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Dons give differing takes on White Paper

Both agreed that Singaporeans' resentment towards foreigners stemmed from a discomfort with the income inequality that the country's growth model has wrought. -ST
Rachel Chang

Wed, Mar 27, 2013
The Straits Times

Dr Linda Lim (left) and Dr Paul Cheung discussing the Population White Paper at a University of Michigan alumni event on Sunday.

SINGAPORE - Two prominent academics had differing takes on the recent Population White Paper at a forum on Sunday, but agreed that Singaporeans' resentment towards foreigners stemmed from a discomfort with the income inequality that the country's growth model has wrought.

Dr Linda Lim, professor of strategy at the University of Michigan's business school, said that the document projected the view that unskilled jobs are less rewarding and valuable.

This mindset, she said, has already had damaging consequences on Singapore society as it necessitates the influx of cheap foreign labour to fill such positions.

In contrast, Singapore's former chief statistician Paul Cheung gave a stark warning of the very real dangers of population decline by contrasting the American cities of Detroit, in Michigan, and Austin, in Texas.

The former has seen its population halve in the last few decades, while the latter is the fastest-growing in the country, he told some 30 guests at a University of Michigan alumni event at the American Club.

Cities live and die on their dynamism, which turns on whether people want to go there, or want to leave, Dr Cheung, now a professor of social work at the National University of Singapore, added.

Those who say that the Government should set a population limit and "stay there" are wrong, he said, as this would kill Singapore's dynamism.

Still, attitudes about certain occupations need to change, Dr Lim countered.

Pointing to how construction workers in the United States or cleaners in Japan are well-paid locals, she asked: "Why is it that only we consider low-skilled jobs not deserving of pay and respect?"

She said that the White Paper's projection of a local workforce of which two-thirds are professionals, managers, executives and technicians (PMET) in 2030 is "bizarre", as there is no country that has such a workforce composition.

"Of course we need foreign workers if everyone wants to be a PMET," she said.

Dr Lim also took aim at the White Paper's goal of building growth industries in a myriad of areas, from fashion to space.

The strategy of wanting to be "competitive in everything" goes against the economic principle of comparative advantage, and sets the country on an intense economic growth path, she said.

But Dr Cheung pointed to how diversity has helped Singapore recover from crises quickly: when Sars hit and the tourism industry collapsed in 2003, it was a manufacturing boom led by demand from the US that got the economy moving; when the US had its recession in 2008, it was tourism that kept the Singapore economy afloat.

"The Government is very worried about multiple engines of growth because if all else fails, at least something is still working," he noted.

The forum was attended by prominent local alumni from the University of Michigan, like former Workers' Party politician Eric Tan and Mr Simon Kahn, the chairman of the American Chamber of Commerce.

One participant noted the real median income of the resident population has practically stagnated over the last decade. Since many rich foreigners have joined the resident population, which should have pulled the figure up, this must mean that the Singaporean core is barely surviving, she said.

Dr Cheung noted that the bottom 30 per cent of Singaporeans have seen no increase in their real incomes in the last decade. He added that the Government is welded to its ideology of "development rather than humanitarian assistance", that is, money is put into training programmes for the low income rather than welfare handouts.

Dr Lim said the complaints about foreigners are "actually about the economic model and the divisions it has created".

"Foreigners have been pulled into it," she concluded.

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