Riot is a game changer

POWDER KEG: The writer feels that there is no way the Government can make Sunday's riot disappear from the psyche of an electorate already sceptical about its immigration policy. It now has two choices: show how it intends to work with the people to ameliorate the social costs of the Population White Paper, or abandon it and come up with a Plan B. PHOTO: THE NEW PAPER


    Dec 13, 2013

    Riot is a game changer

    ANY hope the Government still harboured of the electorate accepting the "6.9 million" Population White Paper may have just gone up in flames.

    One must not underestimate the shock to the Singaporean psyche of seeing images of burning police vehicles, crowds attacking ambulances and rioting masses; for Singaporeans born post-independence, these things just do not happen here. They see them on the TV, or the Internet, or the papers - but not in their own backyard.

    The Government may try its best to deny that the riot has anything to do with immigration policy, but it will fail. It may exhort Singaporeans not to politicise the issue, but it will fail, too.

    The Government may rail against xenophobia but it will also fail, because I fear reason cannot overcome the images from Sunday's riot already burned into the mind's eye.

    I have written elsewhere that I support the Government's immigration policy because I have seen the statistics, the facts, and I know that if we do not take in immigrants, we would be faced with a rapidly ageing population and a shrinking workforce.

    I also know that we need a foreign-migrant workforce because, in order to build more homes and infrastructure for a growing population, we need these foreign workers to do the jobs Singaporeans are not willing to do - construction, building sewers, paving roads - at an economically feasible wage.

    But the best way for the Government to convince the population of these facts is not to merely present its vision for a rosy future, but to be honest about the costs involved.

    And one of those costs is that immigrants need to be assimilated, and foreign-migrant-worker populations do not just disappear during weekends after toiling the entire week to build our homes and roads.

    It may, however, be too late.

    There is no way that the Government can make the events of Little India disappear from the psyche of an electorate already sceptical about its immigration policy.

    It now has two choices.

    First, it can roll out all the bar graphs and pie charts again and show the people the bleak future Singapore faces with an ageing population, minus immigrants. But this time, it must be completely honest about the costs of this policy.

    The Government needs to show how it intends to work with Singaporeans to ameliorate these social costs. This includes a plan on assimilating new immigrants, as well as that of dealing with an ever-increasing foreign-migrant-worker population, needed to build infrastructure for a growing population.

    Thus, the Population White Paper may be anchored on irrefutable facts and figures, but the costs and challenges of implementing the policy paper must be made clear to the electorate.

    The second option is for the Government to abandon the Population White Paper and come up with a Plan B.

    Plan B has to deal with the alternative - that of an aged (rather than ageing) population, with a small workforce, but a small immigrant population.

    Plan B is an economy less reliant on foreign workers, with Singaporeans taking up jobs in construction, and all the other manual work that we now take for granted.

    In this, critics of the Government, as well as opposition politicians, need to be honest too.

    There will also be social costs to Plan B.

    Firstly, Singapore will need higher taxes from a smaller active workforce to support an aged population.

    We will (as we are, already) have to get used to more old people taking on work that the young do not want; retirement age also has to go up.

    In order for more Singaporeans to take up the jobs that foreign workers are now doing, wages have to go up. But that means prices may have to go up as well.

    If bus drivers are to be paid more in order for Singaporeans to take the job, then bus fares will either have to rise, or taxes have to rise in order for the Government to subsidise fares. Homes may be built less cheaply, even if productivity rises. That means Housing Board flats will either cost more or, again, more tax revenue has to be raised for bigger subsidies.

    Singaporeans have to learn to do a lot more household-maintenance jobs, like in some developed countries, where blue-collar jobs are highly paid. These are also not easy challenges to adjust to.

    Plan B is a possible scenario, but it is not enough for detractors of the PAP to criticise its immigration policy and not present the alternative with the trade-offs. There is no perfect solution and both sides in the debate must be honest about the costs of the options available.

    The Committee of Inquiry will not be as important as the Government presenting to the population how it intends to manage the growing foreign-migrant-worker numbers needed to build the infrastructure for a larger population.

    And it needs to be a convincing story.

    Otherwise, it is time to seriously consider Plan B.


    The writer is a former Nominated MP