Engaging Tembusians in active citizenry: REACH dialogue

Tembusu has a history of engaging with current affairs and issues relevant to Singapore and the world, predominantly through Tembusu Forums which are typically held twice a semester. This semester, however, such efforts have been complemented by a student initiative: a REACH dialogue session with a local minister, which took place on 29 Jan.

About 50 Tembusians attended the dialogue session with Ngiam Siew Ying, the director of the National Population and Talent Division. The topic of discussion was population issues, as Ms Ngiam had headed the committee in charge of the Population White Paper.

Population may seem like a topic that is far away for the typical student, but has far-reaching implications. However, its seemingly distant nature often results in the typical citizen being able to view the topic of population from an individual perspective. Yet, this seemingly distant topic lies much closer to Ms Ngiam’s heart, as she mentioned that “she thinks about population during lunch and car-rides”.

Ranging from the aspirations of the future workforce to falling birthrates and taking care of the ageing and vulnerable, the students tackled the topic of population from multiple angles, often leading to contentious viewpoints. Among these include the tensions of whether Singapore could improve its fertility rate (most were pessimistic on this) to whether we would allow a company to bring in investments, subject to significant foreign expertise.

Indeed, while participants initially expressed strong agreement at bringing in foreign investment, different students started to express reservations when the subtleties and trade-offs were outlined more explicitly. A participant had serious concerns over a proposed “40% Singaporeans and 60% foreigners” ratio, while another participant raised the question of whether “companies will obey the Singapore government and train locals to eventually fill these jobs”. There existed only one consensus: the issue was not straightforward and demanded more thinking. One challenge during the session was that not all the issues and angles were immediately familiar to everyone.

The question and answer session deviated in many different directions from the presentation Ms Ngiam gave on the central issues of population. Participants were very concerned about finer aspects of population. Kicking off the question and answer session was a question about classifying the population under the traditional race framework, and whether Singapore would be more open to a more defined race category. The conclusion? Don’t expect any changes any time soon. Yet another student quizzed Ms Ngiam on retirement, which generated further discussion on whether the “retirement age will increase”, or even the definition of retirement and its meaning to the elderly working population. The questions have indeed left students to think about problems in population which would probably not have happened if these questions were not asked.

The Tembusu-REACH dialogue, organized by undergraduate student Donavan Cheah, was born of the problem of Tembusians having difficulties finding “safe havens” to express their views. The event was initially meant to be chaired by PAP minister Ms Grace Fu, who backed out at short notice.