Have you been reading this, Minister Tan?

Tan Chuan-Jin checking out The Void Decker

The minister keeping up-to-date with voiddecker.com

The Singapore government has long taken pride in being firm to stick to what it thinks is right, rather than what’s in favour. Having to admit openly to heeding public opinion makers and the general populace is a hard pill to swallow, especially when the stance it once championed is proven wrong.

So when there are calls for policy changes, be it from experts, think tanks, opposition parties or ordinary Singaporeans, the government’s instinctive reaction is to dismiss the calls. Ministers and PAP MPs will caution us with doomsday scenarios. Right on cue, the local press will publish reports quoting other stakeholders and experts on why the proposed changes are a bad idea. Expectations are managed and the government maintains its wise and resolute image.

But if the calls get persistent and louder, it becomes increasingly difficult for the government to turn a deaf ear. Sometimes it becomes obvious that the government is wrong. Consequently, it faces a Catch-22: heed the calls and lose face/appear populist, or stand accused of being obstinate and disconnected with the ground.

The modus operandi of the government then is to take in the suggestions without admitting as much. Policy changes will be effected incrementally. Then it announces: We have long been monitoring the situation and assessing the need for changes, not because so-and-so called for it. It is not a U-turn but because the situation calls for it now. A case in point is Prof Lim Chong Yah’s wage shock therapy proposal, which I will touch on in a further post.

Regardless of how the government wants to put it, though, we must give credit when it’s due. So kudos to Acting Minister for Manpower Tan Chuan-Jin for announcing this week that there will be further tightening on foreign labour input. This appears contrary to, and came just shortly after, DPM Teo Chee Hean’s repeated defence for the longstanding lax policy.

The message seems to have finally gotten through, after calls from economists, think tanks such as the Institute of Policy Studies, netizens and bloggers, and the general public, that we can no longer rely on low-cost labour because of its detrimental effects on productivity.

We must be pro-business, yes, but not to the extent of jeopardising our efforts to address social issues. A balance has to be struck, and right now it is still heavily tilted on one side. On the economic front, addressing productivity levels has to be the government’s No 1 priority task now to alleviate depressed low wage levels and the income gap. It has to reach out to these SMEs, understand the difficulties they are facing, and expand current schemes to help them to do so. I’m sounding like a broken record but the government must stop the defeatist tone of saying productivity is hard to achieve and start addressing the problem head-on.

As a sidenote, there’s a part of Mr Tan Chuan-Jin speech that rings familiar (emphasis mine):

At the heart of this is our unique position – Singapore is both a city and a country. Global cities such as London and New York City, they are both cosmopolitan cities. But they are also part of larger countries. That means that if an American no longer likes staying in the city, he can move to the suburbs. But as a Singaporean, we do not have such a luxury. So we must find a way to operate, going forward, in a way that preserves our vibrant economy, our cosmopolitan society and our Singaporean home.

In an earlier post, I wrote:

As it is now, Singapore already has the dubious honour of being the densest country in the world with a population above 1 million (selective statistics, I know). Sure, there are cities in themselves which are more packed, but therein lies the difference. Singapore is both a city and a country. In London, when it gets too crowded, people move to Surrey for cheaper housing and a breather from urban madness. The daily commute into London is often quicker than travelling within London itself. In New York City, they move to New Jersey. Here in Singapore, our city and country, it is all there is. It is all we have. Where do we go? Where can we go to escape from all this?

As quoted in the papers, he also referred to our reliance on cheap foreign labour as a “race to the bottom” — a phrase I too used in another post (though I can’t claim to be the first or only one).

Minister Tan, have you been reading this blog?

Ha, I doubt so. There are probably dozens of blogs out there voicing the same thing. But my point is that the government does hear us — sometimes — even if it’s careful not to appear as succumbing easily to public opinion.