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Let’s converse like adults

It would not be like forward-looking Singapore to ignore the factors that will determine its future. Nor would Singaporeans, however upset some may be over the White Paper on Population, want a Government that isn’t thinking for the long term.

It would not be like forward-looking Singapore to ignore the factors that will determine its future. Nor would Singaporeans, however upset some may be over the White Paper on Population, want a Government that isn’t thinking for the long term.

The 76-page paper is a thoughtful document with good underlying research and some important recommendations about how to tackle the problems of a rapidly ageing population with one of the lowest populations in the world. It seeks to engage Singaporeans in an adult conversation. Easing work-life issues, infrastructure needs such as housing and mass transit, and balancing future immigration levels against the Singaporean identity all have a place in the discussion.

Despite best intentions, the paper has met with a sharply critical response, including a large protest at the Speakers’ Corner and a petition to put the White Paper to public referendum. Many have trouble fathoming what population growth to 6.9 million would look like.

It would amount to negligence to ignore these issues, but it is important to disagree without being disagreeable. All sides need to keep open minds and be respectful of differing views for the sake of constructive dialogue.

AFRAID TO SPEAK HONESTLY

Politics in the United States offers a cautionary tale. When entertaining opposing views gives way to killing the messenger, people start talking at each other instead of to each other. That’s where trouble begins.

Look to American politics and see what happens when the free exchange of ideas is stifled. Confronted by uncomfortable truths, Americans deny and dismiss. Americans listen to the media outlets that reflect their own prejudices and predilections, and vote for people to tell them what they want to hear. So politicians feel pressured to play to the lowest common denominator.

Americans want government programmes and services but don’t want to pay for them, so political leaders dare not speak honestly about cutting spending or raising taxes.

Politicians are afraid to talk seriously about the major issues facing the country: Runaway healthcare costs. The gun epidemic. Climate change. Income inequality. Underperforming schools. The crumbling infrastructure.

There are even politicians who won’t recognise the scientific evidence behind evolution, bowing to what historian Richard Hofstadter observed: “The paranoid style is an old and recurrent phenomenon in our public life which has been frequently linked with movements of suspicious discontent.”

POLITICAL FANTASYLAND

The result is a political fantasyland where progress is held hostage by gridlock. One current example is the impending US$1 trillion (S$1.24 trillion) in automatic spending cuts designed to be so drastic that Congress would scare itself into a responsible deficit reduction plan. Yet nothing had happened with days to go before the dire cuts kicked in.

Another example is the failure to approve a new Secretary of Defence due to partisan bickering over the attack on the American diplomatic mission at Benghazi — which nominee Chuck Hagel had nothing to do with.

Because of political dysfunction, Superstorm Sandy came and went without any significant legislative response to rising sea levels and global warming. The Newtown, Connecticut school shootings dominated headlines for a week or so, but it remains just as easy to buy military-style killing machines as it was before the shootings.

There is no sport in killing the messenger, yet it happens all too often and explains why American politics have reached a state of incapacitation.

The issues fuelling Singapore’s White Paper debate are sensitive and require thoughtful, informed discussion. Immigration is always a contentious issue, as seen in Europe. No advanced country can escape the fact they are greying and that dependency ratios present a huge policy problem.

Making Singapore the No 1 sustainable city of the future lies at the heart of the White Paper’s proposals. The aim here is to strike a balance between the country’s workforce needs and capacity to handle population growth. And — as ministers have stressed — nothing is set in stone.

These are big ideas, and thoughtful discussion is in order. Perhaps some of the backlash signals a flickering of the kind of economic insecurity that, in the US, has fuelled growing resentment over immigration. Perhaps the debate marks a growing political participation among citizens.

There is plenty of common ground, and no need to kill messengers. With mutual trust and respect, Singapore’s Great Population Debate can be enriching and ennobling.

Tom Benner is a freelance journalist. Before relocating to Singapore last year, he served as bureau chief in the Massachusetts State House and as a long-time editorial writer for daily newspapers in the US.

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