Singapore 2025

What of Singapore towards 2025? Thoughts of a Singaporean.

Archive for the ‘Foreign Talent Policy’ Category

Parliament: A Dynamic Population for a Sustainable Singapore (Pritam Singh) – 6 February 2013

Mdm Speaker, the Government’s Population White Paper has been met by a barrage of criticism from ordinary Singaporeans. The Government in the last week and the Deputy Prime Minister in his opening speech on this Motion have been at pains to stress that 6.5 million to 6.9 million is not a target. I, like many Singaporeans who have grown up with the PAP, find this very hard to believe.

It is hard to conceive of a PAP Government resisting the temptation of opening the door to immigration, and then turning back at Singaporeans to say that the PAP has brought high economic growth to Singapore and that Singaporeans should be thankful. As the last few years have shown us, GDP growth means little if Singaporeans are not the ones that benefit from it. GDP growth means little if Singaporeans cannot afford cars, and houses are out of reach. What this Population White Paper ultimately highlights and what it will be remembered for is how out of touch the PAP Government has become with ordinary Singaporeans.

Mdm Speaker, I oppose the Motion and urge the Deputy Prime Minister to take this White Paper back to the drawing board, but only after the views of ordinary Singaporeans are prominently represented in it. But before that, I would like to present some perspectives for the Government to consider as it ruminates over the overwhelmingly negative public feedback on this White Paper.

The Government has already admitted that it did not plan ahead to prepare infrastructure for a larger population. As we have 5.3 million people on our island today, the Government should make clear how many more MRT lines, hospital beds and housing units, amongst other indicators, have to come on-stream to bring infrastructure in line with our current population size. This will give Singaporeans a better idea and feel of the future, and what the PAP Government means by a high quality of living in 2030 and what Singapore will be like with another 1.6 million people.

A critical plank of the White Paper deals with raising our TFR. But in this regard, the White Paper has not gone far enough to ask why Singaporeans are having fewer children. Mdm Speaker, in my view, a large part of this is down to a compendium of factors linked to our work culture, cost of living especially for the low and middle-income, and the sense of reducing physical space in Singapore. In the final reckoning, there is a confluence of factors, but rather than just look at more paternity leave and financial incentives, the White Paper was an opportunity for the Government to bite the bullet and introduce far-reaching changes to address our TFR problem for the long run.

Like both the property cooling measures which is in its seventh instalment with no moderation of prices in sight, and the Marriage and Parenthood package which is now into its fourth instalment, I am sceptical about the likely effects of these policy changes as they are not radical enough and do not address the root cause of our low TFR.

What the Government should do is to table a comprehensive White Paper on increasing our TFR with a corollary plan on getting our non-working population into the workforce. Instead, by introducing a narrow set of measures, the Government has gone for a half-hearted approach, one that ultimately threatens a self-fulfilling prophecy. A less than vigorous attempt at raising TFR like what is currently presented in the White Paper will lead the Government to open the tap to immigration, on the grounds that measures to raise TFR have obviously failed.

In Tuesday’s Straits Times, there was a piece about some Punggol residents fighting to save a small knoll from development. Last month, another group of residents in Pasir Ris were fighting to save a wooded area, two football fields in size, from being chopped down for the construction of an international school. Think about it, not a big cemetery like Bukit Brown or the railway corridor, but we are talking of small knolls and football fields. And this sort of bottom-up citizen-driven campaigns are already taking place with 5.3 million people in Singapore.

Singapore is already a very small place. Ordinary Singaporeans have seen their flats shrink over the years. Now their public spaces for recreation and, more importantly, rejuvenation will also shrink whatever promises are made about the quality of life. There is a heart-warming picture of a family having a picnic on page 17 of the White Paper. I wonder how the family will come to the beach in 2030, picnic basket and a happy family in tow. Did they take the MRT? Perhaps some will. Whatever the case, I hope they do not choose to go to the beach over the weekend for it is simply too crowded today. Be that as it may, it is an inescapable reality that if one has a big family, one needs a car or some form of transport in Singapore – to bring kids to and from childcare, to take them out over the weekends, to meet their extended family, and for little excursions around the island. The MND Minister has come out to say that cycling should be encouraged. But it still does not change the fact that most families need a vehicle. It is my belief that the quality of life that is outlined in the White Paper with 6.5 million to 6.9 million Singaporeans will not deliver the high quality of life promised.

A regional mall in Seletar, Tampines North or Tengah will probably look exactly like Tampines Mall and Jurong Point today, including the brands on show. Housing estates are likely to be crammed, in line with the higher plot ratios in newer HDB estates and, yes, the rooms in our flats will continue to be small. On this account, I would like to ask if the Government had factored in the future size of our flats in this White Paper, as these increases are likely to go some way to creating a better sense of home and promoting larger families especially since the justification for smaller flats has been smaller families.

Another central plank of a relook at the Government’s TFR strategies should have been at the workplace. It is a well-known fact that culturally, many Singaporeans work late hours, effectively ridiculing the notion of an eight-hour workday. Shirley Sun, an academic at NTU in a 2013 publication titled “Population Policy and Reproduction in Singapore: Making Future Citizens”, opined that “encouraging childbirth among citizens is not solely a matter of providing economic resources or parental leave from work but in the construction of ideal citizens, and that if ‘individual competitiveness’ reigns, particularly in the face of scarce resources, parents and prospective parents are likely to limit childbearing”.

Employers and middle-managers, being businessmen and careerists, are unlikely to have an overriding reason to ask their staff to go home on time. Far from becoming productive, these employees, in the national schema, are singularly unproductive, spending time that could have been better spent with family. I know of many in various professions who fear they will receive an adverse grade if they leave before the boss. Numerous calls have been made for work-life balance but the work culture remains a problem and the softly-softly approach of the Government will not make much headway.

Private employees are bound by shareholders and the structural reality of unlocking shareholder value making the call for work-life balance in Singapore a shallow one. It’s time for the government to step in aggressively. Let us consider going back to basics – would the government consider legislating the eight- hour workday after which an employer is expected to pay OT across all professions, and not just limited to those earning below $4,500 as under the Employment Act currently?

It is a radical proposal, deserves deeper study for sure, but it is the sort of radical thinking insofar as employer and employee attitudes at the workplace that the government should be proposing, to raise the quality of life of Singaporeans with a view to boost TFR rates aggressively. Along with more productivity incentives and wage and rental grants for companies especially SMEs and exempt private companies that hire Singaporean workers, we need to think out of the box to ensure that Singaporeans do not end up becoming a minority in their own country of birth.

There will be those who will ask where the money for more productivity incentives and measures to help SMEs will come from. In light of the existential challenge ahead of us, we should not rule out a deliberate and planned drawn-down of our reserves. Mdm Speaker, the rainy day is upon us and we need to really address the TFR problem far more aggressively than we have ever done before especially since our future of the Singapore, as we know it, is on the line.

This brings me to the point about how successful the Government has been so far at integrating new citizens. On this account, the jury is still out but Singaporeans remain uncomfortable at the thought of more foreigners coming on board even as new citizens slowly integrate into our society. This slow pace of integration should not come as a surprise to anyone. It’s is not the fault of Singaporeans or new citizens. Integration takes time and if we have not been able to do it over the last 20 years with our population rising from 3 million to 5 million, it inevitable that this government will only increase the insecurity to Singaporeans if it proceeds with the population projection numbers set out in this White Paper.

Some months ago, Deputy Prime Minister Tharman noted that the Government could be more transparent about how it approves PR applications. This would be of great benefit as Singaporeans would be able to understand who our neighbours are, where are they from and on what basis they were selected – akin to the transparency standards of immigrant friendly countries like Australia and Canada. Again, this was another odd omission from the White Paper, even though a Deputy Prime Minister no less spoke of the need for greater transparency on the selection criterion for PRs.

Probably the most obvious proof of the how underwhelming the White Paper has been was highlighted on page 28. While mention was made of communication in a common language to better ingrate new arrivals, no real direction was made to ensure new immigrants can effectively communicate in English, even though this feedback has been repeatedly put to the Government in light of our previously liberal immigration policy. A very telling sentence stated that there are ample opportunities for these wishing to learn English, such as courses run by, PA and NTUC. Why not encourage the economically inactive like the former teachers in our population to teach English and get them in the workforce, with the appropriate regulatory standards in place? Surely the Government can take the lead in and encourage greater labour force participation through simple initiatives that promote private sector business participation instead of relying on quasi-government entities.

Where the White Paper and the land use paper have been sorely lacking has been in academic rigour on quality of life indicia. Over the years, many advances have been made in this field of social science.

Mdm Speaker, I refer to a 2013 publication by two Singaporean academics at the NUS Business School, Siok Kuan Tambyah and Tan Soo Jiuan titled “Happiness and Wellbeing: The Singaporean Experience”. Their research covers a large scale survey of 1,500 citizens conducted between May and June 2011 that provides insights into Singaporeans’ satisfaction with life and living in Singapore, happiness, enjoyment, achievement, emotional wellbeing, psychological flourishing, economic wellbeing, overall wellbeing, personal values, spirituality, value orientations, national identity, rights, and the role of government. The survey also dovetails with similar work done in 1996 and 2001 and is part of a field of study known as subjective well-being research, which focuses on measuring an individual’s cognitive and affective reaction to his or her while life as well as to specific domains of life.

Their 2011 survey showed that Singaporeans were generally satisfied with their lives in general, but less so with living in Singapore. In the words of the authors, Singaporeans had achieved quite a lot but Singaporeans did not necessarily feel happier or enjoyed life more. Apart from calling for a more inclusive growth model, the future Singapore would be one where its citizens feel that they have a stake in and where their voices are heard and appreciated. There should have been a big section in the White Paper for such details and in the accompanying land use paper – these omissions are stark and incongruous especially since the government promises a high quality of life going forward.

Derek Bok, the long-time President of Harvard University wrote a seminal book in 2010 titled the Politics of Happiness: What Government can learn from the new research on well-being and happiness. He too identifies the evolution of social science research and the doubts researchers have raised about the value of growth and how it should not necessarily override other aspects of life that can contribute importantly to well-being. He calls on government officials to draw upon new research to rethink priorities and make a more balanced effort to promote well-being. How is this to be done? Bok identifies strengthening the family and marriage, encouraging active forms of leisure, cushioning the shock of unemployment, universal health care and a more secure retirement, improvements in child care and pre-school education, treatment of mental illnesses, focus of education policy and other broader goals. Such a progressive approach, in line with raising the quality of life as defined in the land use supplement to the White Paper is sorely missing.

Mdm Speaker, we have heard many local and foreign business federations and chambers of commerce raise their objections to the White Paper. This should not be surprising. Companies are answerable to shareholders, not the people of Singapore. But the white paper needs to take views of Singaporeans first and get that aspect of the equation right. The Workers’ Party is ultimately answerable to the people of Singapore first.

Nimble businesses and intelligent business folk will adjust and restructure businesses taking into advantage of the workforce that is currently unemployed, especially since the Government has announced the foreign worker tightening strategies for some time already. Some companies may well relocate to Iskandar, but is that not what the Government has been subtly encouraging?

Far from throwing SMEs under the bus with our proposal, we envisage the Government significantly reducing the prospects of unpredictability for SMEs with our proposals, not just with productivity and tax incentives, but also with rental grants, and other costs indicia that severely affect SMEs. But industries like construction need to appreciate that the old days of massive foreign labour influx are well and truly over. They have to make do with what they have, and Singaporeans must accept a slower pace of construction as a result.

Some businesses may well be spooked by the prospects of this, but this is one bullet we are better off biting now because of our strong fiscal position. When the bosses of these SMEs appreciate that the Singapore of the future will be a more sustainable one, they would have understood this turn was one that we have to negotiate as a country, in spite of the turbulence it causes. We will stand with SMEs by pressing the Government to do more for them especially on rentals, so they can devote more resources to productivity.

Mdm Speaker, this white paper has jarred the average Singaporean. So it should be no surprise that a backbencher has introduced an amendment to the motion and a Minister has endorsed the same. But the amendment still does not alter the substance of the White Paper and the lacuna therein. Given the urgency of the issue, the White Paper needs to be reworked with more aggressive measures to raise TFR as a start and it has to be populated with more detail about the quality of life of Singaporeans should anticipate with the projected figure is reached. The public cynicism surrounding the White Paper remains high – it is an emotion the Government cannot afford to ignore to achieve a dynamic population for a sustainable Singapore.

Written by singapore 2025

06/02/2013 at 9:09 am

Interview (Malay) with Radio Warna 94.2 FM

1. There is a sense that the younger generation in Singapore are less likely to be proud and loyal to the nation, despite them benefitting from the nation’s economic progress. As someone who belongs to the post independence generation, can you identify with this view and what do you think could be the reasons for this?

Honestly, I do not. I have met many young Singaporeans who are fiercely loyal and proud of Singapore. Many of these youth have no qualms taking their destiny in their hands and participating and even volunteering with the various opposition parties in Singapore. Such is the quality of their loyalty that they find no contradiction supporting an opposition party in Singapore, and Singapore the country. This is a very healthy development going forward. Indeed there is no contradiction supporting any political party in Singapore and remaining loyal to the country.

2. In the aftermath of the general elections, former MM Lee Kuan Yew had commented that young Singaporeans have forgotten the struggles of the nation’s past. Do you think the younger generation has taken the nation’s progress for granted? How has the nation’s history shaped your own personal view of the ‘Singapore Dream’?

Every generation takes ownership of its own unique problems. It is a non-starter to expect the current generation to remember every contour of our nation’s past. Rather than be encumbered by the past, our young are more concerned about the future, and rightly so. Contrary to the question, I feel our youth are not taking the nation’s future for granted, and it is for that reason they have more questions, proposals and suggestions for the politicians who represent them. This is yet another healthy development. The nation’s history and my personal view of the Singapore Dream are mutually exclusive. The Singapore Dream will not be delivered on our laps, we will all have to shape it and fight for it even.

3. The Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) recently launched a ‘happiness index’ to better measure the quality of life. The new index marks a significant change for the OECD, which for half a century has been known for its orthodox approach to economics and its promotion of structural reforms to boost GDP growth. Beyond economic progress, what areas of progress do you think Singapore should work towards in the years ahead and what role do you see yourself playing in that process as a young politician?

One very important area is citizen participation. And one of the most important tools of citizen participation is information. If we want our people to rely less on the government and to take ownership of their lives, our people must be endowed with the necessary information to understand what the government is thinking – and how we can contribute as citizens to this process. For example, there has been alot of discussion of immigration into Singapore over the last 10 years. But we don’t hear much detailed government explanation on emigration out of Singapore – how many Singaporeans have decided to give up on the Singapore Dream and why? Shouldn’t we look into their reason/s to give up Singapore citizenship, especially since our national birth rates are already so low? Data of this nature allow us as Singaporeans to take a good honest look at ourselves, and drives at the indicators that are so critical in determining the future Singapore we will inherit. Beyond economic progress, the socio-cultural dynamics and prospects of Singapore society deserve closer scrutiny and debate. Without doubt, I plan to contribute to this debate. 


Written by singapore 2025

29/10/2011 at 12:48 pm

TODAY online: A hub is not a home

Every once a while, a Singaporean steps up and does the country a service. On the basis of a letter sent to Today, a local freesheet last week, Vinita Ramani was that Singaporean. This line from her letter was particularly thought-provoking:

“Nations are built when its people are invited to participate in the process and are given a stake in the outcomes; not when they are handed a finished product, which they cannot, or dare, not, alter.”

I also think Today did well to publish the letter.


A hub is not a home

Vinita Ramani
Mar 04, 2011


I read with interest Professor Tommy Koh’s response, in The Straits Times on Wednesday, to Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew’s Hard Truths to Keep Singapore Going. In his commentary, Prof Koh objected to three areas the Minister Mentor raised in his recently-published book. One was the state of nation-building here.

Prof Koh disagreed with Mr Lee’s view that we are not yet a nation, stating instead that its people identify as Singaporeans first and as Chinese, Indian, Malay or Eurasian second. While I admire Prof Koh’s spirited rebuttals, I am inclined to agree with the Minister Mentor on this one point.

I am a Singaporean. I moved here in 1991, became a citizen in 1999 and, over the past twenty years, I have interacted with young Singaporeans and immigrants from all walks of life. Our generation – those of us in our 30s – has learnt the textbook lessons of Singapore’s success perhaps all too well. But I would hardly say that these lessons have stirred a feeling of nationhood.

Instead, the moral behind these lessons is that pragmatism is the order of the day. Prioritising pragmatism above all else appears to have resulted in the following set of attitudes about life which I have anecdotally observed.

First, that one must do whatever it takes to survive and succeed. If that means Singaporeans should leave Singapore to take up jobs and buy property abroad to carve out a second home, so be it.

Our social and economic mobility has not engendered a sense of loyalty: It has ensured that we will work hard to achieve the Singapore dream. But it has also ensured that if the going gets tough in Singapore, Singaporeans will not necessarily suffer through a crisis. They have been taught to have a back-up plan and to take care of themselves and their families first. Patriotism does not feature in this picture.

Second, I have met Singaporeans who feel disenfranchised because they do not have a stake in Singapore, their country of origin. While it is easy to dismiss these people as armchair critics, Singapore would do well to take heed of their concerns.

A nation cannot be built even if a small segment of society feels deeply disconnected from the country’s future and are unsure as to how they can contribute to meet the challenges ahead. Moreover, Internet-based social media these days has enabled such Singaporeans to realise others share their sentiments, creating a strong sense of community among them.

Third, I encounter Singaporeans I would call the progeny of the Singapore success story. They went to the right schools, acquired the right jobs and are financially successful. Yet, their interest in Singapore appears to only extend to changes that affect them individually.

I am often startled to discover that they do not care to understand Singapore’s position in the regional context, let alone in the global one. They are wary of immigrants, and frustrated by the competition that foreigners increasingly present in the professional job market, regardless of the fact that such internationalisation is inevitable.

These attitudes go hand in hand with a larger project to turn Singapore into a “hub” for everything from manufacturing and education to the arts and international organisations. Singapore is the ideal place to work and do business – it has great infrastructure, is corruption-free, is efficient and safe, and has clean air to boot. Many are migrating to Singapore for these reasons.

But calling ourselves a hub suggests that we are a port-of-call, a one-stop-shop, a base. Each of these concepts spells transience, not permanence and rootedness. A hub is not a home, and patriotism must be heart-felt. Like Singaporeans, immigrants too have come to feel that to be loyal to Singapore is virtually synonymous with being loyal to one’s own needs. But that cannot be the driving ethos of a nation.

Nations are built when its people are invited to participate in the process and are given a stake in the outcomes; not when they are handed a finished product, which they cannot, or dare not, alter.

My recent trips to Sri Lanka and East Timor were revelatory in this regard. Both countries endured over 25 years of civil strife and uncertainty about the future. When I spoke to nation-builders in both countries, I found that the Timorese and Sri Lankans have a deep love for their country. Yet, they are intuitively aware of what is wrong with the current state of affairs, and what needs to be done to include its citizenry in the nation-building process.

I met people who said they would die for their nation and with what they have gone through, I had no doubt they meant it. Coming across patriotism in its purest form is a truly profound experience.

The Minister Mentor is correct to note that a nation cannot be built in 45 years. However, for it to become one in the long run Singapore needs to closely examine its driving ethos and ask itself if, and how, it will give Singaporeans and residents a deeper stake in the country. Without this, we really are venturing into troubled waters.

Vinita Ramani is a writer and co-founder of Access to Justice Asia LLP.

Written by singapore 2025

07/03/2011 at 2:36 am

The PAP’s Retirement Nightmare: 2nd and 3rd Generation PAP policymakers to blame?

Imagine the scene 10 to 50 years from now. Singaporean men and women – confident their Central Provident Fund (CPF) Savings can see them through until they breathe their last – cleaning tables at hawker centres, selling all sorts of knick-knacks trying to make ends meet. And that’s not the bad news. There are countless other Singaporeans who cannot find a post-retirement job because foreign workers are just so much cheaper to employ.

For these jobless Singaporean elders, their CPF Ordinary Account – established by the first generation of PAP leaders to preserve a retirement nest egg for Singaporeans  – has long dried out, mainly because of the requirement to service 30-year, perhaps even 40-year Housing and Development Board (HDB) mortgages in their lifetimes.

More worryingly, Medisave balances are precariously low, something old and infirm Singaporeans can ill-afford in their golden years, especially since average mortality rates hover around 90. The “lucky” few have already been sent to Johor Bahru to be put up in old-folk homes, since their children can afford these facilities and are too busy minding their careers. Others wonder if their retirement years could have been better planned for, and what being a Singaporean means, since they don’t even have the energy to play with their grandchildren after they return from work.

This fictitious scenario may not be too far in the future. Some Singaporeans would argue it is already here. Thanks to a number of PAP policies, Singapore’s low to middle income earners stand smack in the middle of a particularly precarious situation. Although they live in a first-world country, they draw third-world wages. In retirement, they struggle to make ends meet thanks to high transport costs and other basic commitments.

MM Lee’s incantations over the last few weeks, ordering Singaporeans not to retire at all was arguably a function of the scenario painted above. In a question and answer on the issue published in the Straits Times on 4 Sep 2010, MM Lee was his usual brusque self, devoid of empathy.

ST Reporter: Some Singaporeans disagree with your view that they should not retire but keep on working. They argue that the end of life is a happy retirement, not more work.

MM Lee: Those who want to engage in new pursuits and develop interests which they could not do so because of work, can do so. They will have no income and may run out of their savings and CPF monies earlier.”

Source: CPF Trends - June 2008 (F1)

Source: CPF Trends - Aug 2010 (F2)

What struck me was how the Minister Mentor used his paternalistic hard-heartedness as a foil to conceal the PAP’s apparent negligence in dropping the CPF ball as a source of retirement income for Singaporeans. A cursory glance at CPF data reveals an overwhelming amount of CPF money withdrawn to fund the purchase of a home for one’s family and dependents (See F1) . With approximately 80% of Singaporeans living in public housing, i.e. HDB flats, any rise in the price of public housing will have an adverse impact on Singaporeans’ retirement nest egg.

One of Singapore’s most astute political bloggers, Tattler, who blogs at, using data sourced from the CPF board (see F2), revealed “that CPF withdrawals under the Public Housing Scheme (PHS) sucked up as much as $91b in 2009. Meaning more members are using more of their CPF Savings to service housing loans for their HDB flats, leaving little or nought for health or community participation issues.”

In a report published in the Straits Times in early April 2010, National Development Minister Mah Bow Tan very shrewdly, dismissed the argument that HDB resale prices had outstripped income growth. Taking 1999 as the base year, and with the Resale Price Index and Monthly Household Income in hand, Mah may have thought he had an unimpeachable case.

Enter Hazel Poa of one of the newest opposition parties in Singapore, the Reform Party, headed by Kenneth Jeyaratnam. In a superb piece of comparative analysis that reached out to the layman, Hazel debunked Mah’s argument and exposed his analysis as nothing more than intellectual duplicity.

If one moved the base year to 2006 (to compare against 2009), Hazel showed that resale prices increased by 45.6% while median household income rose 21.3% for the period in question, before sarcastically concluding, “choosing a suitable base year to support your conclusions is quite a useful trick that we should all learn.”

Hazel’s choice of 2001 and 2006 was a lot more persuasive than Mah’s. Those were election years, where the PAP government secured a mandate from the people of Singapore to govern for the next five years. It also put into distinct relief the answer to that age-old question the PAP puts out to voters – “Is your life better today than it was five years ago?”

Lucky Tan, another erudite observer of Singapore politics drove yet another nail into Mah’s disingenuous use of the base year by mimicking the Minister’s logic. Taking 1990 his base year of choice, Lucky’s chart (F3) speaks for itself.

Source: Lucky Tan's Blog (F3)

The HDB resale market is critical because the PAP uses resale prices to determine the price of new HDB flats. In doing so, the PAP insists that market forces determine resale prices and the government has little ability to dictate housing prices. This is a dubious claim.

As the former CEO of NTUC Income, Tan Kin Lian points out, market forces can be made responsible for fluctuations in price when there is elastic supply, elastic demand and market competition. In the case of HDB flats however, supply is firmly in the hands of the PAP government as it controls all the land banks in Singapore – a monopoly by any stretch of the imagination.

From 1996-2000, approximately 155,000 new HDB flats were built, and figure which fell dramatically to approximately 55,000 from 2001-2005, precisely at a time when the resident population size in Singapore was expanding thanks to a loose immigration policy. Even worse, between 2006 and 2008, only slightly more than 11,000 new flats were constructed. In 2008 alone, more than 90,000 PRs and 20,000 new citizens made Singapore home. Simple economics informs that prices were bound to shoot up unless the PAP built more flats. But it decided not to do so. Not only did it allow a property bubble to form, it possibly added fuel to fire by withholding supply.

In the meantime, Mah continued to insist, even as recently as April 2010, that HDB flats were affordable. Twenty years ago, a Singaporean would typically take out a 15 to 20-year mortgage on public housing, leaving enough time for a CPF retirement nest egg to build up again. Today, 30-year mortgages are the norm, and if prices continue to follow an upward trajectory, longer mortgage repayment periods cannot be ruled out. Minister Mah would probably be the first to agree that affordability is a question of perspective.

Thanks to a confluence of factors, including loose immigration policies and the pro-active decision to drastically reduce the supply of public housing, amongst others, the PAP now comes out to say, through the Minister Mentor no less, that people should reconsider conventional definitions of retirement. The irony could not have been more apparent especially since the PAP’s housing policies have been singularly responsible for the contraction of CPF funds set aside for retirement.

The first generation of PAP leaders saw the CPF scheme as a central pillar contributing to the retirement income of all Singaporeans while making allowances for Singaporeans to purchase property for residential use.

Like many third-generation family-run businesses, which fritter away the hard-earned wealth and ride roughshod over the fiscal prudence of the first generation, one would not be totally remiss in questioning the governing philosophy of the current generation of PAP Ministers in regard to CPF and HDB policies.

I for one truly wonder how Hon Sui Sen, Goh Keng Swee and S. Rajaratnam would have reacted at the PAP’s complicity in manipulating HDB property prices to the detriment of Singaporeans.

In a pre-election report published in the Straits Times on 3 Sep 2010 (On the ground in East Coast GRC – Bracing itself for a battle replay), that covered a prospective battle between the Workers’ Party team led by Party Treasurer Eric Tan against PAP incumbent S. Jayakumar, Straits Times journalists Zakir Hussain, Teo Wan Gek and Chong Zi Liang ended their article as follows:

“Both sides are hunkering down for an electoral fight in the GRC. Residents are expecting one.

How many will stay with an experienced PAP team who have given constituents a better quality of life through upgrading projects? How many will take chances with the WP team?”

If “upgrading projects” represent the choice residents of East Coast will have to make between the PAP and the Workers’ Party, then the PAP should consider doing away with elections completely, and just dish out upgrading projects every now and then to all Singaporeans.

In light of MM Lee’s retirement bombshell and the PAP’s CPF and HDB policies over the last 5 years in particular, the relevant question residents of every constituency where the opposition will contest is a tad more nuanced. For Singaporeans who have already decided to vote PAP, the question they should ruminate over before polling day is this:

Photo Credit: The Straits Times

Is the PAP of today the same one that pulled an entire generation out of poverty in the 1960s and 1970s, introduced sensible policies and kept political salaries within a prudent range – or is today’s PAP one that pays itself millions of dollars, while coasting along on autopilot and shrewdly making use of statistics to justify its policies, with a view to keep itself in power?

Finally, in response to the raft of measures announced earlier this week to deflate the property bubble, Mah was quoted as saying: “If you ask me whether it has got anything to do with the elections, the answer is ‘yes’. Everything has got to do with the elections.” In an uncanny moment of frankness, Mah revealed the overarching governing ethic of the PAP of today. Improving the lives of Singaporeans has got to do with votes. The sacred duty of looking after Singaporeans does not figure as prominently as the first-generation of PAP would have liked it seems.

Useful Links

Lucky Tan: Mah Bow Tan – We don’t fudge the numbers Part 2 –

Hazel Poa: Housing Prices vs. Household Income – Alternative ways of viewing the statistics –

Tan Kin Lian: A New Pricing formula for HDB flats –

Temasek Review: 8,967 applications for 1,429 flats at Punggol Emerald and Punggol Waves –

AsiaOne: New flats still affordable – Mah –

Singapore Desk: No Golden Years for the Elderly –

Today Online: Rules tightening to return sanity to HDB resale market –

Written by singapore 2025

05/09/2010 at 9:30 am

Malaysia’s Bumiputera Policy and Singapore’s Meritocracy: Time to move on?

The public sale of Malaysian newspapers is banned in Singapore. Likewise, the Malaysian government does not extend the same privilege to the Singapore media. So when the main Singaporean English daily, The Straits Times carries two commentary pieces written by Malaysians in Chinese and proceeds to translate and publish them one day after another – coincidentally, one day before Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong delivers his National Day Rally – there is usually more to it than meets the eye.

On 27 Aug 2010, the Straits Times published a commentary written by Lu Pin Qiang (‘Singapore’s path to success worth studying’) that first appeared in the Malaysian Chinese daily, Sin Chew Jit Poh, where the writer praised Singapore while criticizing the Malaysian New Economic Policy (NEP) and the lack of meritocracy across the causeway.

One day later, on 28 Aug 2010, the same paper published a commentary written by Xue Shu Qin (‘Singapore through the eyes of a Malaysian here’) that first appeared in the widely read Singapore Chinese daily, Lianhe Zaobao. In the article, the writer generally pursued the same themes Lu Pin Qiang raised a day earlier, disparaging Malaysia and Malaysians (“Malaysians do not care whether Malaysia is good or bad; they care only about themselves and their community”), with the usual disclaimers (“I am not blowing Singapore’s trumpet”) that come at the end of similar pieces published in the Singaporean mainstream media.

The Malaysian road to nation-building after separation from Singapore in 1965 is often employed by the mainstream media, PAP politicians and PAP grassroots activists to amplify the apparent success(es) of Singapore in comparison to Malaysia. Specifically, the Malaysian affirmative action program that favours their local Malay community, euphemistically referred to as the bumiputera policy, is usually identified as the reason behind everything that is wrong about Malaysia today.

Introduced in 1970 in the aftermath of 1969 racial riots, many of the Malay political elite – specifically, Malay leaders in the largest Malay political party in Malaysia, the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO) – concluded that the absence of an affirmative action program for the majority Malays would only serve to widen the economic gap between the Malays (then comprising about 55% of the population) and non-Malays (Chinese – circa 35%, Indians – circa 7%).

Of all the local communities, the Chinese community controlled the greatest share of the Malaysian economy following Malaysian independence in 1957. After all, one needs money to grow money, and considering the economic status quo of the 1960s, Malay leaders opined that their community would only fall further behind if some form of intervention was not taken to correct the economic mismatch.

Lee Kuan Yew’s dictum of “a Malaysian Malaysia” in the heydays of merger from 1963-65 with equality for all races as its mantelpiece – while theoretically enlightened and apparently equitable – did not adequately take into account the reality of a large majority of Malaysian Malays who were unlikely to benefit from the wonders of meritocracy given their starting position of abject poverty and low or non-existent levels of education. The latter fact is one the Singapore media almost never analyses or considers in any serious detail: The acute economic backwardness of the Malaysian Malay community in the 1960s, and its abjectly minor representation of 2.4% in the Malaysian economy.

The bumiputera policy in Malaysia was technically to have come to an end in 1990. However, its utility in keeping the Malay elite in UMNO in power and its ability to secure the Malay vote rendered it too important a political tool to be dispensed with. In more recent times, UMNO popularised the notion that the NEP has not succeeded in its initial objectives of uplifting the Malays, with figures touted to prove that the Malays still held less than 30% equity in corporate Malaysia, the original NEP target percentage. This substantively unbending stance on the bumiputera policy has driven a dagger straight into the heart of Malaysian society.

What UMNO shrewdly hides from the Malay community, is that its vision of uplifting the Malays is tied to support for UMNO. For a Malaysian Malay to succeed in modern times, it is not enough to be a bumiputera. He or she has to be an UMNO-putra as well. As things stand today, the economic performance of the Malay community in Malaysia is lop-sided. Many remain relatively poor, while the UMNO-putras are exceedingly rich.

Fortunately for Malaysia, discerning Malays have seen through UMNO’s ruse, and responded through the ballot box. In 2008, the ruling Barisan Nasional coalition lost its 2/3 majority in parliament. To a large extent, the electorate’s stance was a response to UMNO’s strategy of politically hijacking the bumiputera policy and a rejection of the endemic corruption that continues to ensue from it.

In Malaysia’s public sector today, non-Malay representation is acutely low. In about forty years, the Malaysian Chinese community’s demographic percentage has dwindled from 35% to around 25% today, mainly due to emigration and a lower Total Fertility Rate as compared to other Malaysians. In addition, Malaysia’s economic prospects are stymied partly because of the hemorrhage of Malaysian minorities to other countries. In the private sector however, the Malaysian Chinese are still doing reasonably well, with many Chinese businessmen able to negotiate the bumiputera policy with political savvy and an intimate understanding of the political economy that underwrites UMNO’s existence.

For working class non-Malays however, the only handouts they can expect from the government are tied to political support for the ruling Barisan Nasional coalition. The absence of political support from them simply translates into less or no governmental assistance for any community that does not back the incumbent political leadership.

In this regard, Barisan Nasional’s position is not too different from the Singapore People’s Action Party’s (PAP) attitude in denying government grants for the opposition-held constituencies of Hougang and Potong Pasir. In effect, the political incumbents in both countries, the Barisan Nasional in Malaysia and the PAP in Singapore, penalises citizens who exercise their democratic rights to elect political candidates who are not from the ruling party.

Today, Pakatan Rakyat, the multi-racial Malaysian opposition alliance clamours for a more equitable society. Critically, it seeks to extend the bumiputera policy not just to needy Malays, but to needy Malaysians across all races. Ideologically, the Pakatan Rakyat rightfully contend that the lenses of racial politics that have coloured Malaysian politics must be removed, a fact discerning Malaysians, and ironically, those who benefit from the UMNO gravy train, also acknowledge.

Without doubt, the political dynamic in Malaysia from the time of merger and separation in the 1960s to the reality today, is manifestly more nuanced than the mainstream media in Singapore would like to reveal. In its original form, the bumiputera policy was not about denying Chinese and Indians jobs and opportunities in Malaysia, as is perceived by many Singaporeans today. Its goal was to level up the Malays to increase their share of corporate equity and education levels while increasing the size of the Malaysian economic pie. In itself, this was not a bad thing.

But as the policy took root, it was ruthlessly employed as a political tool to entrench the political elite in the Barisan Nasional. In this endeavour, the Barisan Nasional’s constituent non-Malay parties, chiefly the Malaysian Chinese Association (MCA) and the Malaysian Indian Congress (MIC) were equally complicit. Race politics while distasteful to working class Chinese and Indians, created a political economy that benefited their respective political elite too, not just UMNO.

Paradoxically, the debilitating effect of the bumiputera policy in Malaysia benefited Singapore through the years. Many Malaysian Chinese and more than a few Malaysian Indians have set roots in Singapore contributing to our economy at the expense of Malaysia’s. Of these, more a large number (statistics unavailable) gave up Malaysian citizenship in favour of Singapore citizenship.

However, a not insignificant minority (statistics unavailable) have chosen to retain their Malaysian citizenship while taking up Singapore Permanent Resident (PR) status. The latter choice is not surprising. It allows these Malaysian PRs the opportunity of returning to Malaysia should the political status quo change. In Singapore, Malaysian PRs can purchase HDB flats. Some even hold superscale-appointments in the Singapore Civil Service even though they are not citizens. Quite separately, bumiputera policy or not, at current prices, retiring in Malaysia is financially a lot less burdensome than retiring in Singapore. And the dislocative effects of the bumiputera policy aside, Malaysians of all races and religions generally get along relatively well with each other, a state of affairs not too different from inter-communal relations in Singapore.

In light of Singapore’s voracious appetite for immigrants, Malaysia represents an ideal talent pool. Malaysian Chinese and Indians integrate seamlessly into our body politic by virtue of the almost identical cultural norms in both countries. Compared to new Chinese citizens from China, a Malaysian Chinese is a preferred immigrant for the same reason indicated above. It is perhaps with this policy objective that we see the contributions of Lu Pin Qiang and Xue Shu Qin finding their way into the op-ed sections of the Straits Times, views that are symptomatic of some of the real frustrations of non-Malay Malaysians today.

Lu contended that Singapore’s meritocracy is one “where people can attain their goals based on merit and not connections, nepotism or corruption, regardless of their backgrounds”. In addition, she stated that Singapore hosted a “level playing field for all, with nobody given special attention or discriminated against by national policies”. The reality on the ground is a tad more nuanced than Lu observed.

Meritocracy, like the Malaysian Malaysia of the 1960s is a wonderful theoretical ideal. In actuality, it represents a destination that must continually be strived for, with the other eye set firmly on the pitfalls of meritocracy. Singapore’s meritocracy, is far from perfect. In fact, in light of the growing gap between the rich and poor today, one would not be remiss suggesting that its utility as a national ideology to inspire Singaporeans is coming under increasing strain (A point made by Kenneth Paul Tan in the highly readable Management of Success – Singapore Revisited edited by Terence Chong [ISEAS: 2010]).

British Labour Party MP Michael Young, the man who invented the term meritocracy more than 50 years ago, warned against the dangers of a society singularly organised around merit in a book titled The Rise Of The Meritocracy, 1870-2033: An Essay On Education And Equality. Young had posited the development of a stratified polity defined by intelligence and educational selection, both of which determined social status and standing. The cream that emerged from the selection process would go on to take up the top appointments in society, and ostensibly secure top salaries.

In time however, Young predicted that what appeared to be a fair and equitable system would morph into something ugly, inflexible and downright discriminatory, with the meritocratic system revealing itself to be an age-old manifestation of the mankind’s millenarian struggle against the politics of class.

Young’s book foresaw in 2033, a Britain governed by an elite of 5% of the total population who look down on their rest of society as inferior in intelligence and education. Without access to good schools and opportunity, the less well-off members of society perform poorly in school and even worse when compared to the elite. They remain ensconced in the poverty trap and are socially immobile. Naturally, 95% of the nation regard the elites with contempt, and it only becomes a question of time before the entire society collapses into oblivion.

Young’s fictional premonition is not too far removed from the minds of some Singaporeans. The elite Administrative Service is already seeing ( the children and family members of some serving PAP politicians, career Administrative Service officers and top-managers in government-linked companies joining its ranks, portending the prospect of a cabal of individuals that mutually reinforce the political (PAP) and administrative leadership – perhaps even giving birth to an elite within an elite.

A separate canard to Lu’s simplistic assessment of Singapore’s meritocracy is the reality that the profile of many of government scholars entering public service does not wholly dovetail with her notion of a “level playing field for all, with nobody given special attention or discriminated against by national policies.” That said, it would be a stretch to argue that pro-active discrimination is endemic in Singapore. However, it would not be in the realm of fiction to contend that a passive, subterranean or negative form of discrimination does reveal its dark side on the Singapore canvas.

Separately, one publically available statistic in Singapore starkly portrays the growing inequality and sociological limits of meritocracy. In 2008, it was revealed that only 47% of Public Service Commission scholarship holders lived in public housing, i.e. HDB flats, where in excess of 80% of all Singaporeans reside.

Even more damaging for the long term development of Singapore, the meritocratic system has resulted in young scholarship aspirants giving textbook answers to the Public Service Commission (PSC), in tune with the political culture and the ethos that shapes the pro-PAP mainstream media policy in Singapore. In an open letter to schools, parts of which were published in the Straits Times on 25 Jul 2009, PSC Chairman Eddie Teo described how some PSC scholarship candidates,

“….would give ‘politically correct’ answers and appear to be pro-Government, thinking that would impress the interview panel….He said ‘quite a few’ candidates grew uncomfortable when asked if they would act against someone in authority. One candidate, for instance, was asked what he would do if he found his superior was corrupt. He refused to answer, ’saying he disliked dealing with such a case’.”

The most apparent qualititative shortcoming of meritocracy in the context of nation-building can be observed by the relatively poorer socio-economic position of the Malay community in Singapore. While a handful have done well, Malays are grossly under-represented at the highest echelons of the military and in the civil service. This writer is not aware of the numbers of Malays or Indians selected for the Singapore Administrative Service after their undergraduate studies. If one could hazard a guess, it would probably only reinforce the point vis-à-vis under-representation. While the relative absence of minority races at the highest levels of the executive can be explained away on the grounds of academic performance when compared against the majority Chinese, it would not be misplaced to argue that such optical disparities harm the national fabric and cast aspersions on the qualitative meaning of meritocracy in Singapore.

While no one is expecting special treatment for the Malays (or any other Singaporean) like in Malaysia, some of the questions on every fair-minded and loyal Singaporean’s lips ought to be: “How do we break the poverty cycle not just some of our Malays find themselves in, but our Chinese, Indian and Eurasian compatriots as well, and in doing so, strengthen our national fabric or the Singapore Spirit? And how can Singapore’s meritocracy become qualitatively meritocratic in line with our multi-racial and multi-religious national values?” Since the PAP’s Cabinet Ministers are the richest state-paid politicians in the world, many Singaporeans feel the answers to such questions ought to be on top of their minds, especially in view of their multi-million dollar salaries.

The questions above are not posed with an altruistic purpose in mind, complete with airy-fairy notions of a comfortable and easy life for all Singaporeans so as to create a utopic level playing field. Often, PAP MPs and grassroots leaders mind-numbingly respond to campaigns for greater support for our low-income workers with dire warnings of the welfare state. On the contrary, the question posed above goes to the heart of what it means to be a Singaporean. It must be dealt with for the sake of Singapore and Singaporeans, to say nothing of the type of society we want to become. And it needs to be addressed with the same enthusiasm displayed by PAP MPs when they wax lyrical about the amount of revenue the Integrated Resorts bring into state coffers.

In the final analysis, a move away from juxtapositions with countries that hardly make for reasonable comparison with Singapore today is in order. The Malaysian experience with the bumiputera policy does not add any real value in addressing the inequalities that are have reared their ugly head within the PAP-managed Singapore system –  inequalities which are likely to become more acute in future. In fact, comparisons with Malaysia will begin to look more like a convenient distraction for meritocracy’s shortcomings in Singapore, if the PAP does not change tack and address them with single-minded vigour. Specifically, it makes more sense for the PAP to give meaning to meritocracy in the context of a multi-racial Singapore, rather than repeatedly compare it with the lowest common denominator of the bumiputera policy in Malaysia, the results of which have long been obvious to Singaporeans. Such a tactic only serves to limit, dilute and ultimately sabotage any exercise that seeks to inject equity into Singapore’s model of meritocracy.

At his National Day Rally on 29 Aug 2010, PM Lee stated that the first generation of PAP leaders including Dr Goh and the multi-racial team comprising MM Lee, Rajaratnam, Othman Wok, Lim Kim San, Hon Sui Sen, E W Barker, Toh Chin Chye and others, had a vision to build a multi-racial Singa­pore. Although they succeeded in building a multi-racial Singapore, PM Lee observed that the work of building a multi-racial and multi-religious nation “will never be complete”. Considering PM Lee was holding audience of a National Day rally attended by parliamentarians, judges, civil servants, grassroot activists and students amongst others, he might have been better served to explain how the PAP of today plan to continue improving the multi-racial and multi-religious Singapore of his political predecessors.

For a start, PM Lee could instruct his former Cabinet colleague and PAP member, DPM Tony Tan, the current Chairman of the government-controlled Singapore Press Holdings to re-evaluate how the mainstream media is employed to crystallise perceptions of race through Singapore’s substantively monopolistic media environment. It does not take a genius to note that repetitive comparisons by the mainstream media of Singapore’s meritocracy against Malaysia’s bumiputera policy can possibility harm inter-communal harmony in Singapore. In some cases it can engender an insidious and unstated disdain for the Malays in both Singapore and Malaysia, a terrible outcome that does nothing to inoculate Singaporeans against the prospect of racial and religious disharmony. Whatever the Malaysian social dynamic, the PAP should work singularly towards building a Singapore where the public discourse is not marked by the visceral reality of race, but a qualitative and substantive meritocracy Singaporeans of all races can be proud of.



Newspaper Articles referred to in the opening paragraphs.

Aug 27, 2010

Singapore’s path to success worth studying

Lu Pin Qiang

I BELIEVE many people would agree if one said Singapore’s Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew was one of the most successful politicians in recent times. I believe, too, that no one would object if one said his methods of governance were worth studying.

Speaking at a dinner held recently to mark the Republic’s National Day, he said: ‘If one day, our communities become divisive and hostile towards one another; if they are not united and the bonds of national cohesion are weakened, the country will go downhill.’

MM Lee attributed Singapore’s ‘improbable success’ to four factors.

First, having leaders of integrity who have the trust of the people to build a strong foundation for nation-building.

Second, having a meritocracy, where people can attain their goals based on merit and not connections, nepotism or corruption, regardless of their backgrounds.

Third, having a level playing field for all, with nobody given special attention or discriminated against by national policies.

Fourth, using English, the most common language in the world, as the working language of Singapore. This has enabled the country to avoid marginalising minority races and to become the commercial, industrial, financial and communications hub it is today.

These remarks from MM Lee should absolutely be studied and reflected upon by all countries.

No doubt, the conditions in Malaysia are different from those in Singapore. But just think: Malaysia has plenty of natural resources and wide tracts of land, yet why is it no match for ‘tiny’ Singapore? Whether it is the economy, international fame or the credibility of its government, Malaysia is always far behind Singapore and trying to catch up.

How did it turn out this way? Singapore carried out nation-building. So did Malaysia. Singapore has joined the league of First World countries; Malaysia is still a Third World country. At bottom, there is only one answer to the question. That is, the two countries chose different paths right from the start.

The path Malaysia chose was not based on any of the aforementioned four factors which MM Lee cited for Singapore’s success. Given the political scandals and corruption controversies that have occurred in Malaysia over the years, can the country really have an upright and trustworthy leadership?

Does it have meritocracy? Under the New Economic Policy (NEP), are Malaysians living in an environment where policies favour some and discriminate against others? Has Malaysia avoided marginalising minority races?

After we have answered the above questions, Malaysians should be able to reflect on why they are what they are today. Do Malaysians continue to pin their hopes on the NEP or the National Economic Model? Are they going to stick to the same path?

It is time to change course!

This commentary first appeared in the Sin Chew Jit Poh, a Malaysian newspaper, on Sunday.


Aug 28, 2010

S’pore through the eyes of a Malaysian here

Xue Shu Qin

BEFORE even realising it, I had worked in Singapore for more than half a year. From the time I was young, I have had inexplicable feelings about Singapore – chiefly, I think, because my mother is Singaporean.

Singapore is a prosperous nation. Managing its separation from Malaysia in 1965 must have been a highly challenging task for the new nation. Fortunately for the Republic, it was brave enough to leave Malaysia, otherwise it would not have achieved its prosperity today.

During my mother’s time in Singapore, people had to rear pigs and chickens to survive. But today, Singapore is a modern nation.

This is a case where the grass is always greener on the other side. Singapore, in the eyes of us foreigners, is an advanced nation. Perhaps many would be only too glad to become its permanent residents or citizens, but I see that many Singaporeans are unhappy with their country.

Some think it is not good enough, others think it is lousy, and yet others cannot wait to emigrate from Singapore.

This is common in life. One is never satisfied with what one has, thinking that one’s neighbour has a better deal. Singapore, which is far beyond the reach of us foreigners, is nothing but a small state to some Singaporeans.

Mr Lee Kuan Yew’s hope that ‘the Singapore tomorrow will be better than what it is today’ reveals his expectations for the Republic. In contrast, my country Malaysia is mired in mud, rejecting help from others.

Perhaps it does not wish to leave the mud. Malaysians do not care whether Malaysia is good or bad; they care only about themselves and their community.

Having been in Singapore for a while, I miss home. But when I compare my country with the city-state, I am really disappointed with my country.

We have potential but we are not motivated. We seem to be complacent about the current state of affairs and do not move with the times.

Everyone says Singapore is a clean nation but what I find most remarkable is Singaporeans’ self-discipline. There are some black sheep among them, of course, but the efficiency of cleaners is also a vital factor in the Republic’s famed cleanliness. Everyone here exercises discipline and does not litter, while those in charge of cleanliness are efficient and perform to the best of their ability.

Everyone says Singapore is a nation with good public order but what I am struck with the most are the well-fed and well-dressed people. Who will think of robbery when his pockets are full?

Salaries here are high, but so is spending power. The prices of goods are affordable. When people are self-reliant and lead fulfilling lives, who will want to make a reckless move?

Everyone says Singapore is a tourist destination but what I notice is the Singapore Government’s untiring efforts to promote tourism. It does so because tourism promotes spending, enhances the nation’s reputation and brings about many other benefits.

I am not blowing Singapore’s trumpet. I only hope that my motherland will take a look at Singapore. Singaporeans achieved independence later than us, thus losing out at the starting line. But why is it that they have caught up?

In life, one has to always improve and update himself. Always remember that you have to keep up with the times – and not the other way round.

This commentary first appeared in Lianhe Zaobao on Aug 24.

Written by singapore 2025

31/08/2010 at 11:07 am

The PAP and the Malay Singaporean: Between Rhetoric, Reality and Meritocracy

The Malay translation of this article follows the English version.

There appears to be a slight shift at how the People’s Action Party (PAP) is handling public communication involving the influx of foreigners into Singapore. In his National Day 2010 speech released to the mainstream media on 8 Aug 2010, PM Lee Hsien Loong acknowledged “Singaporeans’ concern” about the government’s hitherto open-door policy towards foreigners. He went on to state:

“We will control the inflow, to ensure that it is not too fast, and not too large. We will only bring in people who can contribute to Singapore, and work harder to integrate them into our society. And we will make clear that citizens come first. After all, we are doing this for the sake of Singaporeans.”

While this belated acknowledgment about the opinion and feedback of Singaporeans over the foreigner policy is welcome, the Prime Minister has not gone far enough in communicating to Singaporeans the medium to long-term social impact of the foreign talent (FT) policy, and what measures will be taken to address these impending changes. For some communities in Singapore, the fundamental realities of the FT policy may be more tectonic than the Prime Minister intimated. For the Malay community in particular, the changes may be acutely profound.

The Total Fertility Rate problem and the Malay Community

It is well known that both the Indian and Chinese communities in Singapore are not reproducing at the level required to replace themselves (the population replacement level is statistically set at 2.1, i.e. each couple on average must have at least two children). According to government statistics, the total fertility rate for the Chinese community in Singapore correct as of 2009 stood at 1.08, while the Indian community fared little better at 1.14.

According to Department of Statistics data, the TFR for the Malay community stood at 2.54 in 2000, falling rapidly to 2.07 in 2005 (i.e. technically below the population replacement figure) and continuing its downward slide in 2007 to 1.94, with 2008 recording a TFR of 1.91 and finally with 2009 revealing a TFR of 1.82.

According to a government document released in June 2010 titled “Population in Brief 2010” collectively produced by five government agencies (National Population Secretariat, Singapore Department of Statistics, Ministry of Community Development, Youth and Sports, Ministry of Home Affairs and the Immigration and Checkpoints Authority) compared to all the races in Singapore, the TFR for the Malay community “showed the most significant decline over the past decade”.

One of the fundamental prongs of the PAP’s FT policy has been to rely on Chinese and Indian immigrants to make up for the abjectly low birth rates of local Chinese and Indian citizens. A separate prong of that very policy calls for additional Chinese and Indian immigrants, so as to increase Singapore’s population size.

On hindsight, opening the floodgates to Chinese and Indian immigrants only when the TFR problem affecting local Chinese and Indians reached a critical point, did not represent good policy-making by the PAP. In fact, the unhappiness among local Indian and Chinese communities over the sudden introduction of large numbers of Indian and Chinese immigrants respectively at the expense of national, social and intra-community unity was raised in the PAP-dominated parliament (82 out of 84 seats) well before PM Lee’s 2010 National Day commitment to “control the inflow”.

With the Malay community’s TFR rate dipping below population replacement levels from 2005 and continuing on a steady downward trajectory, the PAP would do well to immediately initiate a process of inducting Malay immigrants into Singapore so as to “top up” the Malay population to population replacement levels, rather than to wait till the problem reaches critical levels, a mistake the PAP government committed with the Indian and Chinese communities. Such a move to introduce a much more socially manageable number of Malay immigrants will pre-empt and greatly reduce the potential prospect of any social friction that might be felt between resident Singapore Malays and potential Malay immigrants.

With a second prong of the PAP FT policy seeking to encourage greater immigration into Singapore to increase the population size of the country, the critical question for the Malay community pertains to the number of Malay immigrants that have been granted citizenship on this account. In the interests of inter-racial and intra-communal harmony in Singapore, the relevance of this question cannot be understated.

From the demographic percentages, the numbers for the Malay community have dropped from the traditional 15% mark to around or perhaps even less than 13% today (the latest figures were not stated in the aforementioned “Population in Brief 2010” document). This is not surprising, given the steadily falling TFR rate for the Malay community from a high of 2.69 in 1990. Malay community leaders ought to make enquiries into the sweeping effects of the PAP’s FT policy before the problem of falling numbers creates feelings of insecurity and irreversibly damages Singapore’s social fabric because of the Malay community’s demographic haemorrhage.

The PAP Malay-Security-Dilemma

The second tectonic effect of the FT policy on the Malay community finds its roots a more primordial, pre-independence political worldview – one that has operated below the surface, with little active PAP intervention at invoking a more vocal stance against seeing the world through its eyes – Race.

Three separate anecdotes will frame this section. First, from independence, relations between Singapore and Malaysia often turned on the lot of the Malay and Chinese minorities in each country respectively. Traditional historians often cast the racial riots of 1964 in Singapore as the straw that broke the camel’s back resulting in Singapore, through Goh Keng Swee, requesting to leave the Malaysian Federation.

A second bone of contention was Singapore’s water dilemma, with Singapore having to rely on pre-independence colonial treaties signed with the southern-most Malaysian state of Johor to secure its fresh water supply.

Thirdly, in the 1990s, the Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew questioned the wisdom of having a Singaporean Malay commander put in charge of a machine-gun unit in Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) – A somewhat catch-all metaphor positing why Malays had to be excluded from certain military appointments, and perhaps a convenient explanation at the abject and optically apparent lack of Malays holding top appointments in the SAF and in the meritocracy-based civil service.

Forty-five years after Singapore’s independence, it is argued that the relationship between Malaysia and Singapore has taken a fundamental turn with the Badawi and Najib administrations. A Hong Kong-Shenzhen modelled hinterland relationship has been mooted between Singapore and Johor (Malaysia) through Iskandar Malaysia, in addition to talk of passport-less travel and a possible SMRT line extending to Johor from Singapore. Corporate interests, with some linked to government entities on both sides of the causeway have already committed to making a slew of investments in Johor. In addition, from March 2010 this year, the PAP government has allowed Singaporeans to use their Medisave savings for treatment in selected Malaysian hospitals not just in Johor, but in the farther state of Malacca as well, a move that is perhaps the most concrete reflection of a new phase of not just cordiality, but inter-connectedness in Singapore-Malaysia relations.

Singapore’s reliance on raw water from Johor, often seen by military strategists worldwide as the harbinger of any military hostility between the two nations, is also steadily decreasing. Singapore has already announced it will allow the 2011 Water Agreement with Malaysia to lapse, a move made possible by Singapore’s diversification strategy via NeWater, desalination and an increased rainwater catchment area.

The age-old PAP Malay-security-dilemma of a Singaporean Malay soldier with family ties in Malaysia who may hesitate to shoot a fellow Malay in Malaysia in times of war, has always sat uneasily with this writer. Although specious, it does not address the prospect of the same dilemma should a Singaporean Chinese with family ties in Malaysia have a Malaysian Chinese in his gunsights, ditto the same quandary for an Indian soldier.

Regardless, any talk of conflict between the two neighbours sounds increasingly remote today largely thanks to the efforts of the business community on both sides of the causeway from the beginning of this decade in particular. With significant Singaporean investments in Malaysia, and with the soon to be operational joint development company, M-S Pte Ltd – incorporated to develop Malaysian railway land in Singapore, both countries have so much economic capital and resources at stake that it makes historical sense to recast the traditional bilateral narrative and question the military narrative underlying Singapore-Malaysia relations. Any such exercise ought to have far-reaching, albeit positive implications for the Malay community in Singapore. The image of the loyalty-divided, machine-gun totting Malay Singaporean is increasingly losing its relevance precisely because of the ever-increasing amounts of economic capital being invested by Singaporeans in Malaysia and Malaysians in Singapore.

The aforementioned point notwithstanding, the FT policy has ironically put the issue of the PAP Malay-security-dilemma on the front foot. On the grounds of nation-building and national unity, no reality can be more unfair or emotionally jarring than that of a new immigrant of non-Malay heritage, superseding a Singaporean Malay citizen on grounds of “security” in regard to military or civil service appointments. One of the more positive effects of the FT policy in the mind of this writer is that it has forced all Singaporeans to appreciate the nation-building contradiction inherent in the preceding point. In this age of immigration in Singapore, the race-loyalty dialectic makes even less sense, especially since the cornerstone of any immigration policy must be loyalty to the country, not loyalty to race.

All said, if the PAP casts the question of the impact of the FT policy on the Malay community as a can that can be kicked further down the road for the next generation to resolve, this writer is convinced that the problem will become exponentially more problematic to address, at the expense of our multi-racial compact.

The PAP’s Meritocracy and the Malay Community

Finally, the ideological bulwark to the Singapore success story – meritocracy – is supposedly the ultimate barometer of equality in Singapore. While no one doubts the theoretical principles that underlie meritocracy, its impact in the practical realm for the Malay community has been decidedly mixed at best and only benefitting a minority of Malays at worst, notwithstanding former Singapore Minister for Malay-Muslim affairs, Sidek Saniff’s resolve in a feature in the Straits Times on 4 Jun 2010 (“Taking the tough road pays off”) that:

“Meritocracy has hastened the sense of confidence and equal treatment of Singaporean Malays, who feel they are not being stigmatised and can compete on a level playing field.”

While the aspirational objectives of meritocracy for the average Malay (or indeed a Singaporean of any race) in Singapore were put across rather lucidly by the ex-Minister, the educational performance of the Malay community viz. the other communities and the ground reality leaves a chasm that cannot be solely adequately explained or addressed by a PAP commitment to meritocracy.

In concert with the 25th anniversary of Mendaki (the Malay self-help community organisation that focuses on education in particular), PM Lee asked for a comprehensive report to trace how far the Malay community had come since the formation of Mendaki in 1982. Taken alone, the report shows good progress made by the Malay community, a feat that speaks well of all the Malay community representatives, regardless of political affiliation, who sought to improve the lot of the Malay community from 1982.  However, as revealed in the report, the progress of the Malay community remained statistically poorer when contrasted against the progress of the Chinese and Indian communities along the same range of indicators, and in some cases, acutely so.

EX-Semangat Bersatu 2010: Joint Exercise between Singapore and Malaysian Armed Forces

Separately, in a question put to the Minister of Education in parliament early this year, Mr Zaqy Mohamed, PAP MP for Hong Kah asked “what more can be done to help Malay students progress at the same rate, if not better, compared to their peers from other race groups?” The Minister’s answer was rather standard-form and broad-brushed, without policy specifics.

“Schools will do their part in helping weaker students improve. But MOE also works in partnership with community groups such as Mendaki, parents support groups and other VWOs to provide extra support for these students. Parents and families, of all races, can support students by ensuring that they attend school regularly, motivating them to work hard, and adopting good habits like reading widely. Community and self-help groups can also help families deal with problem issues related to finances, jobs and relationships, in order to create a more supportive home environment.”

In fairness to the government, the community-self help solution helped improve the status quo of the Malay community in some ways. But any message of meritocracy and equal competition automatically puts Malays in an inferior position largely because of their relatively lower income and lack of access to opportunity, the latter being a function of the former. Quite simply, in any context, meritocracy does not mean every body begins the race at the starting line. Many of our Malay brothers and sisters have other socio-economic battles to fight before they even get in the race, and even when they do, many face an incline right from the get-go.

In a thoughtful commentary written by Lendra Putera Nurezki, “Academic dilemma of the Malay Community Revisited” for the Singapore-based Centre for Research on Islamic and Malay Affairs (RIMA), the latter observed that “little progress” had been made in regard to the academic performance of Malay students over the last 10 years. He suggested that the problem of education and the Muslim community ought to be elevated to the “national level” so as to “spur a consolidated effort…and generate productive solutions”.

It is clear that fresh ideas are required to assist the Malay community – ideas that do not diminish their self-respect or which suggest that Malays require a crutch to succeed in Singapore.

One possible solution in the education realm posits the creation of a national endeavour that seeks to buttress the goals of meritocracy against rising inequalities in Singapore. This solution portends the creation of an independent government-funded body that operates alongside self-help groups but which transcends race. Depending on its focus, such a body can look at issues in regard to poverty, education etc. from a national perspective, and separately, source its funding (up to10%, or a similar GDP percentage the state spends of education) from the profits accrued from successful divestments made by Temasek Holdings and the Government of Singapore Investment Corporation. In the case of education for example, it can offer classes or specialized education programs at little-cost only to students who constantly do poorly in schools, complete with specially-trained teachers to assist such students who very often come from poorer backgrounds. And because it would be a non-race based national program, over-representation of Malays or any other race for example would be purely coincidental, particularly since the objective of that very program would be a more egalitarian and inclusive society.

EX-Semangat Bersatu 2007: Joint Exercise between Singapore and Malaysian Armed Forces

In a M.A. thesis submitted to Department of Malay Studies at the National University of Singapore in 2006, one Hafsah binte Mohammad Kassim, contended that tuition classes alone did not represent the elixir that will solve the problem of the relatively poorer performance of Malay students in school. Significantly, she also raised the issue of “educationalism” within the Malay community, and posited that it was time for Malay/Muslim leaders “to look beyond education in formulating reforms amongst the Malay/Muslim community”. In addition, Hafsah queried the unexplored correlation between improved performance in school and improved occupational prospects for Malays contending that it was “naïve to believe that all problems and challenges facing the community would inexplicably vanish with the panacea of education.” Any national effort along the lines prescribed in the preceding paragraph would do well to consider Hafsah’s caveat and look to propose holistic, not piece-meal policy solutions.

Hafsah’s contention represents agood place to end this article that sought to define the principal issues that ought to be at the top of the minds of the Malay community in Singapore today. The long-standing question of Malay loyalty and commitment to Singapore has often found substance in the PAP Malay-security-dilemma as highlighted earlier by this writer. However, in a recent poll done carried out by the Institute of Policy Studies of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, many Singaporeans I spoke to were surprised to note that Malays topped all the ethnic groups (Chinese, Malays, Indians, Others) in their “Willingness to Sacrifice” for Singapore. With the impact of FT policy and the increasingly less contentious relationship with Malaysia upon us, Singapore’s Malays find themselves at a critical junction – one that ought to be seized upon by the government of day to better integrate the Malay community within the Singapore social compact. The product of any such policy will compensate for the increasing inequalities prevalent in Singapore society, strengthen the function of meritocracy as national ideology and give real meaning to a more inclusive Singapore.

Pritam would like to request Malay Singaporeans in particular to give him feedback and/or criticism on this topic. Please pass this article on to your Malay friends and relatives too for the same purpose. Pritam’s email address is singhpritam [at] Thank you and Selamat Ramadhan.

Useful Links and Resources

1.  Population in Brief 2010 –

2. Speech by Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong at MENDAKI’s 25th Anniversary Dinner and Awards Presentation, Orchid Country Club, Sunday 2 Sep 2007 –

3. Progress of the Malay Community since 1980 – at:

4. Hafsah binte Mohammad Kassim, M.A.Thesis, Singapore Malays’ attitude towards education: A look at the impediments to educational development – Available at Scholarbank@NUS-

5. Parliamentary Question by Zaqy Mohamed on educational progress of the Malays –

6. Institute of Policy Studies: LKY School of Public Policy Survey (NUS) Survey – Citizens and the Nation: National Orientations of Singaporeans Survey (NOS4) –



PAP dan Melayu Singapura: Antara Retorik, Kenyataan dan Meritokrasi

Pritam Singh

Boleh didapati sedikit peralihan dalam cara Parti Tindakan Rakyat (PAP) mengendalikan komunikasi awam yang melibatkan kemasukan warga asing ke Singapura. Dalam amanat Hari Kebangsaan 2010 beliau yang diedarkan kepada media massa pada 8 Ogos 2010, PM Lee Hsien Loong mengakui “kebimbangan rakyat Singapura” mengenai dasar pemerintah yang meluangkan pintu terbuka terhadap warga asing. Beliau lantas menyatakan:

“Kita akan mengawal kemasukan warga asing, untuk memastikan bahawa ia tidak terlalu pesat dan tidak terlalu ramai. Kita akan membenarkan masuk hanya mereka yang dapat memberi sumbangan kepada Singapura, dan kita akan berusaha dengan lebih gigih untuk menyatupadukan para pendatang ini dengan masyarakat kita.  Dan kita akan memberi isyarat yang jelas bahawa warga Singapura tetap didahulukan.  Lagipun, kita lakukan ini semua untuk rakyat Singapura.” (official translation from

Walaupun pengakuan beliau mengenai pendapat dan maklum balas daripada rakyat Singapura atas dasar warga asing ini amat dialu-alukan, Perdana Menteri tidak cukup menjelaskan kepada rakyat Singapura tentang kesan sosial dasar bakat asing (FT) ini buat jangka masa sedang hingga panjang, dan juga tindakan apa yang akan diambil untuk mengatasi perubahan-perubahan yang akan timbul. Bagi sesetengah masyarakat di Singapura, realiti asas dari dasar FT ini mungkin lebih berupa “tektonik” dari apa yang Perdana Menteri telah menyarankan. Bagi masyarakat Melayu khususnya, perubahan-perubahan ini kemungkinan benar-benar lebih mendalam.

Masalah kadar kesuburan menyeluruh (TFR) dan masyarakat Melayu

Memang sudah diketahui merata-rata bahawa kadar kelahiran masyarakat India dan Cina di Singapura lebih rendah daripada kadar yang diperlukan untuk menggantikan generasi sebelumnya (kadar penggantian penduduk telah ditetapkan pada 2.1, iaitu, setiap pasangan harus mempunyai sekurang-kurangnya dua anak). Menurut statistik pemerintah, kadar kesuburan meyeluruh (TFR) bagi masyarakat Cina di Singapura pada tahun 2009 adalah 1.08, sedangkan bagi masyarakat India lebih baik sedikit pada kadar 1.14.

Menurut data dari Jabatan Statistik, TFR bagi masyarakat Melayu adalah 2.54 pada tahun 2000, menjunam kepada 2.07 pada tahun 2005 (iaitu di bawah kadar penggantian) dan terus jatuh ke bawah kepada 1.94 pada tahun 2007, dan mencatatkan TFR 1.91 pada 2008 dan akhir sekali TFR 1.82 pada tahun 2009.

Menurut dokumen pemerintah yang dikeluarkan pada Jun 2010 bertajuk “Population in Brief  2010” yang dikeluarkan secara kolektif oleh lima agensi pemerintah (Sekretariat Penduduk Kebangsaan, Jabatan Statistik Singapura, Kementerian Pembangunan Masyarakat, Belia dan Sukan, Kementerian Ehwal Dalam Negeri dan Penguasa Imigresen dan Pusat Pemeriksaan) dibandingkan dengan semua bangsa di Singapura, TFR bagi masyarakat Melayu “menunjukkan penurunan yang paling ketara semasa dekad lalu”.

Salah satu pendekatan asas dasar bakat asing (FT) PAP ialah untuk bergantung kepada pendatang Cina dan India untuk mencukupkan kadar kelahiran yang begitu rendah masyarakat Cina dan India tempatan. Satu lagi tindak-tanduk dasar tersebut menyeru supaya lebih ramai pendatang Cina dan India bagi menambahkan saiz penduduk Singapura.

Mengimbas kembali, membuka pintu untuk pendatang Cina dan India hanya apabila masalah TFR Cina dan India tempatan menjadi runcing, tidak menunjukkan kebijaksanaan dasar PAP. Dalam pada itu, ketidakbahagiaan di antara masyarakat India dan Cina tempatan terhadap kedatangan secara tiba-tiba ramainya pendatang India dan Cina tanpa mengira impak sebenar kesatuan nasional, sosial dan masyarakat sendiri, telah pun diketengahkan di parlimen yang didominasikan oleh PAP (82 daripada 84 kerusi ) jauh sebelum amanat hari kebangsaan 2010 PM Lee yang telah memberikan jaminan untuk “mengawal kemasukan” warga asing.

Dengan kadar TFR masyarakat Melayu di bawah tahap penggantian penduduk semenjak tahun 2005 dan terus merosot, adalah baik jika PAP dapat memulakan dengan secepat mungkin proses membawa masuk pendatang Melayu ke Singapura semoga dapat menambahkan pendududuk Melayu ke paras penggantian penduduk, daripada menunggu sehingga masalah tersebut menjadi genting, satu kesilapan pemerintah PAP terhadap masyarakat India dan Cina. Tindakan sebegini untuk memperkenalkan jumlah pendatang Melayu yang dapat dikendalikan akan dapat mengurangkan masalah yang mungkin timbul di antara penduduk Melayu Singapura dan pendatang Melayu.

Dengan pendekatan kedua dasar FT PAP untuk menggalakkan lebih banyak imigrasi ke Singapura demi menambahkan saiz penduduk negara, soalan genting bagi masyarakat Melayu berkaitan dengan jumlah pendatang Melayu yang telah diberikan status warga negara Singapura. Demi kepentingan harmoni antara kaum dan dalam masyarakat sendiri, persoalan ini tidak harus diremehtemehkan.

Dari segi peratusan demografi, rangka bagi masyarakat Melayu telah jatuh dari angka tradisi 15% kepada sekitar 13% dewasa ini atau mungkin lebih rendah (angka terbaru tidak dinyatakan di dalam  dokumen “Population in Brief 2010” yang telah dibicarakan di atas). Hal ini tidak menghairankan kerana kadar TFR masyarakat Melayu telah merosot secara berterusan dari 2.69 pada tahun 1990. Pemimpin-pemimpin masyarakat Melayu perlu bertanya tentang kesan menyeluruh dasar FT PAP sebelum masalah kemerosotan rangka  ini melahirkan perasaan tidak aman dan terus merosakan fabrik sosial Singapura kerana kerosotan demografik masyarakat Melayu.

Dilema Sekuriti Melayu PAP

Pengaruh tektonik kedua dasar FT terhadap masyarakat Melayu boleh didapati dalam pandangan sebelum kemerdekaan – di mana ia beroperasi tanpa disedari dengan tidak banyak campur-tangan pihak PAP – melihat dunia melalui kaca-mata kaum.

Tiga anekdot berasingan akan membingkai bahagian ini. Pertama, semenjak kemerdekaan, hubungan antara Singapura dan Malaysia sering menyalakan nasib kaum minoriti Melayu dan Cina dalam negara masing-masing. Ahli sejarah tradisional seringkali memperlihatkan rusuhan kaum tahun 1964 di Singapura sebagai perkara terakhir yang mendorong Singapura, melalui Goh Keng Swee, untuk meminta meninggalkan Persekutuan Malaysia.

Perbalahan kedua adalah dilema air Singapura, di mana Singapura harus bergantung kepada perjanjian-perjanjian penjajah yang ditandatangani sebelum kemerdekaan dengan negeri Johor untuk menambat bekalan air segarnya.

Ketiga, pada tahun 1990-an, Menteri Pembimbing Lee Kuan Yew mempersoalkan kebijaksanaan meletakkan seorang komander Melayu Singapura sebagai ketua unit mesingan Angkatan Bersenjata Singapura (SAF) – suatu metafora yang boleh digunakan untuk menganjurkan mengapa semua orang Melayu harus dikecualikan daripada jawatan tentera tertentu, dan mungkin juga penjelasan mudah kenapa tampak kurangnya Melayu memegang jawatan dalam SAF dan dalam perkhidmatan awam yang berteraskan meritokrasi.

Empat puluh lima tahun selepas kemerdekaan Singapura, boleh dikatakan bahawa hubungan antara Malaysia dan Singapura telah berpusing secara asasi di bawah pemerintahan Badawi dan Najib. Hubungan induk Hong Kong-Shenzhen sebagai model antara Singapura dan Johor (Malaysia) melalui Iskandar Malaysia telah diperdebatkan, di samping perbicaraan tentang perjalanan tanpa pasport dan juga meluaskan trak SMRT dari Singapura ke Johor. Minat pihak korporat, dengan sebeberapa yang berkaitan dengan agensi pemerintah di dua-dua belah koswe telah pun berazam untuk meletakkan pelaburan di Johor. Selain itu, dari Mac tahun ini, pemerintah PAP telah membenarkan rakyat Singapura untuk menggunakan simpanan Medisave mereka untuk rawatan di rumah sakit Malaysia bukan sahaja di Johor tetapi juga di Melaka, satu langkah yang mungkin merupakan bayangan paling konkrit menandakan sebuah fasa baru bukan hanya keramahan, tapi hubungan saling bersambung antara Singapura dan Malaysia.

Pergantungan Singapura terhadap air baku dari Johor, sering dilihat oleh strategi ketenteraan di seluruh dunia sebagai salah satu sebab permusuhan ketenteraan antara mana-mana dua negara, juga terus berkurangan. Singapura telah mengumumkan bahawa ia tidak akan membaharui Perjanjian Air 2011 dengan Malaysia, langkah yang boleh jadi dek strategi pelbagaian Singapura melalui NEWater, desalinasi dan lebih banyak daerah untuk menangkap air hujan.

Dilema sekuriti PAP yang berpenjangan di mana seorang askar Melayu Singapura dengan ikatan keluarga di Malaysia mungkin akan berasa ragu-ragu untuk menembak sesama Melayu di Malaysia pada masa perang, adalah satu andaian yang kurang meyenangkan penulis ini. Walau tampak betul, andaian tersebut tidak mengetengahkan kemungkinan dilema yang sama boleh dihadapi seorang Cina Singapura dengan ikatan keluarga di Malaysia bertentangan seorang Cina Malaysia, begitu juga permasalahan bagi askar India Singapura.

Apapun, perbincangan tentang konflik antara kedua-dua negara jiran itu semakin jauh dewasa ini dek usaha masyarakat perniagaan di kedua-dua belah koswe terutama sekali semenjak dari awal dekad ini. Dengan pelaburan Singapura di Malaysia yang signifikan, dan dengan beroperasinya syarikat pembangunan bersama, MS Pte Ltd – yang ditubuhkan untuk membangunkan tanah kereta api Malaysia di Singapura, kedua-dua negara mempunyai begitu banyak modal ekonomi dan sumber daya berkaitan di mana tidak lagi masuk akal untuk kembali melihat hubungan Singapura dan Malaysia dalam naratif tradisi dan juga mempersoalkan naratif ketenteraan antara kedua-dua negara itu. Mana-mana langkah seperti itu harus mendapati impak jangka jauh meskipun positif bagi masyarakat Melayu di Singapura. Imej Melayu Singapura yang berpegang mesingan tapi kesetiannya berbelah-bagi semakin tidak relevan terutama sekali kerana bertambahnya modal ekonomi yang dilabuhkan oleh rakyat Singapura di Malaysia dan oleh rakyat Malaysia di Singapura. Sebalik nota di atas, dasar FT telah secara ironis menempatkan isu dilema keselamatan PAP terhadap Melayu ke depan.

Demi pembangunan bangsa dan kesatuan masyarakat, tiada realiti yang lebih tidakadil daripada seorang pendatang baru dari warisan bukan-Melayu, menggantikan seorang warga Melayu Singapura atas dasar “keselamatan” dalam hal jawatan samada dalam perkhidmatan tentera atau perkhidmatan awam. Salah satu kesan yang lebih positif dari dasar FT dalam fikiran penulis ini adalah memaksa semua rakyat Singapura untuk menghargai percanggahan dalam pembangunan negara seperti ditulis di atas. Dalam masa imigrasi di Singapura kini, dialektik bangsa dan kesetiaan lagi kurang masuk akal, terutamanya kerana landasan dari setiap dasar imigrasi adalah terhadap negara bukan terhadap kaum.

Sebalik semua yang telah dikata, jika PAP menunda sehingga generasi akan datang persoalan impak dari dasar FT terhadap masyarakat Melayu, penulis ini yakin bahawa masalah tersebut akan menjadi lebih susah untuk diselesaikan, sambil mengorbankan kompak antara kaum.

Meritokrasi PAP dan Masyarakat Melayu

Akhir sekali, kubu ideologi bagi cerita sukses Singapura – meritokrasi – dianggapkan sebagai barometer utama kesetaraan di Singapura. Walaupun tidak ada yang meragukan prinsip-prinsip teori di mana meritokrasi diteraskan, kesannya dalam dunia praktikal bagi masyarakat Melayu adalah bercampur dengan kemungkinan yang ia menguntungkan segelintir minoriti Melayu, tidak mengira apa yang dikatakan oleh bekas Menteri Hal Ehwal Melayu/Islam Singapura Sidek Saniff  yang dilaporkan di Straits Times pada 4 Jun 2010 (“Mengambil jalan yang sukar berbaloi”):

“Meritokrasi telah mempercepatkan rasa keyakinan diri dan perlakuan tidak beza-beza terhadap rakyat Melayu Singapura, yang merasa mereka tidak dicela dan boleh bersaing di peringkat yang sama.”

Walaupun bekas menteri itu telah mengetengahkan dengan jelas tujuan aspirasi meritokrasi bagi orang Melayu (atau memang warga Singapura dari kaum apapun) di Singapura, prestasi pendidikan masyarakat Melayu berbanding masyarakat lain dan juga realiti sebenarnya meninggalkan sebuah jurang yang tidak dapat dijelaskan secara memadai atau diketengahkan oleh komitmen PAP buat meritokrasi.

Berkait dengan ulang tahun ke 25 Mendaki (badan bantu-diri Melayu yang berfokus pada pendidikan khususnya), PM Lee meminta laporan menyeluruh untuk menjejak seberapa jauh masyarakat Melayu telah maju sejak pembentukan Mendaki pada tahun 1982. Laporan itu, pada amnya, menunjukkan kemajuan yang baik oleh masyarakat Melayu, suatu prestasi yang berbicara baik tentang semua wakil masyarakat Melayu, tidak kira dari sekutu politik apapun, yang berusaha untuk memperbaiki nasib masyarakat Melayu dari 1982. Namun, sebagaimana terungkap dalam laporan itu, kemajuan masyarakat Melayu tetap lemah berbanding kemajuan masyarakat Cina dan India sepanjang pelbagai penunjuk yang sama, dan dalam beberapa kes, benar-benar begitu.

Secara berasingan, dalam satu soalan yang diajukan kepada Menteri Pendidikan di parlimen awal tahun ini, Encik Zaqy Mohamed, PAP MP untuk Hong Kah bertanya “apa lagi yang boleh dilakukan untuk membantu pelajar-pelajar Melayu maju pada tahap yang sama, jika tidak lebih baik, berbanding dengan rakan-rakan mereka dari kaum lain? ” Jawapan menteri berupa satu jawapan yang berbentuk standard tanpa adanya dasar yang khusus.

“Sekolah-sekolah akan melakukan bahagian mereka bagi membantu pelajar-pelajar lemah untuk memperbaiki diri. Tapi MOE juga bekerja bersama dengan kumpulan-kumpulan masyarakat seperti Mendaki, kumpulan sokongan ibubapa dan kumpulan-kumpulan VWO lain untuk memberikan sokongan tambahan untuk para pelajar. Ibubapa dan keluarga, dari semua bangsa, boleh menyokong pelajar dengan memastikan bahawa mereka menghadiri sekolah secara tetap, memberi semangat kepada mereka untuk bekerja keras, dan mengamalkan tabiat-tabiat baik seperti membaca. Masyarakat dan badan-badan bantu diri juga boleh membantu keluarga-keluarga mengatasi masalah-masalah yang berkaitan dengan kewangan, pekerjaan dan perhubungan, dalam rangka mencipta persekitaran rumah yang lebing memberi sokongan. “

Untuk bersikap adil terhadap pemerintah, penyelesaian bantu-diri komuniti telah membantu memperbaikkan status quo masyarakat Melayu dalam beberapa cara. Tapi apa saja mesej meritokrasi dan persaingan yang saksama secara automatik akan meletakkan Melayu di dalam posisi lebih rendah terutama kerana pendapatan mereka lebih rendah secara relatif dan kurangnya akses kepada peluang, yang merupakan fungsi dari posisi mereka di dalam masyarakat yang lebih rendah. Secara ringkas, dalam konteks apapun, meritokrasi tidak bererti setiap seorang itu bermula perlumbaan di garis mula. Banyak di antara saudara-saudari Melayu kita harus berhadapan dengan perjuangan sosio-ekonomi yang lain sebelum mereka dapat masuk ke dalam perlumbaan itu, dan bila mereka berada dalam perlumbaan itu, terus menghadapi lerengan dari permulaan sekali.

Dalam sebuah komentar yang ditulis Lendra Putera Nurezki, “Academic dilema of the Malay Community Revisited”, untuk Pusat Penyelidikan Islam dan Hal Melayu (RIMA), telah ditunjukkan “kemajuan kecil” yang telah didapati dalam hal prestasi akademik pelajar Melayu selama 10 tahun terakhir. Beliau menyarankan bahawa masalah pendidikan dan masyarakat Muslim harus diangkat ke “tahap nasional” supaya “memacu usaha bersepadu … dan menghasilkan penyelesaian produktif”.

Sudah jelas bahawa idea-idea baru diperlukan untuk membantu masyarakat Melayu – idea yang tidak akan mengurangkan rasa hormat diri mereka atau yang menunjukkan bahawa Melayu memerlukan tongkat penopang untuk berjaya di Singapura.

Satu penyelesaian dalam dunia pendidikan mengajukan penubuhan suatu usaha peringkat nasional yang bertujuan untuk menyokong tujuan meritokrasi disebalik ketidaksetaraan yang meningkat di Singapura. Penyelesaian tersebut berpegang kepada pembentukan sebuah badan bebas yang dibiayai pemerintah yang beroperasi bersama-sama badan-badan bantu-diri tetapi tidak tertakluk kepada kaum. Bergantung kepada fokusnya, badan seperti itu boleh melihat isu-isu dalam hal kemiskinan, pendidikan dan lain-lain lagi dari perspektif nasional, dan secara berasingan, mendapat biayaaan (sebanyak 10 peratus atau sebanyak mana yang pemerintah mengagihkan dari GDP untuk pendidikan) dari labah diperolehi oleh divestasi yang berjaya dibuat oleh Temasek Holdings dan Government of Singapore Investment Corporation. Dalam hal pendidikan misalnya, ia boleh menawarkan kelas-kelas atau program-program pendidikan khusus pada kos-rendah hanya untuk pelajar-pelajar yang terus lemah di sekolah, lengkap dengan guru-guru yang terlatih khusus untuk membantu pelajar seperti yang itu yang sering kali berasal dari latar belakang yang miskin. Dan oleh kerana program nasional itu tidak berasaskan kaum, terdapatnya lebih ramai bangsa Melayu atau bangsa lain misalnya adalah secara kebetulan, terutama sekali kerana tujuan program tersebut adalah untuk melahirkan sebuah masyarakat yang lebih egalitarian dan inklusif.

Dalam sebuah tesis MA yang diserahkan kepada Jabatan Pengajian Melayu di Universiti Kebangsaan Singapura pada tahun 2006, Hafsah Binte Mohammad Kassim, berpendapat bahawa kelas-kelas tuisyen sahaja tidak merupakan ubat mujarab yang akan menyelesaikan masalah prestasi pelajar-pelajar Melayu di sekolah. Secara signifikan, beliau menimbulkan isu “educationalism” dalam masyarakat Melayu, dan menganjurkan bahawa sudah waktunya untuk pemimpin-pemimpin Melayu/Islam “untuk melihat luar dari bidang pelajaran bagi merumuskan pembaharuan di kalangan komuniti Melayu/Islam”. Tambahan pula, Hafsah menanyakan korelasi yang belum diterokai antara peningkatan prestasi di sekolah dan peningkatan prospek pekerjaan orang Melayu sambil berpendapat bahawa ia adalah “naif untuk percaya bahawa semua masalah dan cabaran yang dihadapi komuniti itu akan terus hilang dengan melalui ubat mujarab pendidikan.” Setiap usaha nasional yang digariskan di perenggan-perenggan di atas harus mempertimbangkan amaran Hafsah dan cuba mencari penyelesaian yang holistik dan bukan sekeping demi sekeping.

Pandangan Hafsah merupakan tempat baik bagi menamatkan artikel ini yang telah cuba untuk menentukan isu-isu utama yang seharusnya berada di dalam pemikiran masyarakat Melayu di Singapura hari ini. Soalan lama mengenai kesetiaan dan komitmen orang Melayu terhadap Singapura telah sering kali didapati di dalam dilema security PAP dan Melayu seperti yang sudah diserlahkan oleh penulis ini. Namun demikian, hasil dari tinjauan pendapat yang dilakukan baru-baru ini oleh Institute of Policy Studies dari Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, ramai di antara rakyat Singapura berasa terkejut untuk mendapati bahawa orang Melayu mengatasi semua kumpulan etnik (Cina, Melayu, India, Lain-lain) dalam “Kesediaan mereka untuk berkorban” untuk Singapura. Dengan kesan dasar FT dan hubungan semakin baik antara Malaysia dan Singapura, orang Melayu Singapura mendapati diri mereka berada di persimpangan kritikal – yang seharusnya dimanfaatkan oleh pemerintah hari untuk lebih mengintegrasikan masyarakat Melayu dalam kompak sosial Singapura. Hasil dari apapun dasar seperti itu akan mengganti rugi peningkatan ketidaksetaraan dalam masyarakat Singapura, menguatkan fungsi meritokrasi sebagai sebuah ideologi kebangsaan dan memberi makna sebenar kepada sebuah Singapura yang lebih inklusif.

Pritam Singh adalah pengasas OpinionAsia ( <> ). Sekarang ini, beliau adalah calon Juris Doctor di Universiti Pengurusan Singapura (SMU) dan seorang ahli Parti Pekerja. Artikel ini hasil dari pandangan beliau sendiri.

Written by singapore 2025

15/08/2010 at 6:21 am

Employers bear brunt of unnecessary foreign worker levy hike

Originally published in The Online Citizen on 26 Jul 2010.

The points raised with regard to the foreign worker levy hike in the Economic Strategies Committee (ESC) Report released in February 2010, and Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong’s announcement of the arrival of 100,000 more foreigners into Singapore’s workforce this year make for a curious contrast. In view of the PM’s announcement, a thoughtful employer ought to ask, was there really a need to raise the foreign worker levy in the first place since the PAP government appears to have the means to regulate and moderate the supply of foreign workers?

The PAP has argued that it prefers to control foreign worker supply through a “price mechanism”. On the other hand, the ESC Report has stated that it plans to reduce Singapore’s reliance on foreign workers to one-third of the total workforce.  By committing to limit Singapore’s exposure to foreign workers, the PAP government has effectively introduced a supply control mechanism, a system whose workings, like many government initiatives, is not generally visible to the pubic. Teo Siong Seng, the President of the Chinese Chamber of Commerce and Industry hit the nail on the head when he said, “A more controlled inflow of foreign workers will benefit the country.” Who controls this inflow? Clearly, the PAP government seems to have the means to do so.

On the back of the Prime Minister’s announcement, PAP MP Josephine Teo was quoted as saying that in spite of the upcoming spike of 100,000 workers, the “labour movement” will redouble its efforts to improve productivity.  How this is to be done was something the good MP did not see necessary to elaborate upon in any significant detail. In fact, the PAP’s rah-rah over productivity is causing many employers and employees to scratch their heads and wonder what they must do to increase productivity or in some cases, how they are to make sense of Minister Lim Swee Say’s “cheaper, better, faster” rhapsody.

At the 5th Singapore Indian Chamber of Commerce (SICCI) Champions of Industry dialogue in early July, PAP MP Inderjit Singh implored SME leaders to improve not just their staff, but themselves as well. He quoted the example of Muthu’s Curry restaurant (interestingly, the same corporate example used in the Feb 2010 ESC Report) but not before making the point that “a productive company focuses on increasing the value of its goods and services through quality and service excellence and not just through mere volume.” The hollow “cheaper, better, faster” call by Lim aside, it is clear the PAP expects employers to make financial investments in their attempts to raise productivity. Where is this money for this going to come from?

With employers already facing an impending one percentage point increase in their contribution rate to the Central Provident Fund, the foreign worker levy hike is looking increasingly like a calculated attempt by the PAP government of having its cake and eating it as well. If the PAP was sincere about raising productivity, it could have retained the foreign worker levy at the long-standing rate, or it could have alleviated employers’ burden by transferring any levy hike back to employers in the form of a productivity credit.

In truth, the ESC Report is a rather visionary document. Unfortunately, it under-estimated the reaction from employers and did not take into account how overly reliant employers had become on foreign workers, and how difficult it was going to be to wean the Singapore economy off foreign workers. In the aftermath of the ESC Report, many employers grumbled about the impending levy hike, for good reason too. It does appear as if the negative feedback from employers lead the Prime Minister to change tack for short-term benefit.

With an election due in the next few months, the last thing PM Lee needed was a hitherto reliable vote-bank of employers turning against the PAP, especially with high bonuses due to be announced to the public sector and civil service at the end of the year, on the back of 13-15% growth for 2010.

It is apparent that Singapore’s employers and the nation as a whole requires some foreign workers to keep the economy buzzing. It is also clear that employers who take the effort to groom Singaporeans and reduce their dependence on foreign workers deserve to be rewarded.

In raising the foreign worker levy when the purpose boasted about in the ESC report – “to encourage investment in productivity improvement” – looks increasingly questionable, employers are not wholly incorrect if they conclude that the foreign worker levy hike is simply a PAP attempt to raise taxes. Worst-hit will be SMEs who are likely to have no choice but to pass on the levy hike to Singaporeans, with the ambitious productivity objectives put forward by the Economic Strategies Committee looking increasingly aspirational, much like our national pledge.

Written by singapore 2025

26/07/2010 at 6:09 am

Vivian’s Sleight of Hand: Blaming Singaporeans for PAP policies

Originally published in The Online Citizen on 27 Jun 2010.

Minister for Community Development, Youth and Sports, Vivian Balakrishnan certainly pulled no punches in the week gone by. In an adjective laden tirade, he referred to some Singaporeans as “small-minded, unfair and very very selfish”.

What did Singaporeans do to deserve this tongue lashing?

The anecdotally popular explanation posits that Singaporeans were not euphoric enough about the victory of the Singapore table tennis team’s astounding achievements at the World Team Table Tennis Championships in Moscow at the end of May, where the threesome of Feng Tianwei, Wang Yuegu and Sun Bei Bei upset reigning world champions China and were crowned champions for the first time in Singapore’s history.

Born in China, Feng Tianwei began training in Singapore in March 2007 and became a citizen in January 2008. Wang Yuegu, another China-born athelete-turned-Singaporean is a Meritorious Service Medal recipient thanks to her silver medal winning performance at the 2008 Beijing Olympics. Along with Sun Bei Bei, all three were head-hunted and given the opportunity of representing Singapore in table tennis. Some, like Feng, were already professional players before being coaxed to don national colours.

When asked by a student about the need to engage foreign talent in sports, particularly from China, the Minister responded with a textbook false dilemma.

“I believe that the survival and prosperity of Singapore depend on our remaining an open society – a society able to attract and absorb and integrate talent of all shapes, sizes, races, languages, religions, countries….In other words, do not judge people simply on where they are born.”

The Minister would have been better served uncovering the root causes of the largely insipid reaction of many Singaporeans with the table tennis team’s victory, rather than suggesting that Singaporeans were being xenophobic and instinctively unwelcoming of foreigners.

Firstly, Vivian must know that not all Singaporeans are desperate for the republic’s sportsmen and women to be world champions or even any sort of champion at whatever cost. And Singaporeans do not appreciate taking the short-cut route to medals or championships where only victory is the benchmark of success.

The minister must have some recollection of Singaporean sportsmen and women of the 1970s and 1980s. The Mah Li Lians, Fandi Ahmads, Ang Peng Siongs, Azman Abdullahs, Grace Youngs, Patricia Chans and C. Kunalans of this small nation never achieved olympic or international success like the paddlers of today. But they always had the support of Singaporeans in overwhelming numbers. A medal at the regional Southeast Asian games was reason enough for merry-making. Success at the Asian games was equivalent to success at the Olympics! For a small country with a limited sporting talent pool, a sparse trophy cabinet did not minify the self-respect of Singaporeans.

With our much-cherished sporting heritage as a backdrop, Vivian ought to resist the temptation of selective amnesia and admit to the debilitative effects of the ruling People’s Action Party (PAP)-administered foreign talent-in-sports policy on Singapore and Singaporeans. The striking oddity is that success in sports often unites a nation like no other policy or social phenomenon can. In what must be a world-first, as Minister of Sports, Vivian has overseen a sporting policy that has divided Singaporeans sharply. By any stretch of the imagination, surely Singaporeans cannot be blamed for the poor political judgment of the PAP.

Secondly, Vivian’s diatribe conveniently ignores Singapore society’s discomfort at the PAP’s admission of large numbers of foreigners into Singapore from the middle of the last decade. This policy, ubiquitously referred to as the ‘foreign talent policy’ has in many cases led to job losses for Singaporeans and depressed wages for low-income Singaporeans in particular. The lack of enthusiasm for the victory of our paddlers, foreigners-turned-citizens themselves, has fallen victim to the public’s antipathy against a seemingly unconnected and larger phenomenon.

By feigning ignorance of the knock-on effects of the foreign talent policy, Vivian unsurprisingly, missed the wood for the trees. The PAP has been remiss in communicating the necessity of large numbers of foreigners into Singapore and winning over the public’s support for the foreign talent policy. While Singaporeans recognise and welcome foreigners to top-up the population numbers because of the country’s low total fertility rate (TFR), no PAP minister has come out to explain or justify with any conviction why the Singapore population must expand indefinitely, beyond the population replacement figure. A common metaphor heard among PAP grassroots workers is the Singapore pie will be enlarged and there will be more to eat for Singaporeans as a result of more foreigners. What they do not seem to appreciate is that a larger pie will have to feed a larger number of citizens as well.

Worse, the PAP has made little attempt at revealing to the public what sort of impact the foreign talent policy will have on infrastructure, and what sort of lives Singaporeans can expect to live in country that is already one of the most densely populated in the world. Instead, the PAP has showcased its blueprints for the future, such as the prospect of waterfront public housing, while shrewdly avoiding any serious enquiry into the affordability of such apartments for the vast majority of Singapore society.

Thirdly, Singaporeans are already confirming their suspicions of the larger PAP grand strategy, as far as the foreign talent policy is concerned. With foreigners already comprising 36% of the country’s population, the party in government that offers citizenship to foreigners is likely to be assured of their vote. The PAP has offered citizenship very gradually from the 1990s, with the number of Singapore citizens rising, in spite of the country’s low TFR rates, from 2.6 million to 3.2 million today. The number of Permanent Residents, a stepping stone to full citizenship status, has also increased from around 110,000 to 530,000 over the same period. While the political impact of a larger number of foreigners-turned-voters cannot be understated, once again, it appears our paddlers have had to take the brunt of public misgiving by virtue of being recent citizens themselves.


By lashing out at Singaporeans for expressing their genuine feelings over the foreign talent in local sports, all Vivian succeeded in doing was to present in distinct relief, the poor political acumen of PAP politicians. A few years ago, a retired civil service stalwart, Ngiam Tong Dow, who was Permanent Secretary of six ministries in a distinguished public service career, prophetically observed, “I think our leaders have to accept that Singapore is larger than the PAP.” Indeed, Vivian would do well to recognise that Singaporeans have genuine concerns that transcend politics, and the PAP would do well not to ride roughshod over them. By transferring the burden of a poorly executed and communicated foreign talent policy back to Singaporeans, Vivian’s tirade was disingenuous.

But where does all this leave our paddlers? Between a rock and hard place it would seem, through no real fault of their own. Rather than castigate Singaporeans, Vivian should ruminate over the shortcomings, mistakes and failures of the PAP foreign talent policy both in general, and in the sporting domain specifically. And if he is willing to engage in candid and sincere introspection, he ought to accept the lion’s share of responsibility, rather than fob it off to Singaporeans whose only mistake it would seem, was revealing the truth to him.


Written by singapore 2025

27/06/2010 at 6:02 am

Foreign Talent policy remains contentious, and for reason too

Originally published with The Online Citizen on 18 Aug 2009.

The Straits Times’ report on 14 Aug 2009, “MM: Foreign talent is vital” of MM Lee’s Tanjong Pagar GRC National Day 2009 dinner speech did not reveal anything substantively new about the Singapore government’s foreign talent (FT) policy.

Its flavour was slightly different from usual reportage on the issue insofar as it buttressed the importance of foreigners in supplementing the country’s low birth rates – an argument which could potentially resonate more deeply than one which portends the decline of the Singapore economy in the absence of foreign talent.

The lacunae in the latter argument has been variously exposed over the last few years with a broad, data-backed consensus indicating that Singapore’s low-income workers did not see a rise in their median income in line with the rest of the economy. While various government ministers have over the years accrued this to the impact of globalisation, for a significant minority of Singaporeans, the perception continues to dominate that the FT policy does not benefit them, but instead squeezes prospective job opportunities and drives their real wages down.

More recently, the government argued along the lines of worker retraining and e2i, but preceding these reactionary initiatives has been a lack of information, debate and communication concerning the ramifications of what the FT policy entails for Singapore society and our low-wage earners; evidently, the most vulnerable group of Singaporeans affected by the FT policy.

Compounding the less than enthusiastic public response to the FT policy is the term ‘foreign-talent’ itself, which has hitherto been loosely and sometimes interchangeably employed with the word ‘foreigner’ in the public domain and media. The word ‘talent’ also obfuscates, especially when MM Lee was quoted as saying, “We accept only immigrants who increase the average level of competence of Singaporeans” only for ST to report immediately thereafter, “(t)hey [immigrants] must have skills and at least, secondary, preferably tertiary education.” Clearly, in the context of the MM’s words and the subsequent reportage of the ST, ‘talent’ is a very loosely defined word, not necessarily synonymous with conventional definitions found in a dictionary.

But more importantly, the ST article’s focus on MM Lee’s remarks covering population regeneration as a goal of the FT policy, involve two separate prongs to it. One element deals with population regeneration, a goal which many Singaporeans can appreciate, until the question is posed – what is the optimum population level for Singapore?

If the goal is to maintain the population of Singapore, which for a long time stood between 3-4 million, it is rather likely that the public vitriol against the FT policy would be more subdued. It would take either a brave man or a soothsayer to conclude economic decline would as a result ensue, if Singapore’s population stabilizes around the circa 4 million figure. Even the example used by MM Lee in his speech on Japan’s falling population and the future impact on its economy was instructive – it was based on a dire economic situation in Japan contingent on a declining population, not a stable one.

It is precisely this second element of the FT policy, the very prospects of economic decline and the necessary pre-emptive measures to meet this alleged challenge, which compounds the discomfort among Singaporeans. For some, the FT policy underwrites a population surge on a very small island to a population figure Singaporeans have little clarity about. As a result, the FT policy has given birth to the very real heartland reality of a more crowded Singapore, where infrastructure, on the surface of things, does not seem to have grown in parallel with the volume of foreigners allowed entry from 1998, when the effects of the FT policy began to be felt in earnest, particularly from 2002-2007. This sense of overcrowding has subsided somewhat, thanks to the latest recession. But even today, the unusually large number of linen and work wear hung out to dry on bamboo poles from some, ostensibly let-out HDB flats and even condominiums, offer leading conclusions to the number of occupants in each apartment. The perception of stresses on public facilities like the police force and separately, on the transport system by way of jam-packed trains and buses, have been but some of the more tangible and direct repercussions of the FT policy on heartlanders so far.

On a tangential, albeit worrisome note, class distinctions have taken root under the cloud of the FT policy, since the vast majority of policymakers and ruling politicians are likely to reside in districts and estates that do not deal with the day-to-day realities of the FT policy faced by heartlanders. Even relatively well-off Singaporeans are likely to host at best, mixed feelings about foreigners living in their immediate environment with the Serangoon Gardens episode of 2008 a primer of this deep emotive.

Arguments concerning class distinctions are brought into sharpest focus when some laymen opine that the real beneficiaries of a larger population in future are big business and corporate interests, with the bulk of Singaporeans having to readjust to smaller homes, congested roads, crowded public spaces, unintelligible service staff, and the worry of a real drop in living standards as a function of the preceding compromises.

The effect of these optical and cognitive realities creates a genuine feeling of unease and insecurity among a potentially large number of Singaporeans, who viscerally cannot make sense of a ST headline which reads, “MM: Foreign talent is vital”, especially when it is they who are perceived to be paying for it. Compounded by occasional government feelers suggesting the relocation of old-folk homes to Johor Bahru, the overall perception is of a poorly articulated, poorly communicated and poorly understood FT policy that incites questions of loyalty, nationhood and national unity for native Singaporeans.

While MM Lee sounded as if he was at pains to reinforce the importance of foreign talent to Singapore, the debate and concerns of many Singaporeans have arguably moved beyond those covered by the ST report’s ambit. In fact, MM Lee hinted at this himself, although these were not expatiated upon in the aforementioned ST article. After reporting that the total fertility rate (TFR) was 1.91, 1.19 and 1.14 for the Malay, Indian and Chinese communities respectively, MM Lee was quoted as saying, “If we continue this way without the new immigrants and PRs and their children doing national service, the composition of the Singapore Armed Forces [SAF] will change. So please remember that.”

Without prejudicing other interpretations to the TFR figures juxtaposed against MM Lee’s remark, one interpretation conveys the prospect of the Chinese community’s demographic percentage dropping below the current 76%, as the community hosts the lowest TFR rate of all the racial groups in Singapore. The curious lack of rigorous public debate in the mainstream media over this prospect and the FT policy in general is noteworthy. Would the essential character of Singapore society be so fundamentally altered if the envisaged percentage for the Chinese population existed within a band say from 65-80%?

Superficially, the preceding point comes into distinct relief especially when Singapore’s population is anticipated to rise to between to 5.5 to 7.5 million, or whichever figure is eventually pursued by the Ministry of National Development. One would have thought that any change in the character of Singapore society ought to hold greater relevance for Singapore’s racial minorities, rather than for the majority community.

Separately, what the ST report did not mention was that even for the Malay community, TFR rates have been steadily dropping from 2.48 in 1998 to 2.1 in 2003. Clearly, the problem of population replacement is affecting all Singaporeans, regardless of race, since all three major racial communities are below the magic 2.1-population replacement figure.

An arguably more significant take-away from MM Lee’s remark was the reference to the SAF and the projected prospects of more Malays in uniform, because of the TFR figures in question. Speaking on a similar subject in 1999, MM Lee (then SM) opined “(i)f, for instance, you put in a Malay officer who’s very religious and who has family ties in Malaysia in charge of a machine gun unit, that’s a very tricky business. We’ve got to know his background… I’m saying these things because they are real….” While those remarks proved controversial then, on balance, at least they contained caveats in that they identified potential religious overzealousness and family ties as determining factors for military deployment, not that of being Malay in itself.

But MM Lee’s more oblique and open-ended references this time need to be unpacked, something the ST article did not do, for whatever reason. Critically, the crutch-like reliance on race-based arguments throws a wet blanket on the progress of Singapore’s nation-building efforts since independence. Should such thinking continue, the FT policy will raise even more uncomfortable questions akin to those which question the loyalty of a Malay (or any other race for that matter) soldier whose family has stayed in Singapore for generations, against that of a newly-arrived Chinese or Indian who may claim to be as loyal as a Pavlovian dog but who cannot sing the Majulah Singapore without looking or sounding like an oddball. That the insinuation of a Malay soldier’s loyalty may even be raised, is testimony to the deep, intense and unsettling emotions engendered by the FT policy. This is not to say that the racial factor is irrelevant and that MM Lee’s latest remarks were totally disingenuous. But it is hard to imagine Singaporeans enthusiastically playing their part integrating new foreigners when elements of the political leadership appear to intuitively speak the language of race as the argument of last resort.

More broadly, framing the FT policy solely through the lenses of race also threatens to roll back progress made by Singaporeans since independence in the national unity and political maturity arenas in particular. Feedback in the ST Forum over the last few months recommending the induction of English tests and other qualifying criteria for new immigrants are indicative of a public attempt at determining a minimum set of hoops future citizens ought to pass through before succeeding in their application for citizenship.

Taken further, one wonders what sort of values new citizens would bring to our shores should they come from corruption-ridden, authoritarian countries and host nary a spark of talent and with no experience of living in a multi-racial society. Singaporeans ought to welcome these immigrants if they display a desire to cast away or replace the narrow and self-serving values picked up in their former countries of domicile and commit for example, to absorb the values defined by our pledge, crafted by our first foreign minister, S. Rajaratnam.

It is for this very reason that some qualifying criteria – beyond educational standards – for citizenship based on Singapore’s shared values and a reasonable competency in English, amongst others, stand out as more nuanced and realistic requirements for citizenship, rather than an overly rigid adherence to the racial balance.

In a final message to Singaporeans, MM Lee rightfully observed that the speed at which foreigners integrated into Singapore society depended on how Singaporeans treated them. But the question remains of how far the government is willing to go to alleviate the very real concerns, repeatedly made in a variety of fora, in addressing the immediate and future social costs of the FT policy on native Singaporeans.

According to the same ST article, MM Lee asserted that the government safeguards the interest of native Singaporeans, highlighting education, housing and hospitalization policies favouring citizens over PRs. If this defence is employed to justify the government’s FT policy, it must be a highly specious one, as Singaporeans do not benefit from education, housing and hospitalization policies because of the FT policy. Therein lies the principle reason accounting for the largely insipid reaction of many Singaporeans to the FT policy – a lack of acknowledgement by the government of the very real sacrifices Singaporeans of all strata, but especially the nation’s lower and middle-classes, have to make and will likely need to make in future, to accommodate more foreigners into Singapore.

The very deep and all-encompassing changes to Singapore society as a result of the FT policy call for not only fresh approaches in dealing with concerns of the Singapore public but the slaughter of some sacred cows as a result. Significantly, a relationship based on transparency and openness with the public vis-à-vis the FT policy must represent the central pillar of the government’s efforts rather than one that sees the intermittent release of government data providing selective details on the FT policy, with no interest in revealing the guidelines that has and will shape that very policy. In the circumstances, it is unsurprising that Singaporeans continue to exhibit indifference to the FT policy. In this regard, it may serve the longer-term interests of government to appoint an ombudsman for the National Population Secretariat and National Integration Council, the two central bureaucratic organizations that oversee the government’s FT policy.

In addition, it would be in the government’s interest to develop a more inclusive policy formulation mechanism specific to the FT policy and even invite and encourage opposition parties, civil society groups and NGOs to form committees to provide regular feedback. Not only would this attract the focus and attention of Singaporeans to a policy that is likely to have a profound impact on their lives and those of their fellow citizens, it would expose Singaporeans to the realities of policy formulation in a larger way and promote the building of cooperative bonds between the executive and the populace at large. Both the government and Singaporeans at large stand to gain from such inclusiveness with the larger objective of citizen participation in the national integration project more likely to succeed.

In the final analysis, the fact that the government, through MM Lee no less, sees a need to repeat the ‘foreign talent is vital’ mantra every so often, is indicative of the mixed results of the FT policy so far. While it must be regarded as a success from the perspective of sheer numbers, the overt public skepticism against the policy for a variety of reasons alluded to earlier and other reasons this writer is uninformed about, seem to resonate more than any desire to help new immigrants integrate into Singapore society. If left unchecked, such a reality could force new immigrants to constitute one half of a bifurcated Singapore polity in future, a state of affairs that bodes ill not just for Singapore society and national unity, but also for the same SAF MM Lee frets about.


Written by singapore 2025

18/08/2009 at 5:09 am

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