I’m not proud of the fact that I’m a dispassionate singaporean – apathetic towards most things political, loyal but not a die hard patriot, and I rather not speak unless I need to be heard.
And I seldom feel a need to be heard.
So I don’t get too excited during election season.
And I am ashamed to say that every 5 years about this time, I learn a little bit about who has been my Minister for what portfolio for the last 5 years.
Like I said, not proud.
So it’s rare that I would tune in to listen to a political debate. But I did a few days ago, just because I needed a Netflix respite.
I also wanted to listen to Jamus Lim. I happened to chance upon a video of this young man several days ago and I was suitably impressed. He sounded intelligent, passionate, had very sane and well reasoned thoughts, and he was obviously very well spoken.
So I tuned in.
And these are my thoughts on a few things and on the parties.
Dr Vivian Balakrishnan
He has always been articulate and seemed reasonable.
But I braced myself.
I hoped he wouldn’t be arrogant, unnecessarily hostile or be condescending towards the opposition panellists.
I recognise that politics is not always smiles and pleasantries and one most have the fortitude for it and give it as good as your receive. But in my utopia muddled mind, I still wanted humility, respect, decency and gentility in our Politicians.
Dr Balakrishnan started off strongly. He was firm but seemed fair, clearly all geared up with facts and figures at this fingertips effortlessly, and seemed to have accorded the right amount of respect to each of the participants.
But I thought he bristled too much when Dr Chee Soon Juan brought up the 10m population issue. I found his rebuttal to be a tad aggressive. But now, after doing the research before I wrote this, I am beginning to understand his reaction (more on this later).
On the question about the 10 million population figure, I thought his final words were unambiguous and addressed the point squarely and succinctly:
“Let me state for the record, we will never have 10 million (people). 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.”
I thought Dr Balakrishnan was measured and almost cordial with Worker’s Party’s Dr Jamus Lim and the Progress Singapore Party’s Francis Yuen.
There was only one remark he made to Jamus which I wasn’t sure was meant to be complimentary or more likely to be a slight on the Worker’s Party’s manifesto.
Dr Balakrishnan told Dr Jamus that the Worker’s Party’s polices largely mirrored that of the PAP such that the Worker’s Party has been referred to in some circles as “PAP Lite”.
Kudos to Dr Jamus Lim for keeping a cool head if he indeed read the remark as a slight. He just smiled and carried on to say what he wanted to say. Calm and collected was how he came across.
And needless to say for someone so new to politics, he reacted with dignified aplomb like a seasoned veteran.
Dr Jamus Lim
Watch this space – this guy has the makings of an impressive future opposition leader. He articulated well and parried some difficult questions with adequate finesse and logic.
He did not have the immense experience of Dr Chee Soon Juan and granted, some of his answers appeared a little thin on content.
But he was able to make his case effectively and he came across as intelligent and insightful, measured with a dose of humility and, more importantly, his passion and empathy came through.
He is clearly a great catch for the Worker’s Party this election.
Dr Chee Soon Juan
Every 5 years, this man evokes a confusing myriad of antagonistic emotions in me – initial mistrust and dislike, then some grudging admiration (he has gone through a lot I’ll give him that).
At times he sounds learned and logical, and there is no doubt in my mind that he is extremely intelligent and has a fine mind.
And his oratorical skills are second to none.
But my exasperation will come when he latches on to a point that simply seems untenable, which he won’t let go, and more often than not, lands him in unnecessary trouble.
During this debate, he went for the jugular and alleged that Deputy Prime Minister Heng Swee Keat and the government wanted to push the population of Singapore to 10 million. Absolutely no time line about when this was alleged to be targetted for, and he wanted Dr Balakrishnan to positively confirm that the Government will not do so.
The SDP’s Manifesto
I must confess that in my cocooned and apathetic world, I have not heard of this issue until now. Neither did I know that the Singapore Democratic Party has made it the cornerstone of their manifesto – 4 Yes and a No.
The four Yes are essentially 4 things they will set out to do. As for the No, this is what they have to say:
No to 10 million population: The SDP will push to stop the PAP from raising Singapore’s population to 10 million and displacing local PMETs with foreign ones. “Our current population is 5.7 million and on course to hit 6.9 million in a few years’ time. Imagine if the PAP gets its wish to jack the number up to 10 million by bringing in more foreigners,” it said. “Already, it cannot competently contain the outbreak of COVID-19 which spreads faster as the population density increases. Also, our economy has become overly dependent on foreign workers especially PMETs.”
Never mind that the Singapore Government has published this clarification in March 2020 which confirmed in no uncertain terms that the population of Singapore is expected to be in the region of 6.9 million in 2030.
Take a step back. The figure of 6.9 million targetted for 2030 was even mentioned in Parliament as far back as March 2018.
So two years ago this projected figure of 6.9 million was stated unequivocally it seems, in Parliament no less.
Then this was reiterated in writing once again in March 2020 by the government (see above).
And on 1 July 2020, the government again clarified the position in writing:
The “remark” made by DPM Heng
So why did the SDP and Dr Chee put forward the allegation that the Singapore Government wanted to push the population to 10 million? And placed this allegation as the most prominent cornerstone of their manifesto in July 2020?
It has now come to light that the entire cornerstone of the manifesto was premised on a remark made by DPM Heng during a ministerial Dialogue in the National Technological University in 2019.
A remark made in 2019 ? But the government clarified the position in writing in March 2020. And yet that “remark” is made the cornerstone of the SDP’s manifesto?
I was flabbergasted.
So I wanted to know what was exactly said by DPM Heng. And I think all of us should read the remarks in its entirety and setting. This was reported in the Straits Times:
So the operative passages which formed the premise of the SDP’s manifesto were the following :
The Sunday Times reported on April 28, 2013:
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.
Now where am I missing the wood for the trees here ?
DPM Heng did not say that the 10m population should be targetted for Singapore ? In fact, DPM Heng seems to reference back to the 6.9 million figure proposed by the white paper for the year 2030.
His reference to Mr Liu’s comments seems to be to assure the audience that Singapore’s population density is not excessive, that there are other cities denser than Singapore, and that there are certain quarters who even thinks that we should plan for 10m to remain sustainable “in the long term”.
The time frame for Mr Liu’s comments
So what is the time frame Mr Liu had in mind when he mentioned the 10 million figure ? If I had wanted to put that entire allegation as the cornerstone of one’s manifesto, I would want to find out.
And I assume the SDP would have done their homework in doing so.
I proceeded to google Mr Liu’s comments and this was what I found:
Singapore should look beyond 2030 and plan for a more distant future – perhaps even one with 10 million people, former chief planner Liu Thai Ker said at a public forum yesterday.
“The world doesn’t end in 2030, and population growth doesn’t end at 6.9 million,” he said, referring to the planning parameter in the Government’s White Paper on Population.
Singapore could do well to look ahead, perhaps to 2100 when it might have a population of 10 million, he suggested.
Mr Liu was one of five speakers at a forum organised by the Singapore Institute of Planners (SIP) and co-hosted by the National University of Singapore’s Department of Architecture, on the topic of planning for 2030.
Mr Liu, who used to head the Housing Board, argued that population growth is necessary for economic growth.
And since Singapore’s land area is essentially fixed, higher density is thus inevitable.
But he was optimistic that “high density and a better living environment are mutually compatible”.
Liveability can be preserved with adequate amenities, buffers of greenery, and alternating denser and less dense areas.
Mr Liu reiterated these points in a later interview on 8 Nov 2017. Again, the reference point to a 10 million population figure was for 2100 not 2030.
In an in depth interview with CNA, Mr Liu explained in great detail that in coming up with a 10 m population figure, he embarked on a 100 years prediction.
Bharati: You were looking at 100-year horizon?
Liu: It was meant to be 100 years. We proceeded to check with some experts. I asked them what the population size would be in hundred years. At that time in 1991, we had 3.2 million and our economy was just starting to grow faster. Very few of them projected beyond 4.5 million in year “X”. I felt that it was just too modest, so I decided to look at it in terms of by 2091, based on the projections, we would have 5.5 million people.
Urban Planning and not a wholistic Socio economic policy
Mr Liu’s comments were spoken from the viewpoint of urban planning. He didn’t crunch figures and consider economic viability.
His comments were robustly refuted by Ex-GIC chief economist, Yeoh Lam Keong on 3 Apr 2019 where Mr Yeoh stated the following:
Just to repost my comments on Dr Liu Thai Ker’s views on planning for a 10mn population for Singapore as they probably bear repeating :
“The problem here is that with all due respect, while Dr Liu is an extremely competent and highly regarded town planner, he is effectively recommending very poor, outdated economic policy indeed.
He is still stuck in the defunct “go for growth” strategy which the government has long realized was a mistake since 2010.
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 labor force growth is not scrupulously controlled well below 1% pa long term.
Germany for example, grew its labour force and population at less than 0.5% pa over the last few decades and remains the most competitive and dynamic high value-added export economy in the world!
Doing the same for the next few decades will leave Singapore with a population well below 7 million, not anywhere near 10 million and with higher productivity and real wages, less wealth and income inequality and a much much smaller and more assimilable new foreign population.
What we need is high quality, not poor quality, 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.
Citizen well being, not growth numbers, greater profits, more billionaires or tall fancy buildings should be the true test and ultimate goal of long term population policy and urban planning.Let’s not forget that we are not just a city state but, much more importantly, a nation state as well.”
So yes, it would appear that a 10m population figure was in itself a controversial statement.
But the point remains that the suggested reference by Mr Liu to a 10m population was not intended for 2030 but for 2100 ie 70 years later!
Did the SDP do this research (which is easily available) and notwithstanding this, allege in a manifesto that:
1. DPM Heng and the government are planning to raise the population figure to 10 million (the reference in time was conveniently omitted)
2. DPM Heng and the government intended to target this 10 million population by bringing in foreigners to achieve this figure (yet another insidious quantum leap)
3. SDP intends to stop the government from its “wish to jack the number up to 10 million by bringing in more foreigners,”
The added allegation which the SDP has insidiously inserted is a serious one. To say that the Government wants to increase the population is one thing, to say that it intends to increase 30% of its population not through growing it organically over a long period of time, but through foreigner induction smacks of illogical behaviour and recklessness.
The use of the words “jack up” suggests undue haste and irrational behaviour.
The SDP and Dr Chee has now withdrawn this aspect of its manifesto claiming victory that it has forced the government to abandon the 10 million population target:
The country’s population as a strategic economic driver
A country’s population target is a factor to which any responsible government would give anxious consideration and calibration.
I know very little to give any in depth input except the following:
1. If you read any fiscal related , economic or socio- economic data provided by worldwide agencies like the world bank, a country’s population growth and the trajectory of its working population figures is often seen as a positive driver of growth.
2. There appears to be a firm correlation. For example, with regards to the impressive growth of Vietnam and the Philippines in recent years, mention has been made of its large population (Phillipines and Vietnam are the second and third largest country in population size after Indonesia in South East Asia), more importantly it’s growing population, and its young working population.
3. Related to this is the worry of an ageing population, presumably because it affects the productivity of its working population and also adds costs to the country in having to look after its ageing population. This is in fact an anxious problem for quite a few countries like Taiwan, Japan and the US just to name a few.
Singapore does not have an acute problem yet but it is not far away.
4. We have been grappling with a falling birth rate for some time now. Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew foresaw this as far back as the 80s and 40 years on, the problem has not gone away.
I don’t think it takes a rocket scientist to understand why a Singapore Government would give the issue of falling birth rates, population growth and the median working age of our population anxious calibration and intensive study by the experts in the field.
These issues are critical to any young country but they are especially critical to one of the smallest country in Asia, with no natural resources to speak of, a problem with land density and scarce land, and where it’s only means of survival is essentially its people, their industry and mental fortitude, and their will to survive.
But because of these peculiar and intrinsic limitations, shooting for the stars for population growth as an obvious driver of economic growth is not a natural option, and one that requires the most anxious thought process and calibration.
It’s an immensely difficult issue.
And despite the exuberance and perhaps utopia infused ideals of urban planners, the economists have advised that 6.9 million is the only figure we can realistically look towards by 2030.
A white paper was produced no less and the government of the day has made pronouncements in parliament in 2018, and confirmed its position to the public in its website in March 2020 before election started, and subsequently in July 2020.
Each time, the message was clear. The projection for 2030 was a figure of 6.9 million but it could be less.
To suggest that in the light of all these considerations, which I emphasise does not need a rocket scientist to unearth and understand, the SDP and Dr Chee has attempted to make a scurrilous assertion that DPM Heng and the government of the day would refer to a remark made by an urban planner (albeit a much renowned and competent one no doubt) in 2014 to calibrate its socio- economic policy for the country.
Therein lies the slight I feel not just to DPM Heng or the Government, but to all Singaporeans.
I have amended this last paragraph many times in the last hour as I want to be temperate and respectful.
The least I can say is that it does not make for responsible opposition.