06 February 2013

The Singapore population white paper clown show

The priestess of Ise has no interest in publishing a review of the Singapore government's white paper on population. There is no proper white paper to speak of, none constructed with care and intellectual honesty to deserve a point by point response.

Just look at this image of an empty train station on page 53, or any of the strangely depopulated urban landscapes, or any of the skylines of Singapore that take up half of every page in the white paper. This is how its authors think they can sell a policy that will change Singapore completely, forever.

We do not exaggerate. Donald Low of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy  has this to say:
There was very little scholarship and academic rigour in the report. There wasn't even a References section to show what research the writers of the paper had done, what social science theories they relied on, what competing theories/frameworks they looked at. There was also a surprising lack of rigorous comparison with other countries that have gone through, or are going through, a similar demographic transition. If this was a term paper, I would have no qualms failing it - whether or not I agree with it.
That's coming from a think-tank insider who would normally be involved in crafting policy and white papers for the powers that be.

To weigh the merits of Low's outburst, which surely breaks an unspoken code of honour between Singapore's government and its local think-tanks useful idiots, we present for comparison:
Singapore's population white paper (PDF link)
Australia's white paper on their response to the Asian Century (PDF link)
UK's white paper on marriage equality (website, multiple PDF links)

The most obvious differences:

1. Singapore's white paper does not have an introductory address.

The politician who is in charge of it has chosen not to take responsibility for what is a very unpopular policy proposal. Can you guess who it might be? It's not the minister for national development, since the national population and talent division is a department under the Prime Minister's Office. Yet according to the division's website, it's not headed by any minister in the PMO but Teo Chee Hean, the minister for home affairs. What an amazing organisational structure NPTD has! Who really answers to whom? Inquiring minds want to know!

2. As Donald Low points out, the discussion in the 87 pages of Singapore's white paper is sorely lacking in rigour, as though its authors really don't want to be taken seriously. There exist references and footnotes; they merely say "DOS", no year, name of publication so it's one big fail. No bibliography. And of course, no cross-country, longitudinal comparisons.

3. The UK's white paper is a series of documents: a green paper soliciting consultation from stakeholders (March 2012), a white paper addressing specifically actual feedback from said consultations (December 2012), and better yet, easy-to-read versions of the white paper and factsheets for those who get a serious case of tl;dr.

Note the timeline between publication of the UK white paper, a period of further public consultation, and its debate and passing in parliament. For comparison, Singapore's population white paper had one week between publication and debate in parliament.

White paper an intellectual paperweight despite an increasingly educated and contentious middle class

So what if Singapore's white paper has no methodology, framework, assumptions, or models shown? So what if its figures and recommendations come out of a black box? The average Singaporean may not understand, may not be interested in the debate beyond their visceral reaction towards the 7 million figure.

This argument is borne of ignorance and the bigotry of low expectations. The Australian and UK white papers accommodate all sorts of readers from expert academics, policymakers, interested citizens to the disengaged reader. Australia's white paper alternates between easy to digest summaries and thick, deep statistical modelling. The UK's controversial and contentious social policy proposal is couched in the simplest, clearest, and most direct language, as though its authors are content to hide nothing from its arsenal of statistical wizardry, and leave everything to critics and supporters alike.

In contrast, Singapore's proposal is a one-note affair, content to chug along for 87 pages in the spirit of an MLM or timeshare brochure where the workings and assumptions are hidden from any reader who may decide to question it.

Third world white paper for a first world nation?

Perhaps the largest problem of a white paper with no methodology, framework, assumptions, models shown is this:

Outside of the Prime Minister's Office, both PAP MPs and opposition MPs have no cognition what lies in the black box of assumptions and models used to generate the seemingly unsubstantiated figures and projections in the white paper. Parliamentarians on either side of the aisle are for all intents and purposes flying blind - making unsubstantiated critiques, counter-proposals, and endorsements of a white paper based on workings and rationales they do not and cannot comprehend.

And yet here we have it: 5 days of passionate debate over the white paper, after which there will be a vote.

Ladies and gentlemen, I present to you the Singapore parliament clown show.

The Workers Party, led by Mao Chen Show, have put forward an alternate proposal with an alternate target population figure, and an alternate extrapolated GDP growth figure. These are all based presumably on the same assumptions and statistical modelling of the white paper, that no one knows about aside from its unnamed authors.

Ladies and gentlemen, I present to you the WP clown show.

The People's Action Party has its usual pretense of a reasoned debate to show it's hardly rushing to implement a white paper despite the one week gap between publication and parliamentary debate ("How many foreigners are working in essential services?" Shouldn't this be in a white paper?).

The most embarrassing thing is how one after another, PAP MPs will line up to scrutinise and then endorse a white paper whose assumptions, models, even policy credibility remain unknown to them even at the end of their questioning. In contrast, when faced with activists, tertiary students, and the general public in various dialogue sessions, certain PAP MPs are infamous for demanding to know the exact models, theoretical frameworks, and assumptions - and then dismissing these alternative policy proposals from activists and critiques from the general public out of hand anyway.

While demanding such high standards of Singapore's activists and their critiques and alternate visions, the MPs of the People's Action Party are content to blind themselves when it comes to a proposal that would not pass muster from their exacting standards had it not come from the Prime Minister's Office.

Ladies and gentlemen, I present to you the PAP clown show.

A white paper with no methodology, framework, assumptions, models shown is a paper that shortchanges the legislation, a white paper that reduces the legislature to a bunch of grossly overpaid chattering monkeys, a white paper that brooks no real debate or challenge, that depends on passage by a legislature unable to ascertain its true merits.