The population white paper: It need not be this way
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Written by Ng E-Jay
08 February 2013
An emotionally charged speech by PM Lee in 3 languages — Malay, Mandarin and English — wrapped up the Parliamentary debate on the population white paper. The paper was later endorsed by 77 votes to 13, with one abstention. All nine WP MPs, all NCMPs including Ms Lina Chiam, as well as NMPs Janice Koh, Faizah Jamal and Laurence Lien, voted against the motion. NMP Eugene Tan abstained.
Before the vote, PM Lee Hsien Loong had made an impassioned, 90-minute plea that was broadcast live on television, seeking to reassure Singaporeans that they remained “at the heart of all we do”. He also said that he expected the total population in Singapore in 2030 to be “significantly below” the 6.9 million projected figure.
“In my view in 2030, I think 6 million will not be enough to meet Singaporeans’ needs as our population ages because of this problem of the baby boomers and bulge of ageing people,” Mr Lee said.
“But I believe the total population in 2030 should be significantly below 6.9 million and beyond 2030, in the very long-term, it should not increase beyond that.”
And even though the paper projected that Singapore would only consist of 55% of core Singaporeans, Mr Lee said that he appreciated that numbers do matter, and that the government will track and control the numbers of non-Singaporeans. He also added that the Singapore core is not just about numbers, but also the spirit.
He ended off by saying, “You are at the heart of all of our policies. You are the reason why my key men and I entered politics … and we want Singapore to do well so Singaporeans can do well.”
Why PM Lee had to choke back tears
PM Lee’s plea for support which saw him almost choking to hold back tears at one point, is the culmination of decades of failed PAP policies. Going forward, PM Lee and the PAP think that the only way to build a future for Singapore is to import foreigners and artificially grow the population, even though their policies thus far have resulted in overcrowding, massive congestion, ruthless job competition that leaves Singaporeans stranded, and a strained social fabric. It need not be this way.
In the 1970s, the PAP under then Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew implemented the “stop at two” policy to control Singapore’s rapid population growth. They had every reason to do so. The huge number of babies looked set to overwhelm the fledgling economy. But the PAP went too far with the policy.
As a result of their drastic miscalculation, by the mid 1980′s, the situation had completely reversed and the problem became one of plunging birth rates and a sharp decline in fertility rates. The PAP had failed to take into account that as the economy matured and standards of living rose, people would naturally evolve to produce fewer babies per family.
In 1986, the government finally began to reverse its previous birth control programmes, and in 1987, the PAP announced a new slogan: “Have Three or More (if you can afford it)”. Now, the government was promoting a larger family size of three or more children for married couples who could afford them, and advertising “the joys of marriage and parenthood”.
Unfortunately, it was too late. Singapore is paying for the sins of the PAP today. It was the PAP which initiated policies that eventually would lead to the erosion of the “Singaporean core”. In order to reverse the demographic disaster which they created, the PAP has opted in the last 15 years to open the floodgates and drench the nation in foreign labour and new immigrants.
The PAP has realized the backlash that its policies have created. People are frustrated and angry at the massive intake of foreigners which has resulted in soaring property prices, a sharp increase in the cost of living, job uncertainty, overcrowding, and an increasingly unlivable urban nightmare.
The dramatic drop in support for the PAP in just the last two years alone must be weighing very heavily now on PM Lee’s mind. Not only has there been a severe backlash from the heartland population, but there is also signs of internal dissent within PAP ranks that is threatening to spill out into the open. The Prime Minister is losing his grip on his party and his supporters. The cracks are now widening and look set to erupt at any moment.
That was why Mr Lee made such an emotional speech. That was he had to choke back tears. The split in the PAP will come much sooner than we expect.
It need not be this way
The PAP does not deserve the continued support of Singapore citizens because the situation we are facing today is the culmination of decades of poor planning and short-sightedness on the part of the PAP.
Larger countries with more land mass can deal with a declining population core by importing foreigners, encouraging people to take up permanent residency, with the eventual goal of becoming citizens.
In Singapore’s case, our small land area greatly complicates the issue. Because we are so small, the danger is that we will reach the limit of our carrying capacity much sooner than other countries embarking on similar policies.
The government also failed to build infrastructure ahead of schedule, ahead of demand. Its failure to anticipate demand and prepare for it ahead of time is the reason why our public transport and road network has become so heavily burdened, why property prices have soared to once-in-a-generation bubble proportions, why the cost of living has gone through the roof.
Taking into account our small land area, we should not emulate other developed countries by aggressively promoting immigration and foreign influx without first making sure our foundations are right.
We should instead focus first and foremost on strengthening the Singaporean core, performing land reclamation, and building infrastructure ahead of demand.
Only then can we begin a carefully calibrated policy of foreign influx, taking great care to bring in people with the right skills sets and the right values to add life to our economy and society. We should not be bringing in all and sundry. That would only push our nation off the precipice.
The government must realize that for a small country like Singapore, growth has its limits. The all-out goal to make Singapore like any other developed country will surely fail, because that would be turning a blind eye to our geographical and economic limitations. We must grow in a unique way that takes our limitations into consideration rather than pretend that we can blindly follow the G7 nations and hope to become as rich and powerful as they are.
Ultimately, the emotional speech by PM Lee must be seen as the cap on 30 years of PAP hubris. It is the PAP’s unquenchable desire for power, glory and standing amongst the G7 nations, that has led to their lopsided and greedy policies which are hurting us all.
The PAP is no longer the best party to lead Singapore. Fortunately, there are democratic institutions available in this country where citizens can peacefully and constitutionally change governments. In 2016, it will be time again to nudge our nation one further step in that direction.