Emeritus Senior Minister Goh Chok Tong said Wednesday that the hotly debated population white paper tabled by the government in Parliament is “its plan to forestall an impending crisis”.
Taking his turn at the chair during the lengthy debate that commenced Monday in Parliament, Goh, who served as the country’s second Prime Minister from 1990 to 2004, related the crises that Singapore experienced during his time in leadership — the 1997 Asian Financial Crisis, SARS in 2003, and remotely, the 9/11 attacks in 2001, among others.
“I remember the anxiety and uncertainty of Singaporeans during these crises, and the tough decisions we had to take to overcome them,” he said. “In all of these crises, the critical success factors were the leadership of the country, the bond between the government and the people, our unity, our trust and support of each other... we instinctively came together to tackle issues head-on. We knew we would be worse off otherwise.”
“The white paper is the government’s plan to forestall an impending crisis,” he continued. “But unlike our previous crises, our demographic challenge unfolds imperceptibly over one or two decades like a slow, sinking ship. Yet it is urgent, in that we need to decide how to act now to right the ship.”
Acknowledging the need to discuss the domestic implications of the Paper, Goh also noted that Singapore is a price-taker on the international level, sandwiched between fast-growing India and China, and constantly pressured by our ability to attract companies to provide good jobs for citizens.
“These are tough, fundamental challenges which the PM and his ministers will have to resolve. They will have to do this not only intellectually and logically, but also emotionally and sensitively,” he said. “They will have to dispel people’s current and future fears, win their hearts and minds, while planning a better tomorrow for them.”
Goh also applauded Lee and his team for their “courage and leadership” in tabling the paper, saying it was “the responsible way to govern Singapore”.
“My experience in government has been to be upfront with Singaporeans, face the unpleasant facts and work together to overcome problems and crises. PM and his team did the right thing by laying out the problems, the trade-offs, and our options in a transparent manner so that all Singaporeans can become more aware of our demographic destiny, debate it and build consensus on the way forward,” he said.
We should also decide if we agree with the “broad approach” laid out in the Paper, instead of being fixated on the population figure, he added.
“These are: (a) changing to a lower gear in our economic growth, (b) a calibrated slow-down in expansion of the non-resident workforce, and (c) extensive construction of infrastructure and affordable housing to meet the needs of the still-growing population,” he said.
Goh also spoke on the reduction of Singapore’s reliance on foreign workers, among the most frequently-raised issues throughout the four-day debate thus far, describing it as akin to “weaning babies off milk”.
“It has to be done gradually,” he said. With reference to the Workers’ Party’s plan of maintaining zero growth in the foreign workforce for the next eight years, he added, “Going cold turkey with foreign workers is traumatic... a reduced inflow of foreign workers will complement the impetus to raise productivity.
“Our businesses must adjust, and the government will help them make the transition. Those which are structurally unable may have to rationalise their operations. Some may have to relocate. Affected Singaporean workers must be helped.”