modest tone, recognising the truism that nothing is certain and that old ideas revitalised remain old ideas.

Our future challenges are so profound and wide-ranging that a more inclusive and protracted process would have salvaged, politically, the many good things the White Paper contained, and given a chance for the not-so-good things to be washed out and substituted by better thinking.

Now, though the House has passed an amended motion on the White Paper, the Paper does not have on the street the credibility expected of a document of its weight and import. This will lead to more friction as the Government implements some of its policies.


I come now to my final point. If one had to describe the WP today, one could say that it is strong on politics and weak on policies. In comparison, the PAP is weak on politics and strong on policies.

But we are no longer in an either/or world. The public demands and deserves a high standard in both politics and policies.

Both the PAP and the WP are, in different ways, treating the public as children. The PAP’s “Father Knows Best” approach leads to petulance and makes the people irate. The WP’s populism is equivalent to giving candy to a child, resulting in a temporary sugar-rush of fervour and righteous chest-beating. Neither approach is helpful.

It is time to recognise that the real and only source of political legitimacy is the people. If we treat people as children, we lower the level of debate. If we treat people as adults, we raise the bar of debate and challenge people to get educated about the issues, recognise that every choice has trade-offs and learn to seek, however uncomfortably, common ground over the temporary delights of division.

Political actors must learn to trust the people. All parties should understand this: That Singaporeans can be trusted to think and to act; trusted to see through poorly-made arguments no matter how populist the sloganeering; trusted to know that the future is uncertain but what matters is that Singaporeans are confident about who they want to be; trusted to know that, while we can and should have a vigorous contest of ideas, we cannot and should not have a contest of peoples.

To thrive we will need many ideas. But to survive, we can afford only to be one united people.

Devadas Krishnadas, a social and political commentator, is the director of a foresight consultancy. A longer version of this commentary can be found at IPS Commons’ Facebook page.

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