Dialogue or broken record session?

Band Aid

Stocked in our government cabinet

To all of you who worry about overpopulation and diminishing quality of life as a result of it, rest assured that your concern is very much well founded and the problem is only going to get worse. To know why, look no further that who is in charge of population policies in our government: DPM Teo Chee ‘What do you think?’ Hean, Minister of Thought Process Delegation.

In a town hall session on population challenges held last week, DPM Teo enlightened us with an opening speech that was revealing in its own way, for it confirmed our doubt that he doesn’t have anything new to offer in persuasion and remain pretty much stuck in his views. Or maybe the tactic now is ad nauseam.

To illustrate the importance of foreign labour source, DPM Teo lifted the exact same example from the recent MTI Occasional Paper (that I touched on in a previous post) of the biomedical sector where foreigners were needed to provide the initial skill-set to grow the industry. From one in five jobs held by locals in 2001, this has now increased to one in three, he said. There is no debate on this, not because these are indisputable facts, but because without real numbers revealed we will never know if these ‘locals’ are the very foreigners who have since gotten permanent residency. It is commendable that the government is always on the lookout to create new sectors, but too often we only hear of the ones that bore fruit. For every biomedical industry there are other languishing sectors we never hear of again after huge public investments were made in our attempt to be the hub of everything.

Then, with nary a sense of awareness, he warned us that eight out of ten of our SMEs are facing manpower shortages. This is a widely known self-inflicted problem as I’ve said before that will continue to manifest as long as the government refuses to tackle the problem of low productivity head on. News just came in that productivity in our food manufacturing industry ranked 11th out of 13 advanced economies. We are now being held to ransom by inefficient SMEs and their reluctance to automate in this race to the bottom. But who could blame them when cheaper alternatives are easily available?

The gem in DPM Teo’s speech has to be this:

Singapore feels crowded today because population growth surged ahead of our infrastructure, transport and housing as our economy rebounded rapidly in the last few years.

This is an artful rewording of facts to generate self praise. As we all know the population surge has nothing to do with a rebounding economy; it has been surging for the last 10-15 years through boom and bust. Singapore is crowded because our infrastructure has stood still all these times and is only now playing catch up.

The government has to offer better and fresher arguments, else the frustration will keep growing. In this great first-hand account (thanks BOT TED) of what actually happened at the dialogue, it is clear that Singaporeans are no longer afraid to speak up face-to-face against our ministers, nor will they accept the same old rhetoric. Having a dialogue where the purpose is to deliver the usual sales pitch will just be a waste of everyone’s time.

The current Lee Hsien Loong regime is in danger of being defined by a timidness to push through the necessary policies, preferring instead half-hearted measures and band-aid remedies and thereby allowing problems to deteriorate further. Wage shock therapy was deemed a no-no for fear that firms will close down. Property rules were partially tightened through loan tenure terms while doing nothing to deter cash rich investors. Train system inadequacies were only looked into after repeated breakdowns occurred. Problems will not go away if the likes of DPM Teo continue to defend the status quo, nor will they be solved through Minister Heng Swee Keat’s song and dance sessions with residents. You need real conviction to tackle real problems. And the longer the government procrastinates, the more drastic the measures may have to be.