It made for good television—an event so momentous that, ironically, would not have been possible without the crisis of COVID-19 hanging over our head. In a rare, unscripted television debate on Channel 5, representatives from four political parties—People’s Action Party (PAP), Workers’ Party (WP), Progress Singapore Party (PSP) and Singapore Democratic Party (SDP)—sat around a table to share the plans they have for Singapore, to be questioned, interrogated, and judged by Singaporeans tuning in all across the island.
In perhaps the climax of the evening at the 46th minute, Dr Chee Soon Juan from SDP raised a contentious issue directed at PAP’s Dr Vivian Balakrishnan:
“I’ve mentioned about labour productivity on the decline—GDP growth going the same downward trend and unemployment in Singapore going up. And all this happening before COVID outbreak to place, right?
And then you have, on top of that foreign PMETs coming up as employment pass holders continuing to rise.
And on over and above all this Mr Heng Swee Keat then comes up in an interview, toyed with the idea of bringing our population up to 10 million. Singaporeans are deadly worried about this proposal.
Now, will you categorically tell Singaporeans right now that your party has no intention of raising our population to 10 million by continuing to bring in foreigners, especially foreign PMTs into Singapore to compete with our PMTs for jobs?”
This prompted a swift retort from Dr Vivian Balakrishnan:
“Just today the Prime Minister’s office issued a statement, advising people like you not to indulge in falsehoods.
Let me state for the record. We will never have ten million. We won’t even have 6.9 million. The government doesn’t have a target for the population.
What we want is a Singapore core that is demographically stable able to reproduce ourselves able to create opportunities and jobs for ourselves and able to stay as a cohesive whole.”
In a newspaper report dated 29 Mar 2019, The Straits Times Singapore wrote:
“On the projected population of 6.9 million by 2030, set out in the Government’s 2013 Population White Paper, Mr Heng said the number goes beyond how densely populated Singapore would be. The social space is as important.
Singapore’s population density is not excessive, he said, noting that other cities are a lot more crowded in terms of liveable space.
He cited former chief planner Liu Thai Ker, who said in 2014 that Singapore should plan for 10 million people for it to remain sustainable in the long term.”
Dr Liu Thai Ker was the former chief executive of the Housing Development Board between 1969 to 1989 and often dubbed the architect of modern Singapore.
In a seminar, “Building a Nation: Tomorrow, Challenges and Possibilities for a Liveable Singapore” on July 31 2014, Dr Liu said that Singapore should plan for a population of 10 million in the long term if it is to remain sustainable as a country.
He added that Singapore should not stop its population growth projection at the figure of 6.9 million listed in the 2013 White Paper on Population.
In an interview with Business Times, Dr Liu said ‘that the 10 million figure was projected on how much Singapore could grow long term for the next 80-150 years at a population growth rate of less than one per cent each year.’
Former chief economist at the Government of Singapore Investment Corporation, Yeoh Lam Keong took to Facebook to hit back at Heng Swee Keat who agreed, uncritically, with
“this poorly reasoned view based on bad, outdated economic policy that implies a return to excessive immigration that has created so many problems over the last 2 decades including poor productivity, depressed real wage growth and the plight of the working poor, right up to 2010 when it was finally reversed.”
He went on to say:
“Between 1990 -2010, twenty years of this “go for growth” strategy has left us with a bloated, inefficient, labour intensive and low productivity economy that has depressed wages for the working class, created massive working poverty, and boosted the population to an uncomfortable 5.6 mn that could easily swell to double that if labour force growth is not scrupulously controlled well below 1% pa long term.
His solution hinges on high quality and high quantity growth.
“The latter is the way towards an unbearably crowded, extremely stratified and socially divided Dubai-type, not a Swiss-style standard of living that a productivity-led, relatively population-light strategy like Germany or Switzerland’s can alternatively provide.”
In a brief post dated 4 Mar 2020, the Singapore government website, gov.sg, to the question of “What is the aim of Government population policies?” had this to convey:
On 1 Jul 2020, to the question of “Does the Government have a population target, e.g. 10 million?”, gov.sg posted:
In a way, he did and didn’t. Did Heng Swee Keat outrightly declare that he’s aiming for Singapore’s population to balloon to 10 million? No, he did not. Did he agree with the person who came up with that proposal? Yes, he did. Did the government find this allegation serious enough to warrant a statement? Most certainly.
In an election, facts matter. Words matter. Remember that when you go to the polls next Friday, hopefully, armed with hard facts and a desire to finally see the art of democracy practised and encouraged in Singapore.