Should Singapore stick to 6.9m population target? A response to Calvin Cheng
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Should Singapore stick to 6.9m population target? A response to Calvin Cheng

In a Facebook post, Calvin Cheng, a former Nominated Member of Parliament, argued that the Government should continue to stick to the 6.9 million population target it proposed in its Population White Paper. Since the argument he makes is a somewhat popular one, I think it deserves a considered response.

He wrote:

Great article from Forbes at first comment on why we need to stop restricting the inflow of foreign workers and immigrants to Singapore before it’s too late.

Our unemployment rate is already at a low 1.9%. Any more restrictions and hardworking Singaporeans will suffer.

The Government needs to double up efforts to persuade people to accept the Population White Paper.

Not everyone will be convinced; as long as the majority is that’s good enough.

And in any developed country 60% is a resounding vote of support.

Why pander to the vocal minority and ignore the support of the majority which has backed you ?

Simply baffling.

Calvin’s basic argument seems intuitive, and he is surely not alone in making such an argument. It is simple to follow, and for those of us who are not inclined to question statistics, they are appealing. But if we are to hold our Government to higher standards of accountability, we need to develop a better understanding of what is going on.

As should be obvious to most well-informed Singaporeans by now, a low unemployment rate does not give you the full picture. Neither does a 60% vote tally. As I shall show, to draw the conclusion that we should strive for the 6.9 million population goal of the Population White Paper is thus not only hasty, it is dangerous.

Jobs, jobs, jobs!

For his first premise, Calvin points to low unemployment as proof of the ruling party’s successful economic policy. The problem with this is obvious. A low unemployment rate merely tells us that most people have jobs. It doesn’t tell us whether people are well-paid in those jobs, whether they are able to afford the high cost of living in Singapore, and whether these jobs act as drivers of social mobility or whether they merely serve to perpetuate social inequality. Over reliance on such a statistic thus obscures the larger picture. It also doesn’t demonstrate that continued reliance on cheap labour is a viable economic strategy.

The larger picture is quite bleak. Singapore suffers from relatively high underemployment at 4.6 per cent in 2011 and 4.2 per cent in 2012. That means a lot of people are still underpaid despite their qualifications because of a lack of better job opportunities. Meanwhile, the cost of living continues to increase by roughly 3% every year for important goods like food, clothing, housing, health care and education.

Social inequality continues to present a huge problem for Singapore. Thirty percent of the population still live below the poverty line (defined as below 60% of the median income). Although incomes for the poor have not stagnated, they have only grown slightly faster than that of higher income households. This means that although the income gap is shrinking, it is happening very slowly. In 2013, Singapore had the 32nd highest Gini coefficient in the world, according to the CIA. This problem is somewhat mitigated by cash transfers, but it is not enough, and giving handouts is not a good long-term solution anyway.


Average household income from work per household member, base year 2009 = 100. Source: Singstat.

In fact, the claim that everything is going well is belied by most of our experiences. Most of us struggle to find a job after we graduate and when we do we live in fear of having to compete with cheap foreign labour. We have to take on huge loans to buy a HDB flat, have to either pay higher and higher ERP charges and fuel taxes if we drive, or be at the mercy of train breakdowns if we don’t. And all the while, we press the Government to address these problems. If it fails to do so, we want to hold it accountable at the polls, just as we did in 2011 after we suffered one of the worst economic downturns in history.

But Calvin seems to think nothing of the ruling People Action Party’s (PAP) worst electoral performance since independence and he even suggests that the PAP should continue with business as usual. He is wrong about this.

Crazy about democracy

His second premise is that the 60% majority won by the PAP in the 2011 general election is a “resounding vote of support” for its policies. As a part of this argument, he makes reference to the oft-cited distinction— between a “vocal minority” that opposes the PAP but speaks in disproportion to their size and a silent majority that backs the PAP but only expresses itself at the polls. This is little more than a rhetorical flourish that relies more on wishful thinking than sound evidence. The same logic can be used to justify anything from genocide to eugenics in an authoritarian regime. As the playground bully says: “silence means consent”; but the consent of the silenced is not really consent at all.

The following examination should make clear just how little support there really is for the PAP’s policy of relying on foreign workers. There are two problems with the claim that a 60% vote-share means 60% of the population support reliance on foreign workers.

First, Calvin bases this reasoning on a comparison between Singapore and other “developed democracies” when they are not commensurate units of comparison. It is thus like comparing apples and oranges. The “developed democracies” that produce small majorities are usually liberal democracies—which Singapore most assuredly is not. Singapore may conduct regular elections, but the mere act of holding a poll once every 5 years is no proof of a robust democracy.

Under the democracy index developed by the Economist Intelligence Unit, Singapore is ranked 75 on the list, below Malaysia. It is considered a flawed democracy, just one rank away from being considered a hybrid democracy. In other words, Singapore cannot be compared to the liberal democracies which frequently produce small majorities and a 60% majority cannot be considered a “resounding vote of support”.

On top of that, the PAP’s undemocratic restrictions on free speech and the media, and its gerrymandering and pork barreling tactics give us reason for pause. Can a vote for the PAP really be considered a vote of support for its policies if people are not fully informed (because of our 153th media) on what the effects of the PAP’s policies really are, and the alternatives that the people have from the opposition? Is it really a vote for the PAP’s policies rather than a vote out of fear that the PAP will discriminate against one’s housing estate? Although there were certainly people who genuinely supported the PAP’s policies (we can’t say how many), it is disingenuous to suggest that a 60% vote for the PAP certainly means 60% of the population support the PAP’s policies. To do so would be to suggest that a flawed democracy has succeeded in producing an accurate estimation of people’s policy preferences at the polls—it beggars belief.

Second, support for the PAP is not equivalent to support for the PAP’s policies, especially its policy of foreign-worker-dependent economic growth. More often than not, people vote for a party’s track record and make their choices by comparing between alternatives. So even if we assume that Calvin is right about the accuracy of the polling results (which is a flawed assumption), it is no indication of majoritarian support for the PAP’s reliance on foreign labour.

The studies done by analysts show that older people tend to vote for the PAP (although that is now changing too), while younger ones vote opposition. This suggests that the memory of the PAP’s strong track record plays a huge role in the minds of votes. So the logic holds true: the less one knows about the PAP’s track record, the less inclined one will be to vote for it. Therefore, the PAP’s track record, not support for its reliance on foreign labour accounts for much of the 60% vote (at least for now).

A vote for the PAP also frequently represents a choice for the lesser of two evils. In their analysis of the 2011 general elections, Elvin Ong and Mou Hui Tim argue that the Workers’ Party succeeded in winning Aljunied Group Representative Constituency (GRC) because it managed to bridge the “credibility gap”. This gap “exists between the Singaporean electorate and all other opposition parties because the electorate cannot credibly trust that opposition candidates—if elected to Parliament—will somehow effectively nurture their local constituency while legislatively challenging the ruling government on national issues.”

Despite coming up against a heavyweight contender, the former Foreign Minister, George Yeo, “the WP succeeded where all the other opposition political parties failed precisely because the WP managed to bridge the credibility gap through three mechanisms: (1) having a consistent and recognized party brand with a disciplined campaign message; (2) running a long-term grassroots outreach campaign; and (3) most importantly fielding a well-educated, credible team of candidates.”

In contrast, the other opposition parties were unable to bridge this credibility gap because they lacked a strong track record, and in some cases, had been subjected to much bad press by the mainstream media. Thus the 60% vote share obtained by the PAP may be better explained by the weakness of the other opposition parties rather than the strength of the PAP’s policies. One need not go very far to understand the disadvantages opposition parties in Singapore face. These politicians—especially Chee Soon Juan and the late Joshua Benjamin Jeyaretnam—had to weather a storm of politically motivated prosecutions in a country where the laws forbid so much as a suggestion of Government corruption (I will gladly debate the legal merits of JBJ’s case with anyone). Even if many politicians aren’t personally prosecuted, the fear of persecution deters others from entering politics, especially if your rice bowl depends in some way or another on the Government’s goodwill. And when these parties do manage to get off the ground, they experience difficulties getting their message across in the mainstream media.

So what does this mean? It means that where there is little democratic competition (owing to unfair disadvantages imposed through authoritarian controls, not disadvantages for policy reasons), there is little claim to democratic legitimacy. Consequently, it would be wrong to suggest that the 60% majority vote for the PAP represents widespread support for a foreign-worker-dependent economic policy.

Arguably, support for the opposition does not necessarily mean opposition for the PAP’s economic policies either. Many vote opposition because they want someone to check the Government. But the question we have to ask is: check the Government for what? And the answer according to Ong and Mou is: to hold it accountable for its economic polices—in particular those that have created widespread social inequality and public transportation problems. This directly points to dissatisfaction over the heavy reliance on foreign workers as one of the main reasons for the PAP’s most dismal electoral performance since independence.


What the unemployment rate does not tell us.

Stagnation or dynamism

Even if we accept Calvin’s two main premises—that the PAP has done a great job managing the economy and that the majority of Singaporeans support its economic policies—it does not logically follow that the best way forward is more of the same. So even if the PAP has done well in providing almost full employment and in gaining strong democratic support (premises I do not accept), it does not mean that we should continue to rely on the same economic policies that depend on an increase in the population of foreign workers to drive economic growth.

In fact, the PAP itself has a far more sophisticated outlook that is based on sounder economic and democratic principles than those espoused by Calvin. As a consequence, the PAP has been open to tweaking its policies over the years and it has done just that over the past few years. They have raised foreign worker levies to stem the flow of immigration, made attempts to improve productivity by providing retraining opportunities, and tried to be more democratic with the Singapore Conversation initiative (in my opinion, a facile initiative which is nonetheless remarkable as an indication that the PAP is at least willing to pay more lip-service to the idea of accountability; what Terence Lee calls “gestural politics”).

Although many of these policies have not worked—our trains are still breaking down, productivity gains are virtually non-existent, social inequality remains high, and the PAP continues to run the country with the haughty mindset of the Confucian gentlemen (the junzi)—it would be wrong of us to deny that there have at least been gestures in the right direction. Sincere or not (and I am inclined to believe that they are sincere, though feckless) they indicate a willingness to tweak policies to accommodate changing realities. In fact, that is precisely the PAP’s motto—pragmatism. Therefore, it is wrongheaded to encourage the PAP to remain committed to an earlier goal despite changing realities. For the PAP to survive, it must accept that the economic policies which worked so well for us in the past are now unsustainable.

We cannot keep on relying on increases in the foreign worker population for economic growth. The more overcrowding we experience, the more our infrastructure will be strained and the higher our cost of living.  The gains from hiring cheap foreign workers will thus lead to diminishing marginal returns. Soon, it will be more costly to hire an additional foreign worker than to invest in capital or in Singaporeans to achieve productivity gains. But if we stick to a growth model that relies on an ever increasing quantity of foreign labour, we are giving employers a perverse incentive to delay innovation and investment. We are also encouraging the growth of labour intensive industries even though we should already be making the switch to more capital intensive ones in the five growth sectors the Government itself identifies: advanced manufacturing, applied health sciences, smart and sustainable urban solutions, logistics and aerospace, and Asian and global financial services. This is a logic that the Government itself has recognised; it is a logic which explains things like the increase in foreign worker levies.

Whichever side you sit on the partisan divide, it’s important to realise that the PAP is not a stagnant party. Even though it is unwilling to tackle the deeply entrenched elitism and racism that is Lee Kuan Yew’s legacy, it is far more flexible on economic issues than the political parties in most other countries. We ought to recognise that and work from there rather than express support for a stagnant party that exists only in our imagination.

As a matter of fact, I believe most of us are far less committed to one party or the other than diehard supporters like Calvin (which is his right; his sincerity I do not doubt), and that is a good thing. To be fervently partisan when the ruling party is already so centrist is not only strange, it is polarising. What we need is a ruling party that can keep up with the times and remain accountable to its people, not one that is trapped by a nostalgic desire to return to some glorious past.

Let the PAP be its own apologist, even an apologiser when they do poorly in elections. There is no need to polarise the debate by setting up a false dilemma between two extremes that do not exist. The PAP is a far more centrist party than many of its own diehard supporters care to admit. A lot of sound analysis from pro-establishment sources can be found on policy issues. They are frequently insightful and unbiased (see the Singapore Perspectives series or the many studies by the Institute of Policy Studies). It is evidently not necessary to be dogmatic about policy issues to support a party that is still somewhat open to policy changes, so there is no reason why anyone should, for even the opposition parties frequently agree with the PAP’s economic policies because of its centrist position.

On fundamental issues like its inherent elitism, its flawed meritocracy, its veiled racism and its misguided assessment of our vulnerability though, the PAP is far more likely to create strong disagreements. But Singaporeans remain a pragmatic lot and are largely uninterested in figuring out exactly how the ideology that underpins the PAP is flawed. This is partly because the PAP’s hardnosed pragmatism has worked so well for so long. So this is a debate that will be far more polarising because it goes to the core of Singapore’s history and identity, and it challenges the very essence of the PAP, but it can wait. For now, we can at least pull the PAP back from population suicide because it is not dogmatic about it, and perhaps the diehard supporters will follow.

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