Saturday, August 4, 2012

Miscarriage of opinion: Credible feedback process needed on population issues

The call for feedback on Singapore's population issues should be preceeded by a call for feedback on the feedback process itself.

The public relations (PR) exercise tied to the National Population and Talent Division's Issues Paper July 2012, titled "Our Population, Our Future", appears to elicit feedback on a fait accompli.

Even if there is massive objection from citizens to the republic's immigration policy, Singaporeans will have to live with a done deal as the non-resident population has already depressed the number of citizens to 62 out of every 100 souls on this island. You may well understand the scepticism that has greeted the release of this report even if the intent to garner feedback is genuine.

One need only surf to the online feedback form tied to the report to wonder how officialdom intends to filter comments. Your name and email is all that is asked for. This begs the question how the web administrator can tell if feedback is from a Singaporean/SPR or a foreign entity out to create mischief or suck precious man hours from the feedback process by planting troll bait that saps the resources of the web master.

Winning hearts and minds
Even with the best intentions, the report's authors have to contend with decades Singaporeans have endured with a policy-making machinery that purports to know it all, knows best and acts on their behalf while paying lip service to what people think about a policy or how they feel about its aftermath.

This is why credibility in the feedback process need to be restored built before asking people to share their points of view. In past years, we have seen Singaporeans speak up on assorted national issues only to learn the hard way how officialdom treats such feedback. It would be naive for the report's authors to think the call for feedback will be taken at face value without officialdom first addressing the historical baggage that robs the feedback process of its credibility.

Are you then surprised at the (generally) negative reactions the population report has spawned in cyberspace?

For a report that aims to promote greater consultation, the report's tone and language drops the torch in instances when it could have wowed netizens with glasnost. For example, the 40-page report describes how the intake of "new citizens" rose from an average of 8,200 people per year from 1987 to 2006 to 18,500 per year in the last five years (page 6). But you and I are offered no clues as to how these magic numbers were calculated or the screening process for our new citizens. Why?

Questions posed under the header "For views and suggestions" seem crafted to elicit only a certain kind of response. Look at the way this question on page 22 is phrased:"The Government has reduced the inflow of immigrants significantly since 2009. Should we reduce the inflow further even if it means that our citizen population will age and shrink, and foreign spouses and dependents of Singaporeans may find it more difficult to become PRs or SC (Singapore Citizens)? [Emphasis is mine]

One would have thought ending the question at "Should we reduce the inflow further?" would suffice in encouraging the reader to think about the issue. Afterall, any reader who made it to page 22 would have ploughed through facts and figures that explain why our immigration policy is structured the way it is.

The average Singaporean is not a born debater. And when you come across as attempting to put down people in the guise of asking a question, you can bet responses won't be forthcoming. The words in italics are, in my opinion, unnecessary because it looks like they are forcing the reader into a corner with one point of view rammed down their throat. If you are invited to a friend's dinner and the host asks "Would you like some more food because if you do I have to bust my dinner budget just because I have to order more dishes to satisfy you?" Would you dare say "yes"? This isn't the way to facilitate a proper dialogue, let alone engage in winning hearts and minds.

Give Singaporeans the latitude to think about the issue for themselves. Guide them by all means but a try-too-hard approach may come across as desperate. In my opinion, the strongest form of buy-in comes when people convince themselves the course of action proposed is really the best available.

And while the report concedes "pockets of friction between Singaporeans and some foreigners and new immigrants" (page 6), one major social bugbear - the issue of National Service - is not mentioned in the main report at all. The reader has to wade through the entire report before reaching the single mention of NS in Annex A that states that second generation male PRs are required to enlist for NS (page 33).

By including greater mention of what constitutes "pockets of friction", perhaps in a space-saving editorial device known as a fact box, the authors could have demonstrated that they have a good grasp of ground issues and know what is bothering heartlanders. This absence social empathy allied with a we-know-best line of questioning hints of an ivory tower mentality that we can well do without, especially with an issue as grave as national birth rates.

If this report was a university academic exercise, it would probably score well for its use of statistics to support the core argument that falling birth rates will reshape the Singapore that we know from 2030 if nothing is done. But what the report's logic does for one's head, it does not do much for one's heart.

It is a pity because the numbers shared in the report sketch an ominous future for us and crunch time is now, considering the lead time needed for infants to become economically active.

Incidentally, there was only one typo spotted and a minor one at that. Footnote 1 on page 34 reads "Dependency Ratio refers to the proportion of foreign works (S Pass and Work Permit) out of a company's total workforce. Should read as foreign workers.

Kowloon Club
There is a precedent to the current immigration policy. Before Hong Kong was handed over to China in 1997, Singapore courted Hong Kongers to consider moving to the Lion City. The report's thesis would have been strengthened with a box story indicating where these ex-HKG families are today. What is the membership profile of the Kowloon Club in 2012 compared to 1997? If they came and left, tell us why new citizens will not be tempted to do the same years from now.

The report would have done its job better had it been couched as a FAQ that explains why Singapore has thrown open its doors to immigrants rather than attempting to serve as a catalyst for feedback because the feedback process in Singapore isn't as robust as it should be.

In this regard, Singaporeans are screwed either way.

If we treat the report as a wayang (Malay for stage play) and decline to participate, officialdom may respond that no one took up the offer to speak up when asked to do so.

If we do send feedback, it's anyone's guess how such feedback will be received. Indeed, certain civil servants have been known to take feedback poorly. So why risk one's rice bowl when the decision has already been made for you? Would you even bother?

Related posts:
In power in the real world, out of favour in the virtual one: Why the PAP has few friends in cyberspace. Please click here.

Sing Gov't's pledge for more openness requires rewiring of the system's sensitivity to feedback, removal of vindictive mindset for views it dislikes. Please click here.


Sgcynic said...


1. Why import so many foreigners (over 1 million) over the past decade supposedly in response to declining birth rate when the implications of an ageing population will only surface years later?

2. What proportion of the imported foreigners was meant to offset an ageing population and what proportion was simply to boost our GDP growth rate?

3. If over a million foreigners were imported when our TFR was higher in the past, how many more millions does the PAP intend to bring in given that our TFR has now declined further?

4. What proportion of the population will Singaporeans will form then as the so called 'core' (we now account for just over 60%)?

Anonymous said...

Feedback to the Gov?...must be a joke of the day, as i have given up. they will never look into it. Why,cos i did feedback some issue to a few Gov agency. And all i got is just one reply saying "Thank you for your feedback". Other's i think lost in deep deep space. I even send a feedback to a guy call L*e and same goes down to the deep blue sea...funny but sad to say, it all acting and nothing much.

Anonymous said...

I have sent feedback on minor issues like trains problems and particularly commuters flow at interchange stations, where commuters run into each other due to the lay out. All I suggested were segregated flow and I did not even receive any acknowledgement and till today the problems persist. I do not know what will happen in a mass panic and the very likely stampede situation

Anonymous said...

The policy to import foreigners is the government's band-aid solution to policy failures in other areas: policies that made our companies continue to rely on cheap labour; policies that resulted in low TFR; policies that promoted an education system that produces exam-smart rather than work-smart students, etc. To focus on the population issue is to divert attention away from more fundamental policy failures.

Anonymous said...

I urge Singaporeans to study astronomy instead of trying to give feedback to the government.

Anonymous said...

Haha! I like the astronomy comment! With the latest Curiosity Mars rover landing, I do think astronomy is kinda interesting.

Happy 47th Birthday, Singapore!

Anonymous said...

You can change space more because you can say that Pluto is not a planet, and they will not sue you back.

Anonymous said...

But there are more stars in government than in space.