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White Paper…Ooo very scary

February 6, 2013 2 comments

First of all, forgive me for the rather messy write up of this post. It’s long and in no way coherent as I dropped my thinking over different periods of time and I’m too tired to piece them all together. Nor do I have time to clean up any grammar mistakes. Pardon me.

When I saw the 6.9 million figure on local media, the first thing that struck my mind is some old marketing technique of using .90 to price any value giving one the illusion that the White Paper projects to 6.9 million when the actual figure the PAP government is aiming for is 7 million. It’s not 6, but 7, SEVEN million. That adds an additional 1.7, or if I too use the marketing technique of rounding up, it’s adding 2 million or 2/5 of the current population, entirely via importing labor.

7 million-population target

Do not be mistaken. The figure of 7 million is a target despite some minister claiming that it is just ‘worse-case scenario’ planning. Do you think the government will actually over build houses and facilities and risk over-supply that will push Singapore into deflation? That contradicts the PAP policy of ‘ensure gradual increase in house prices to build up every citizen’s asset value.’

What is not that obvious to me is the government’s insistent that we need a younger workforce to support the increasing group of retiring work force. Singapore does not have a pension system, unlike many other countries. The amount spent on medical care is by far one of the least per capita in comparison with other developed economies. That suggested there is more room for the government to allocate their resources in. In case someone is to argue that I am just being wasteful, aren’t the nation’s reserve always ‘prudently’ invested via GIC and Temasek? Is too careful not as bad as too wasteful? Frankly, I have no answer to this, and this has always been a question I ponder.

The government locks up a major portion of the citizen’s salary to prepare for old age, of which huge part is locked in housing; while at the same time provide cheap financing to the government. The only way to unlock the value is to downgrade your house in your old age. The government went on to make it unlawful for children not to take care of their aging parents. Through these schemes, the PAP government had managed to extract full economic benefit from a person’s prime life and minimize responsibility and burden when an economic digit becomes redundant. Not that it’s a bad thing from the government’s point of view. It’s entirely efficient and effective.

Even if we need to equalize the retiring group of workers, why is not the government aiming for growth to stabilize the population figures at today’s population? A plan to take in 30,000 immigrants and granting freely the seemingly increasingly worthless Singapore citizenship to 25,000 every year and growing the population to 7 million sounds more like a plan to increase the population instead of stabilizing.

Many people also question: so what’s next after 2030? The current absorption of immigrants will also mean a larger base of retirees in the future. Never mind how some minister insist some of these ‘productive young labor imports’ will eventually go back to their country. The fact that 25,000 Singaporeans are being minted (with a high probability of being recruited when they are quite young therefore economically valuable to the PAP government) will enlarge the aging base.

On the idea of conspiracy theory (one can’t blame citizens for being imaginative given how lack of transparent the PAP is) that I heard and would like to share: Could this be because the PAP is afraid of a major redemption of cash from the CPF when the Baby Boomers retire and they simply do not have enough money left after all the losses, and therefore have to resort to minting more citizens and lock up more money in CPF to pay the Baby Boomers? Coffee shop/taxi talk sessions can be pretty amusing at times.

Economic structure

Today while watching TV, I almost puked on my dinner when I saw Mr Khaw ‘pleading earnestly’ in Parliament that Singaporeans need houses and he needs all these extra foreign workers to build enough homes fast enough; insinuating that the Worker’s Party proposal to cut down foreign workers is working against Singaporeans, therefore suggesting the Worker’s Party must be the bad guy. It’s so badly acted and hypocritical it reminds me of some character in those Canto serial dramas.

The problem is, Mr Khaw doesn’t really need that many workers to build houses. It is an all too common problem in Singapore. So long as you can get along with cheap labor, you continue to do so. It’s easy to hire and fire, and you have no responsibility on them since they are usually contracted from some other sources. The construction industry continues to be built on cheap labor. So cheap they can afford to hire an army of them to build houses. They are such cheap commodity some unscrupulous contractors wouldn’t even provide decent housing and sufficient safety measures. So much for the much hyped productivity drive announced by the Prime Minister last year; the one area the government had failed miserably and looks too half-hearted to continue pursing. All they can do is lament they have allocated the money there and companies are not improving fast enough.

I have mentioned before productivity is the only way Singapore can continue to pull itself up the economic ladder. We have no resources to begin with and the only resources we have are people. Our physical capital (ie land) is being stretched to the limits (I do worry for the next generation), the country had done all it can to move up the high-value chain. The only problem is, we are simply not productive enough. Among the developed countries, Singapore does not rank high in terms of productivity. You do not see an army working on a construction site in the United States. Nor do you see that in Japan. What you see is much smaller group of efficient, highly professional, highly paid construction professionals, creating living spaces from stretch. That’s how technology came into play.

It’s only via higher productivity can one hope to see real gains in wages, with the bonus of not requiring so many workers.

Politics

Politically, this almost guarantees the PAP government an additional 25,000 votes every year.  And most people on the anti-PAP camp would readily link the White Paper to political ploy. But it’s worth a thought. Sure, some supporters might argue that not every new citizen minted will be of eligible age to vote. Taking a leaf out from the government, I am presenting numbers at it’s worst case scenario. Since every GE is conducted after 5 years, the PAP will garner an additional 75,000 votes by 2016 and adds 125,000 votes for every GE thereafter. By 2030, PAP will push up an additional 450,000 votes. Yes, that is equivalent to another major GRC. Given the PAP’s habit of cutting up the GRC as and when they deem fit, they can easily spread out these imported voters to opposition wards. Punggol is one new town waiting to be developed (ie adding more people into the area).

Refering to Channelnewsasia (http://www.channelnewsasia.com/stories/singaporelocalnews/view/1251363/1/.html)

“Besides creating new towns, mature estates will also be rejuvenated while existing towns like Punggol will also continue to be developed.

When completed, Punggol will become one of the largest HDB towns in Singapore with 96,000 units, three times its current size.”

Lack of consultation on major issues & the existence of useless MPs

Population planning affects every one in the country. The PAP had shrewdly avoided releasing the White Paper before the Punggol election for fear of a backlash. Right after the release, expectedly the local media came on full blast in defending the white paper, publishing ‘feel-good’ reports that is meaningless (http://www.channelnewsasia.com/stories/singaporelocalnews/view/1251338/1/.html) and attempts to brainwash the citizens into believing that the PAP government is trying to do some good.

It’s foreseeable that the PAP government will debate in Parliament, put on a show that there’s discussion, and continue to move on. In fact, we have seen old horses Mr Goh Chok Tong and (oh my gosh, I thought he’d gone on a long vacation since last GE) Mr Mah Bow Tan coming forward to support the White Paper. This is what happens when the parliament is overwhelmingly controlled by one political party of yes men and women, that is severely over-represented in parliament given they only got 65% of the votes but dominates more than 90% in parliamentary seats.

For the one last time, can the PAP stop framing the opposition’s plan as having ZERO foreign workers or not granting any more PR or citizenship? It’s dumb and stupid and totally lack respect. MPs such as Vikram Nair and Janil Puthucheary should simply keep their mouth shut if they have no constructive replies. Trying to argue on extreme lines benefit neither side and only aims to corner the opponent simply because it’s nonsensical to argue from extremes in the first place. It shows desire to win argument, lack of maturity, simply lack depth and childish. I can argue back in their extreme point of view: So Mr Vikram and Janil, do you have foreign masters to report to rather than pledging allegiance to the Singapore flag since you love anything foreign so much? Especially when Mr Janil was not local born to begin with?

[Quote from CNA: Mr Chen was challenged by PAP MPs Vikram Nair (Sembawang GRC) and Janil Puthucheary (Pasir Ris-Punggol GRC), who asked if the WP is proposing not having any foreign labour in Singapore at all, and if the Aljunied-Hougang Town Council employs foreign workers.]

They are advocating (like me, and many others) to slow down population growth. Not zero. I can imagine how frustrating it can get sometimes for the opposition to debate even gentlemanly with cowards who can’t answer a question properly. And these are the people you pay millions to govern a small island?

Some of the defending points are redundant. Take for example, the papers published that 5,200 hectares more land to be reclaimed to accommodate the 7 million population. The problem is, of this 5,200 hectares, a major part is allocated for Pulau Tekong and Tuas, mainly non-residential areas to begin with. There is only a small consolation in having Tengah converted to a new town.

The unprofessional White Paper

If you ever bother to read the White Paper (with care, as the PAP wish you will), you’ll find some graphs, some charts, lots of pictures that shows up like a brochure persuading you to buy the product, in this case, the idea of bringing in more people. If you like colors, fluffy words, lots and lots of colors, yes, you may buy in the idea that the White Paper is good for you. However, upon closer scrutiny, it baffled me how un-scholarly (to quote from critic Donald Low) the White Paper is.

Sure it tells you some trends (with tonnes of assumptions) and such and I forgot how many times the words “growth, aspirations, high quality of life” appear over and over again. What is my aspiration? What is my children’s aspiration? What is the definition of high quality of life? What is good planning? What are good jobs? What is a good future?

All I see are these words but no concrete plan on how to achieve all that. Is the government telling me that by pulling in 30,000 foreign imports a year and building up more buildings and facilities to cater to the rising population will magically make the future oh-so-bright? And it amazed me when the PAP stewards will preach so religiously in parliament about the ‘good happy ending’ they envisioned but not how to get there.

The lack of trust based on poor track record

The PAP government has a very bad report card for the past decade or so in growing the nation. GDP is artificially raised via the Casinos, resorts and importing cheap labor. While GDP rises, so do the Gini coefficient while wage rate for the lower wage workers remain stagnant or even decline. This means the nation is not enjoying the growth evenly with only the upper elchelons benefitting. Given that productivity continues to stagnant or decline, where is the basis for growth in real income? Now that they have run out of ideas, they are tying to convince the nation that growth will moderate to 2-3% a year. Given the poor track record, I read with much suspicion when Minister of National Development, ex-Malaysian Khaw Boon Wan said:

How could it be? It’s already so crowded — 5.3 million — buses (and) trains. How is it possible to have 6.9 million population? The planners must be mad!’

“I think that’s a legitimate reaction and of course they ask good questions — which is, how can you be sure, more population, but quality of life will remain the same but in fact even better?

“Actually the answer is yes, it’s possible — you can have a larger population and yet have a better quality of life, but conditions must be right.

“So what are those conditions — one, there must be planning, which means good long-term planning and secondly, there must be good infrastructure that must be built ahead of demand.

“So if those conditions are there then you can (resolve) this seemingly difficult problem — how to achieve better quality of life despite a greater or larger population.

“And we are confident because we have time, because we are talking about the future — 2020, 2025, 2030 — and as planners our mantra is the Boy Scouts’ motto – ‘prepare for the worst but hope for the best’.

In a reply to the last statement, I quote from the great economist Keynes – “In the long run, we are all dead”. If we look over a long time horizon, any problem now will not be a problem (although there will be new problems).  It’s a totally redundant statement. Since 2000, the PAP government had attempted to raise the population via importing immigrants. Given how smart those scholars are, it is without a doubt they will, or rather, should anticipate problems such as infrastructure stressing.  How on earth can they be caught ‘off-guard’ on the population increase when they are the same government allowing all these foreigners into the country? Did the government turn on the tap, went to laze off for a smoke only to come back to find the pail overflowing? If so, it can only translate to extreme poor judgment, not working on the job, zero communication, poor coordination, or simply pure incompetency.

If the PAP government had failed in the last 13 years in ‘good planning’, what makes you think they can have better planning this time round? And how does Mr Khaw know it’s possible to achieve a higher quality of life with a larger population on limited land? It’s never been done before and it’s a disaster in today’s term looking back the policy to increase population a decade ago.  What is his definition of high quality of life?

Mr Khaw went on to say: (http://www.channelnewsasia.com/stories/singaporelocalnews/view/1251363/1/.html)

Speaking to reporters on Thursday morning, National Development Minister Khaw Boon Wan addressed concerns of affordability of BTO flats. He said prices of BTO flats will not rise with resale flat prices.

Mr Khaw added this has been the practice since he took over the ministry in 2011 and will continue till the housing market stabilises, and he pointed out that stable BTO prices also means government subsidies have also increased.

I have not done any research, but somehow I felt there is some correlation between BTO and resale market prices. Someone could enlighten me on this part. I would love to find out that I had perceived wrongly.

Quality: Land consumption is a zero sum game

Contrary to what Mr Khaw wants you to believe: (http://www.channelnewsasia.com/stories/singaporelocalnews/view/1251352/1/.html)

Mr Khaw said: “The underlying principle is not quantity, it’s not statistics, the underlying principle is quality.

“In the next phase of development in Singapore, let us strive for quality. Quality living, quality worklife, quality environment, quality schools, quality pre-schools that have better balance in life. Quality in inter-people relationships, a much more gracious society.

“I think that is a life worth looking forward to and that is a vision that is within our grasp. We can achieve it with better resources and better attitude, it is totally within our grasp.

“This is not to say we don’t have current problems, overcrowding etc etc but you know we are addressing that as fast as we can and they will be resolved.

“Please do give us some time but even as we resolve current problems, our eyes must be on our future.

“So the key is planning and infrastructure and with time, we can achieve both, so please don’t worry.”

That’s all very nice words. I wonder whether he had some private lessons from Adam Khoo. Be clear: Land consumption is a zero sum game. With more people, you naturally have less space to yourself. If more space does not equate higher life quality, why would people pay a premium to stay in bigger houses? While the government will attempt to change travel patterns diverting to the north and south, such build up of buildings and facilities will take a long while. At the same time, the government is going to roll in 30,000 more people a year now when we are already facing gridlocks in facilities and more importantly transportation.

There is also a limit to how much the PAP government can change travel patterns. Take for example for leisure. The city and orchard road will continue to be the main ‘in’ places that people go for shopping and leisure. Look at the crowd during weekends and imagine it a lot more in the coming years. There will be longer waiting time in searching for a seat in the Food Courts, longer waiting time to look for a parking slot, higher cost of living given the higher aggregate demand for almost everything in the country.  Inflation will rise and since the government had already announced a slower growth rate of 2-3%, in general terms your salary won’t be able to increase higher in real terms if productivity did not continue to rise. That of course means a decrease in life quality.

And for once, is it not strange for PAP, a party known to be mathematically precise and logical to ask you not to ponder on “quantity and statistics” but on something partially “intangible” like “quality”? Especially when some of the MPs (like the one that drank water from water tanks with dead bodies) are known to be extremely nicky picky in useless details. Obviously figures can do a frightening job persuading you to accept the White Paper. Just imagine, you are going to add 300,000 people a year over 17 years, which means changing 5,310,000 population to 7,000,000! And increase of almost 2,000,000 (i love rounding) Hmmm numbers doesn’t seem to tell any lies don’t they? So that would means if the MRT has 6 cabins, the train will need almost 3 more cabins in 17 years time! Either that or you can stand with your face practically pasted on someone else’s butt for the entire journey.

The PAP government was given too much time and too many chances but little has been done. What is worse is they are going to exacerbate the problem, all for the sake of cheap economic growth.

No change in population policy & the non-existent of a Singapore core.

There is, in fact, no change in the population policy of adding 30,000 immigrants to the country. The backlash in 2011 forces the PAP to trim down on the numbers and this White Paper gives them the ‘moral authority’ to continue doing what they have been doing all along.

It is also comical to see the PAP insisting there is a ‘Singapore core’ when Singaporeans only comprise slightly over 55% in their own country. Bear in mind that of that 55%, more than ½ a million came from the minting of new citizens. If we were to break down to true blue local born Singaporeans, we would have really become a minority in our country.

“Why be so xenophobic and not accept new citizens as part of the Singapore family?” some may ask. Again, I have to emphasize that xenophobia shouldn’t be swept off cleanly as a negative thing. Things happened for a reason. It’s more important to look at the reasons than go around labeling people xenophobic. New citizens still differ from Singapore born citizens, with various degrees of difference. Malaysian turn Singaporeans are most likely to be welcomed and assimilated due to the close similarities in culture, history and language.  Southern Mainland Chinese may also exhibit some degrees of similarities to Chinese Singaporeans in terms of Chinese or dialect accents and culture, even facial features. But when a Northern Mainland Chinese stands beside a Singaporean Chinese, the difference is obvious. Oh well, at least to most Chinese. The same can be said of our Indian counterparts. Why is being xenophobic being demonized? You may say it’s bad to be xenophobic when only 1% of the population is different. But can you say it’s bad when almost 50% of the population is different? For a Singaporean not to be ‘xenophobic’ when foreigners populate half the country will spell zero attachment to the country in the first place. People voice out because they care. It is completely normal.  Even Sweden, a nation long held as the model society, is experiencing xenophobia with a far less percentage of foreigners in their country.

In any culture or country, it is a basic human instinct to want to belong to a group that shares similarities.  Will you feel comfortable having to adjust to social breakages and tensions in your every day life in your own backyard? How many times do our Malay and Indian fellow Singaporeans have to tolerate communicating with PRC Chinese who speaks almost no English? How many times do you find yourself having to expend energy speaking with India Indians or Pinoys who speaks ‘weird’ English (arguably, and I have to be fair, Singaporeans don’t speak the very best English around but then I would argue: speak as the Singaporeans speak in Singapore). I apologize if I offend any India Indians and Pinoys here, but admittedly, 8 out of 10 calls I receive each day about credit cards, insurance, spas etc are handled by one of your fellow friends and it can be quite challenging trying to understand what rattles off in rapids of AK16 burst of accented English behind those phones. I do understand from the other side of the coin, they might find it challenging to understand Singaporean’s weird “rolling up and down” (to quote from my American professor….hmm not that the Americans speaks the best English anyway) English scattered with local flavors. So here we have, a potential ground for miscommunication and conflict simply due to different accents, exacerbated in every day bombardment.

It is not possible to fully integrate new citizens. They bring with them a culture and behavior instilled in their formative years back in their countries and that will spell potentially huge social tension. No matter how much money the government is going to waste in coming up with programs to ‘teach’ these new citizens our way of life, it is not quite possible. Way of life cannot be taught. Such forced social engineering is redundant and ineffective. To make things worse, the constant absorbing of foreigners including minting of foreigners into new citizens will mean there is no time to integrate and assimilate. More of the foreign kind will come together and form their own enclaves. This is not what is going to happen. This is what HAD already happened. Just look around you and you’ll see. Do you really see new citizens and foreigners mixing with local born citizens? Is this not already a dangerous sign of social tension? A few hundreds of years ago, Americans populate and annexed California from Mexico. It is not an unreal thought of foreigners coming to dominate national policies as this divide continues to tore apart. Something even the PAP camp should worry about.

Sure, culture and way of life is not static, that I agree. But I also think it’s a natural reaction to protect one’s identity. Therefore I disapprove of anyone carelessly using the word ‘Xenophobia’ to demonize a person’s attempt to protect one’s culture or identity. It ignores the fact that there is something held on dearly by the incumbent. After all, isn’t this same sense of identity that gives us the meaning of a nation?

We have already witnessed the rise of hate speech and extreme anger on the Internet. The words used against foreigners are so extreme sometimes it is embarrassing to read as a Singaporean. Evidently, the rise in xenophobia will continue as the population issue gives rise to the ugly side of Singaporeans. The real danger comes when the tension flows into physical actions. Continuing to open the floodgate for foreigners is a time bomb waiting to explode.

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