Go with a smile!

Saturday, August 18, 2012

What the "Stop At Two" debate really means

I used to think that LKY had breathed his last when he said that Aljunied voters will “repent”. Those were his famous parting words as he departed the cabinet to the shadows as a backbencher. Now it seems that you can never keep a good man down. He will open his mouth and stir up controversy. This is a man who can be supreme dictator over all he surveys, as he was in his prime as our leader in the 70s and the 80s, and he can still manage to sound very subversive at the same time. Even his enemies secretly love him for being a bad boy.

No matter what you say about him being a great dictator, and there is no shortage of evidence in this regard, in his own special way he has done plenty for democracy in Singapore. He can take away all your rights one by one, but he’ll be scrupulous enough to never ever touch your right to vote. He won’t ask you for permission to implement whatever policies he thinks is right, but in his uniquely Singapore way, he will come up with crazy ideas that people just can’t help debating over and over. Even as he dictates the terms of the debate, he will never entirely squash all debate in Singapore. By refusing to sugar coat his “hard truths”, he endlessly provokes his citizens into thinking about ideas of governance. By refusing to subscribe totally to any well-established political tradition, he has made his own way, and by extension, forced Singapore to make its own way in the world. Therefore ideas will be discussed strictly on its own terms and not whether it belongs on the left or the right side of a political spectrum. This is why policy debate in Singapore sounds somewhat different from elsewhere.

This time he said that Singaporeans have to reproduce more so that we won’t have to bring in foreigners. He has admitted that foreigners are causing some problems in Singapore, that immigration policy is not merely about bringing in people that you need, but also about padding up the population pyramid.

There has been a lot of talk about the “stop at two” policy. People have always talked about how it magically led to the low fertility rates in Singapore. I think that it’s rubbish. Stop at two was a great policy. It stablised the population growth of Singapore, without which we would have overpopulation problems. It stabilized Singapore’s economic situation.

The problem with Singapore is not really too much foreigners. It’s too many people. Sky high land prices, competition for jobs, rising stress levels – these are overpopulation issues. It’s well and good that the government tries to paint these as “xenophobia” issues, but they are really overpopulation. And I suspect that not a small amount of it has to do with a lot of masters out there complaining that they don’t have enough slaves.

I’m not really here to talk about population issues in Singapore, even though it is a very important topic. I think it would be covered by other people, and better to. It is an extremely political issue. What races are growing with what proportion to each other? Who gets to reproduce? What sort of Singaporeans do we want? Etc etc. In fact, I checked up the population statistics of Malaysia’s Chinese people and they seem to be decreasing a lot. It seems that they want to leave, either for Singapore or one of the angmoh countries. So it’s not only in Singapore that Malays are reproducing faster than Chinese. When you think about the demographic politics involved in this, then you will realize that it is not only a sensitive issue, it is also one that has vast repercussions. So while there will be some people who think we should not be talking about it, I think we can’t avoid it totally.

So my main purpose in this article is to address the issue behind the issue. Why is there so much vehemence against the government? Why do people insist on blaming the stop at two policy? It didn’t make sense to me, until I had an argument with somebody online, and it hit me. It did seem as though the government was fairly underhanded in telling its own citizens to stop reproducing, and 20 years later opening the floodgates to foreigners, using the low fertility rates as an excuse.

In fact, if you really want to know why Singapore’s fertility rate is so low, one of the best things is to look at yourself in the mirror, and ask yourself, if you’re of a certain age who’s yet to have children: why don’t you have children? Do you want children? Why or why not? It’s not terribly complicated. It gives you an insight into the real problems.

When I was just graduating out of the “A” levels and looking at the scholarship options, I was pretty put off that there weren’t many which were involved in science research. I would have preferred those. Instead I took up one which involved administrative work. But I still managed to become a quasi-scientist in the end, so it was OK. But I was quite envious of those people who were 5 years younger than me and got scholarships to do PhDs.

I think this is the crux of the problem. In the 80s and the 90s, Singapore enjoyed a higher level of stability, but it all came at the price that people were denied a lot of opportunities. It was a more closed society during those days. Opposition party members were brutally crushed “like cockroaches”, in the immortal words of Margaret Lim. Entrepreneurs like Sim Wong Hoo were called up to “lim kopi”, or were otherwise treated with suspicion. There was no internet, and the books that filtered in into our little red dot were carefully screened so as to ensure they did not contain subversive content.

You can imagine how envious the older generation were of the younger generation, that they had the freedom to do a lot of things that the older generation themselves were not allowed to do. They thought to themselves, “how nice it would have been if I were allowed to travel back in time to have three children instead of two”. Then there was this great resentment against the “stop at two”.

And I think this attitude covers a lot of the disaffection people have with the government. There are two Singapores. The first is the classic nanny state Singapore, which spanned from independence to maybe around 2000. The second is the 21st century “world class city” Singapore. People want the best of both worlds: they miss the security and the sense of place of the first one, but they also like the relative freedom and openness of the second. They liked the first for being a country where – at least it seemed that they were masters of their own destiny. So wherever you looked, there was something to be displeased about. You were displeased at the first Singapore for an overly strict government. You were displeased at the second Singapore for allowing our population situation to get out of control.

So you see, I think this is what people are really angry about: they’re starting to be a little aware of what took place in the past. They’re starting to have the wool pulled off their eyes. They’re starting to realize that the blind trust that they’ve had in the government over the last 30 years was not necessarily rewarded with an increase in living standards. The old social compact is breaking down, and it’s a little scary to think that it might never ever be replaced.

All is not lost. The government is not perfect. In certain areas, it isn’t even good. But it’s functioning and probably better than a lot of other governments out there. Mr Brown caricatures the government as a kind of a Soup Nazi, not a full blown thug. Yet I don’t think that’s how people see it. They see a wreckage, they see something run into the ground. They used to blindly go along with whatever the government used to tell them. Now they blindly go against whatever the government is saying. This is a classic backlash. I don't know if that's really what Catherine Lim had in mind when she penned her classic essay, the affective divide.

So when you hear all the anger against the government, you really have to sometimes ask yourself, how much of this is about the government being suddenly stupid and incompetent, and how much of this is lashing out against the lack of freedom that people have had in the past?

Now they want to move away from the old managed / calibrated / coerced / manipulated system of the past to – I don’t really know what. A cacophony of people screaming at each other each thinking they know best? A mélange of selfish people each looking out for number one? A new golden era with emancipated people buzzing with life? Who the fuck knows?


Post a Comment