VIEW: Big debate on S'pore's future

Seah Chiang Lee in Petaling Jaya/The Star
Asia News Network9 February 2013

Petaling Jaya (The Star/ANN) - This week's article may one day prove to have touched on one of the most important issues that will decide the kind of lives Singaporean families will live.

I am referring to the national debate on a Population White Paper that sets a 6.9 million people target for the Republic, making it the world's third densest country by 2030.

Because it aims at expanding it by another 30 per cent in just 17 years, the issue and its urgency, now debated in Parliament, have predictably stirred public anger.

According to the paper, the government intends to increase the number of permanent residents (PRs) annually by 30,000, and new citizenships by 15,000-25,000 a year.

By 2030, nearly half (45 per cent) the population will be made up of foreigners.

With only 710sq km of land, this island is already showing strains of inadequate housing, transport and healthcare posed by the population recently hitting 5.3 million.

Yet to analysts of Mr Lee Kuan Yew's People's Action Party (PAP) another push to 6.9 million is not surprising, although in his latter years his fervour seems to have cooled slightly.

Whether one believes the 6.9 million is a target or a projection (as the government claims) is irrelevant to the real world.

It plans it that way and the people expect this to happen.

Still it will merely represent the second, possibly last, major phase of a long-term PAP population expansion plan started in 1990.

Some regard this as the dogged pursuit of Lee's long-term vision of a large global city. Others say it is for economic growth.

In the first phase, the population grew from 3.05 million in 1990 to top five million in 2010, or about one million immigrants a decade. That just happened - no consultation, no Green or White Paper.

Now comes the second - and more controversial - phase which will raise the population to 6.5-6.9 million by 2030 - about half of it being foreigners.

The infrastructure expansion first-time was ill-prepared, resulting in Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong apologising to the nation for the poor housing and public transportation.

Now even as the government is still working to put right that mess comes the new expansion proposal.

Since I began working as a foreign correspondent in 1960, I have had experience with two national leaders in Southeast Asia proclaiming a similar ambition for larger populations.

This was in the early 70s. The first was Thailand's dictator, General Prapas Charusathian who wanted his country's then 35 million to be increased to 100 million.

I was then based in Bangkok.

The pot-bellied general, who spoke no English, would hold a weekly press conference in Thai for his own journalists.

Fortunately for us, the US Embassy issued regular transcripts in English to help the foreign press.

The general said in a folksy way that Thailand's population was too small to command respect from neighbouring countries.

He was probably referring to China and Vietnam seen as a potential threat in those days.

I remember him quoted as saying: "If we have 100 million or 120 million Thais, people would respect us more."

That was three times bigger. Today it is 70 million.

Next was former Malaysian Prime Minister Dr Mahathir Mohamad who said his nation, then with a population of less than 14 million, needed at least 70 million people to be a middle economic power.

Both these were bigger countries than Singapore.

While these leaders shared the same ambition for larger populations to achieve influence or better economic scale, there was a difference. Singapore alone acted on its plan.

It could prove to be foolhardy that will bring down the ruling People's Action Party (PAP) given the strong unpopularity or may establish it as a unique achievement.

While the Parliament debate raged, news came that Singapore had become the sixth most expensive city in the world to live in, a drop from ninth place. So there's another high price to pay.

In Asia it has the third highest cost of living.

According to the paper, three groups of foreigners will be in demand.

Firstly, those who support the city's social needs, such as healthcare and eldercare workers, and the second will be low-skilled workers like construction, retail and food services.

The third group that Singapore will welcome will continue to be global talent with cutting-edge skills and abilities.

At one stage of the debate Prime Minister Lee admitted that his government did not have 20-20 foresight when it failed to prepare for the foreign influx.

But his ministers assured Singaporeans this time they will get it right, with a series of measures to handle the enlarged population, including:

> Increasing land-mass by 8 per cent, raising it from 710sq km to 766sq km. Even a number of golf courses will be knocked off; and

> Building 700,000 new homes and doubling the Mass Rapid Transit tracks, while healthcare planning is to be brought forward by 10 years.

So far, the plan has been strongly opposed by the public and every opposition party.

The biggest Workers Party asked that the proposed population be cut from 6.9 million to 5.9 million but it was turned down.

The public was "furious" according to a Yahoo News report.

A public rally is being planned at Speakers Corner for February 16.

The Minister for Environment and Water Resources, Vivian Balakrishnan said on a Facebook post titled: "Political suicide vs demographic extinction" that the government was aware of the political risk.

"But it is worth taking," he added. "We are facing the crisis of our lifetime...Our citizen population will halve every two generations."