COMMENT: Dancing around 10 million people

The Singapore Democratic Party has updated its GE2020 campaign. (SCREENSHOTS:  CNA's YouTube channel/SDP's Facebook page)
The Singapore Democratic Party has updated its GE2020 campaign. (SCREENSHOTS: CNA's YouTube channel/SDP's Facebook page)

by Bertha Henson


That’s the figure Singapore is all agog over.

The Singapore Democratic Party (SDP) said that Deputy Prime Minister – and People’s Action Party’s (PAP) first assistant secretary-general – Heng Swee Keat said it. Heng said no. SDP said Straits Times (ST) reported it. ST said Heng didn’t say 10 million people. The PAP, thinking it has scored a hit, wants the SDP to apologise. The SDP, thinking it has scored a hit, claims victory.

We, the voters, are being led on a merry dance.

I think the SDP was too quick to pull one phrase out of a newspaper report of a university dialogue to say that Heng was toying with the idea of raising the population number to 10 million. The confusion seems to have come about because the journalist did the needful thing called “backgrounding’’ in the report published in March last year.

ST said: “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.”

Five months later, on 20 October, the SDP held a pre-election rally in Hong Lim Park where it formally introduced “No to 10 million population’’ as one of its planks. I reported this, and said I was puzzled that I seemed to have missed such a big story.

That was when I found the earlier March article on Heng.

I wrote then: “Even though it wasn’t a policy pronouncement, it does show that Mr Heng was ‘open’ to a more populated country, providing the SDP with a point of attack. Given the fracas over 6.9 million, Mr Heng might want to clarify what he meant when he cited someone else’s figure. Is this the new objective and by when? How is Singapore gearing up in terms of infrastructure?’’

I suppose I am not the “ordinary reader’’ whom ST journalist Zakir Hussain refers to in his column on the 10 million people saga today. He referred to ST’s March article and said: “No ordinary reader of the article – let alone those sentences – would think that Mr Heng wants Singapore to plan for 10 million people.’’

The question which arises then is why ST did not call out the SDP or check on the authenticity of SDP’s call to reject 10 million people. The mainstream media, especially ST, cannot but be aware that the SDP had read its report wrongly. Rather than do due diligence, it continued to report on SDP’s manifesto, with the 10 million people claim.

In its 28 April report this year, ST referred to the 10 million population plank of the SDP campaign this way: “The SDP said the economy has become overly dependent on foreign workers. Citing a 10 million figure raised by former chief planner Liu Thai Ker in 2014, the SDP said it will “stop the PAP from raising our population to 10 million and displacing our PMETs (professionals, managers, executives and technicians) with foreign ones”.”

I had wondered about the choice of words, because SDP was adamant about making Heng responsible for the 10 million figure, not Liu who first raised it. Nevertheless, it went on to quote the SDP on wanting to stop the PAP (which presumably will do what Liu wants?) from raising the numbers.

If I am not an ordinary reader, I can safely say that Sudhir Vadaketh isn’t one too. He made the same assumption SDP did on reading the ST article. Except that he got a call from Heng’s office. You can read it here.

He wrote this after the English debate which had PAP’s Vivian Balakrishnan berating SDP’s Chee Soon Juan for perpetuating falsehoods: “And now, because of last night’s political debate, the question of fact versus falsehood has again emerged, honest discourse undermined because of imprecise answers (from him) and imprecise assumptions (from us).”

A matter of timing

So, where was POFMA (Protection From Online Falsehoods And Manipulation Act) in all this?

Even though POFMA was ready for action from 2 October, this glaring “falsehood’’ escaped the eye of the POFMA office and civil servants. What caught their attention instead was a chart and a statement about increased unemployment of local PMETs in the SDP website and Facebook page.

The Manpower Ministry issued a Correction Order. The case went to court and SDP’s objection was dismissed. The SDP was guilty of spreading falsehoods to scare Singaporeans into thinking that PMET jobs would go to foreigners.

Truth to tell, this wasn’t as clear-cut a case compared to whether the government was planning for a 10 million population. Arguments were put forth about interpretation of the facts, the basis of comparisons and so forth. You can read them here.

I am perplexed that the government would have picked on this point, rather than the 10 million figure, if it wants to paint the SDP as a purveyor of falsehoods. Don’t forget that POFMA was supposed to be a quick tool to stop falsehoods from spreading. The government is only objecting to the 10 million population now, in the midst of the hustings.


Well, the PAP made this conclusion public yesterday: “This latest falsehood, however, is not just a matter of Dr Chee’s personal dishonesty. The “1 No” is a key plank in the SDP’s election campaign. Its falsehood renders the campaign pointless, and calls into question the integrity of the whole party.’’

It could have made the same point much earlier. I don’t think the truth should be timed.

Bertha Henson is a veteran Singapore journalist who now lectures at NUS. The views expressed are her own.

Stay in the know on-the-go: Join Yahoo Singapore's Telegram channel at

Follow Yahoo News Singapore’s GE2020 coverage here.

GE2020 stories:

GE2020: 7 parties take to national television to broadcast manifestos

GE2020: SDP won’t tap Singapore’s reserves to fund its proposed programmes – Paul Tambyah

SDP removes ‘No to 10m population’ aim from GE2020 campaign after Heng Swee Keat’s statement

GE2020: Government never targeted 10 million population – Heng Swee Keat