The Population White Paper And The Rhetoric Of Vulnerability

This article is concurrently posted on The Kent Ridge Common.

My friend and I were both on overseas exchange programs when the Population White Paper was released. The projected 6.9 million people in Singapore by 2030 startled us out of our stupor and we began to exchange a flurry of emails.

He, being an economics major, raised many interesting points about the White Paper. He feels that Singapore, as a nation, is unsustainable and emigration is the best option for him.

Our emails below were edited minimally for clarity.

“Anyway, as to the whole economic growth issue, I have a few things to say. If you look at it from the macroscopic point of view, economic growth for Singapore is the only way forward. Malaysia and Indonesia are catching up economically and fast. Once Singapore is not the richest nation in ASEAN, we would be kicked around like a ball.

Having said that, the microscopic effects – including an influx of foreigners and super crazy house prices – are the results. For your info, HDB resale prices on average increased by 100% in the last 6 years, from the time we were in JC to now. Before that, they were relatively stable since 1996.

It’s an average of S$360,000 for a three room flat now. Imagine that.

So there’s this dilemma, I think the government is facing. Though they cannot put it in newspapers – “we’ve got no choice must invite more foreigners in or else our neighbouring countries would dominate us!” But how to solve this, I’ve no idea. Hahah, emigrating is the best, I think.”

I was disturbed by what my friend has said. He is a young Singaporean contemplating emigration even before he has experienced the pressures of working full-time in Singapore. I told him that Singaporeans are not taking issue with economic growth. Singaporeans are taking issue with how that economic growth is achieved, namely through the importation of a large foreign workforce.

He responded, “hahah no, Xiang Yeow, I think you are confused. I should have made myself clearer. What you are talking about is how to achieve economic growth. Well, going by the standard economics literature, you can do it by increasing any one of your factors of production, which is land, labour, capital, productivity etc. I am not arguing against the idea that purely increasing labour to achieve growth is unsustainable and causes lower wages.

What I was talking about was the importance of economic growth beyond just making everyone richer (income inequality notwithstanding). Like ‘cause there have been some people who argue that grow so much for what. Grow already, things become more expensive but I don’t see my wages increasing. There are other factors why sustained high economic growth is important for Singapore in the long run.

To put it harshly but concisely, I think that Singapore is not sustainable in the long run.”

I feel a strong love for Singapore and was perturbed by my friend’s somewhat casual dismissal of Singapore as a nation. I agree with him that persistent economic growth is impossible for Singapore but that’s also true for all our neighbouring countries. Singapore would have to reach equilibrium someday.

“Mmmm, no, Xiang Yeow. I’m afraid you are missing the point again! Haha, I mean, it’s true that the neighbouring countries will peter out too but so long as Singapore peters out before and they catch up with us. Or they don’t even need to catch up, they just need to be relatively not as poor as they are now. That’s all that matters.

It’s cold and aloof, yes, but you see it’s not something we Singaporeans can determine on our own. I am all for Singaporean government not caring that much about economic growth. In fact, if Singapore was a closed economy, I would wish that it was so. We can be like Bhutan or something. But the reality is that our neighboring countries only care about Singapore is because we managed to grow. Singapore is where she is now because of her fantastic economic growth. Once we lose out to them on economics, we have no bargaining chips on the table yeah?”

Again, I disagreed with him. I feel that Singapore is sustainable if Singaporeans are dedicated to keeping it sustainable. A country is more that its economy. It’s about its people too. When Singapore first separated from Malaysia, cynics were aplenty too. His reasons for thinking that Singapore is unsustainable are justified by the parameters that he has defined, but is also too aloof.

He responded again. “When Singapore first separated from Malaysia, people were cynical, yes, and we showed them. But you’re forgetting how we showed them. Not because Singaporeans are nicer or more morally upright or what, but by our fabulous economic growth! We became so much richer and more developed then them. So if Singapore loses this and if they become as rich, we’d lose our advantage.

In short, what I’m trying to say is: if Singapore is aiming for growth simply so that its citizens can get a better quality of life, then we are failing miserably. But I think Singapore NEEDS this growth so that we can continue to punch above our weight and not be like put on the margins, either in ASEAN or the world. Honestly, like you think China will care so much about Singapore if not for our economic growth?”

After re-reading through that email thread, I understand that my friend’s main point is that Singapore is unsustainable because it requires continual economic growth and that this continual economic growth simply isn’t possible.

A few days later, as I was still pondering about Singapore’s sustainability as a nation, I came across an article by Alex Au. It was a book review of the Authoritarian Rule of Law, by Jothie Rajah, a respected law academic.

One paragraph stood out:

“Regularly deployed is the language of exceptional national vulnerability, used to legitimise exceptional measures that depart from norms of rule of law. […] The “hyperbolic narratives of violence” (page 270) along faultlines of race and religion is another one that is constantly played up. It is still in use today. As well, there are assertions of perpetual economic danger.”

This paragraph is particularly poignant, given the emails that I’ve been exchanging with my friend. It suggests that a “language of exceptional national vulnerability” and “assertions of perpetual economic danger” have been used as political tools to shape the thinking of Singaporeans.

I am not suggesting that Singapore is invincible. Singapore is a small nation and does face many challenges, both geopolitically and economically. I am merely suggesting that the continual perpetuation of this ‘Singapore is forever vulnerable’ narrative may have unintended consequences.

This ostensibly state-sanctioned narrative has been crafted to keep Singaporeans united against external threats – both real and imaginary – and to stifle political dissent. The same narrative, as my friend has shown implicitly, can also be used as a reason by Singaporeans to withdraw from Singapore.