Monday, February 11, 2013

Lessons from Population 2030 Debate

The population 2030 white paper was a case study for poor communication. The previous figure of 6.5 million was bandied about as early as 2007, and public reactions to it should have been telling. Lessons should have been learnt then! Instead mistakes in communication was repeated.

Feb 10, 2013
Government will study lessons from White Paper debate, says PM Lee

By Toh Yong Chuan

The government will study the lessons learnt from the White Paper debate to see how it can do better next time, said Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong on Sunday.

But the public can also think over what has been debated in Parliament and understand what the government is trying to do, he added.

“It is a very emotional issue, understandably, it is an issue on which views are very strong, it is also a very complicated issue,” said Mr Lee.

But he urged the public to not just understand the details of the White Paper but also the government’s aim in putting it out, which is “to help Singaporeans have a better life for the future in the best way possible”.

Mr Lee’s comments came two days after Parliament accepted the Population White Paper on Friday after an intense five-day debate which saw several People’s Action Party MPs criticising it.

The White Paper was passed in the House after an amendment was made to the motion to make clear that the 6.9 million population figure that drew adverse public reactions was not a target and the Government is not deciding now on any specific population size before 2020 and was only making planning provisions for infrastructure and land use.

Mr Lee made the comments this morning when speaking to reporters after his visit to Tan Tock Seng Hospital. He met 200 healthcare and hospital support workers such as nurses, cleaners and security guards to thank them for working on the first day of Chinese New Year.

He gave them mandarin oranges and red packets, and joined them in tossing yusheng, or raw fish salad, for good luck.

The visit is an annual tradition organised by the National Trades Union Congress. The Prime Minister was accompanied by Mrs Lee, NTUC president Diana Chia, secretary-general Lim Swee Say and some 30 union leaders.

Mr Lee told also reporters that the hospital visit was planned before the online furore this week over a footnote in the Population White Paper which labelled nursing as a “low skilled” job.

Deputy Prime Minister Teo Chee Hean, who oversees the National Population and Talent Division that produced the White Paper, has since apologised.

“It was most unfortunate that there was this mistake in the White Paper,” said Mr Lee, adding: “DPM Teo Chee Hean has apologised, I should say that I am sorry that it happened too, because I know how important the nurses are in hospitals.”

The Prime Minister turns 61 today and the hospital staff surprised him and Mrs Lee with a birthday cake during the visit.

He sportingly closed his eyes and made a wish before cutting the cake. When asked what wish he made, he replied with a laugh: “I hope there will be many more babies and children this year."

[Here's the analysis from ST:]

Govt needs to regain people's trust

White Paper debate shows people must be persuaded plans are in their interest

By Han Fook Kwang Managing Editor

[I don't think it is a matter of persuasion.]

The Government's biggest problem in persuading a sceptical public to support its population plans is not over the 6.9 million number.

It is not about the proportion of Singaporeans to foreigners in the year 2030.

It is not over the number of new citizens it wants to admit every year.

Yes, these are controversial numbers which have provoked much debate and unhappiness, and which will have to be addressed.

But they are not why there is much unease over the Government's plans.

The problem is a lack of public confidence in the Government, and particularly that the proposals are in the people's best interests.

[Wrong! It is the failure to communicate effectively.]

This is evident in the quick way many dismissed the White Paper even before reading its contents.

Tackling this erosion of confidence and trust must be a top priority of the Government or it will face even more problems from a sceptical public.

It is unfortunate that this has happened because the issues raised are critical ones that have to be tackled now or Singapore will suffer the consequences in the years ahead. The problems of a low fertility rate and rapidly ageing population are real and will not go away no matter how Singapore or the world develops.

And because it 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.

Ultimately, they must put their trust in the Government, that it understands the issues and that its solutions are in the best interest of Singapore.

If they don't, the best-argued case will not wash.

Indeed that was how it was in the early years when the people were prepared to let the Government solve their problems. The problems then were as life-threatening, and would have seemed at the time to be as intractable, perhaps even more so than the population issue today.

How do you house almost an entire population in public housing from scratch? One can imagine the logistical nightmare this must have presented at the time, not to mention the problem of finding the money for such a massive construction programme.

Or raise an entire citizens' army from ground up? Think of the political problem of persuading Singapore parents to release their 18-year-old sons to the state for two of their best years, exposed to all the dangers of full-time military training.

But Singaporeans, by and large, accepted that the Government knew what it was doing, and, more important, believed these policies were in their interest.

That faith, however, would have evaporated quickly if the Government had failed to execute those policies well - if, for example, they had charged prices for public housing which were out of reach for the majority, or there was discrimination in who was enlisted to do national service.

That trust had to be earned, and re-earned through the successful implementation of those policies.

It is commonplace these days to say that it was easier in the early years for the Government to have its way because people were less quarrelsome, more compliant or homogeneous.

People who say this forget that the political environment in the 1960s and 1970s was more competitive, vigorous and pluralistic than it is today, GE 2011 and Punggol East notwithstanding. It might seem easier today but that's because the Government at the time had earned the trust, respect and confidence of the majority of the people.

Several PAP MPs alluded to this need to regain the people's trust during last week's parliamentary debate. Ang Mo Kio GRP MP Inderjit Singh called on the Government to take a breather and slow down its population growth track. "We have too many problems. As a government, we need to rebuild the trust and confidence among Singaporeans that our citizens matter most to us and that we are willing take a break from our relentless drive for growth to solve our problems... At this stage, many Singaporeans from all walks of life don't have the confidence that we can handle another steep growth of the population, so let's not push it too hard," he said.

Emeritus Senior Minister Goh Chok Tong too singled it out as a prerequisite for Singapore's past success. "In all of these crises, the critical success factors were the leadership of the country, the bond between the government and the people, our unity, our trust and support of each other," he said. "People could see and sense the immediate danger. We instinctively came together to tackle issues head on," he noted.

[Nice historical perspective. But ultimately irrelvant.]

Unfortunately for the PAP, it could not have picked a tougher issue on which to regain that trust, when so many Singaporeans are unhappy that the foreign population was allowed to grow without making sure the physical infrastructure could cope with the increased numbers.

Now it has to demonstrate through its accelerated housing and transport plans that it can do what it promises.

But being able to deliver infrastructure, important though it might be, is the easier part of the problem.

More tricky is regaining the people's trust that its plans are in their interest. Many can't understand how they will be better off with so many more foreigners in their midst.

Someone put this question to me earlier in the week: The Government says having one million more people in Singapore in 10 years' time will be good for the country. But we had one million more people in the last 10 years - how did that benefit us?

I couldn't persuade him that it made the economy more vibrant and added to the buzz of the place.

Persuading the people that what it does is in their interest is the most basic political challenge of any government.

And the most important part of this relationship is that the people must see the government as part of who they are, not separate and apart.

That was how the bond was forged in the early years, both leaders and the people going through the same struggle for independence and bound by a common destiny to make Singapore succeed against the odds.

Now that the population discussion has moved out of Parliament and into the public sphere, it is even more imperative for the Government to strengthen the people's trust in it, that it is acting in their interest.

[Now the analysis from an ex-NMP:]

29 January 2013

Seven Million People And One Soundbite

If the PAP is dying a death from a thousand cuts, the White Paper on Population is going to be an axe-blow. It is no wonder the Government held back on its publication before the by-election, not that it helped much anyway. Again, the problem with the White Paper is not in its content, but how it is being communicated across. When people shoot the messenger, it is often not because of the message itself, but because the messenger puts it across badly.

In the era of social media, nobody shares 41 page white papers full of technical jargon and pie-charts. They share sound-bites. Nobody posts status updates on Facebook with logical step-by-step explanations but instead, one –liners that shout at you and get shared virally. And THE sound-bite, the one liner that is going to get shared and get the PAP lambasted is this one:

Population to grow to 7 million.

Or maybe another one: More than half of residents in Singapore in 2030 to be Foreigners.

Nobody will remember anything else from the White Paper and very few would have taken the time to read it. Instead, social media is going to virally spread this message from one person to another, stirring up emotions until anger boils over and the PAP takes another step towards political oblivion.

People do not understand what it means if the number of Singapore citizens are shrinking. They can only think of the big squeeze that will come from more human bodies on out transport network. People cannot understand how they could possibly live in a ‘thriving’ Singapore, have ‘exciting opportunities’ when THAT headline number of 7 million has them imagining themselves squeezed like rats into a small cage.

The PAP also posted on its website that the three main principles to remember are “to maintain a strong Singaporean core, create good jobs and opportunities for Singaporeans, and have a high quality living environment.” Juxtapose this to a picture of 7 million people in the minds of people and see if it resonates. See if it convinces.

Judging from the reception one sees on social media in the hours since The White Paper has been released, it does not. And it will get worse.

It is quite difficult to fathom how one can look at the report and decide that the way for people to emotionally connect and buy into the policies is to focus on the vague motherhood statement “to maintain a strong Singaporean core, create good jobs and opportunities for Singaporeans, and have a high quality living environment.

Because this is certainly not the message.

Not to me.

The message that comes across very strongly to me is a different one. If we don’t bring in more foreigners, by 2030 we will have very few young Singaporeans looking after many old Singaporeans. In fact, the dependency ratio is going to drop from 6 working adults to 1 old person (over 65) to 2 working adults to 1.

This is a scary thought.

The message that comes across to me is that the increase in adults who can work is also going to slow down to a trickle – 0.1%. A very small trickle. If we don’t bring in more foreign workers, coupled with our many old people and not enough young ones in 2030, we are going to have 70 year old uncles climbing scaffolding to build our HDB flats.

The message that comes across to me is that even if we all start having babies now, it is too late, because it takes time for babies to grow, and our parents will have all grown old by then. Our population will not only have shrunk, but we will be like Japan where you see more grey-haired people than black-haired ones.

If we don’t convince more foreigners to come in, by 2030 either young people have to pay more taxes, work even harder or we have to raid our reserves.

We need these foreigners not because we are nice people who want to make our home a vibrant place, but because without taking them in, Singapore will literally die of old age.

Out of the 7 million in 2030, it is true that only half are Singaporeans, but out of that half there will be very many old people, OUR old people, OUR parents, and maybe even some of US that the other half, the new citizens and the foreigners are supporting.

And so if I were to give a one-liner, a sound-bite here it is:

Foreigners and new citizens to support and pay for old Singaporeans by 2030.

And ain’t that a nice thing.


Even though we are going to have all those New Citizens and Foreigners slaving away to support our old folks by 2030, there are a few critical things that the Government need to do,

1) There needs to be a substantial increase of housing and public transport capacity to support this increase in population. The new citizens and foreigners are here to support our old people, not to push them out of MRT trains and HDB flats.

2) The intermediate step, the Permanent Residents , needs to be monitored closely. For those who are not deemed suitable for converting to New Citizens please revoke their PRs. For those who are deemed suitable but refuse to convert to New Citizens after a certain time span (because they want the best of both worlds, to keep their home nationality and live in Singapore at the same time), please kick them out also. Basically, if you are not here to support our old people, please leave.

3) The government must be more stringent with its immigration criteria. No more New Citizens and PRs working as coffee shop assistants, masseuses etc. If they are here to support our old people, they need to generate enough economic value to not only feed themselves, but also a healthy surplus. So QUALITY immigrants please. Civil servants - please please don't obsess over the 7 million number. It is NOT your KPI.

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