Singapore feels the squeeze of population drive

opinion February 12, 2013 00:00

By Seag Chiang Lee
The Star/Asia

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Tiny Singapore is about to set a population target of 6.9 million people, making it the world's third most densely populated country by 2030.


The move to cram 30-per-cent more people onto the island in just 17 years is now being debated in Parliament, and has predictably stirred public anger.
According to its Population White Paper, the government intends to increase the number of permanent residents (PRs) annually by 30,000, and new citizenships by 15,000 to 25,000 a year.
By 2030, nearly half (45 per cent) the population will be made up of foreigners.
With only 710sqkm of land, this island is already showing strains on housing, transport and healthcare posed by a population that recently hit 5.3 million.
Yet, for analysts of Lee Kuan Yew’s ruling People’s Action Party (PAP), another push to 6.9 million is not surprising. The new policy merely represents 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 to build Singapore as a major global city. Others see the population drive as a booster for economic growth.
In the first phase, the population grew from 3.05 million in 1990 to more than five million in 2010, or about one million immigrants per 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 that number to be made up by foreigners.
The infrastructure expansion in the 1990s 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 by Bangkok in those days.
I remember him saying: “If we had 100 million or 120 million Thais, people would respect us more.”
That number was three times Thailand’s population at the time. Today it is 70 million.
Next was former Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad who said his nation, then with a population of less than 14 million, needed at least 70 million people to become a middle economic power.
Both these were bigger countries than Singapore.
While these three nation’s shared the same ambition for larger populations so as to achieve influence or better economic scale, there was a difference. Only Singapore acted on its plan.
It could prove to be a foolhardy move whose unpopularity brings down the ruling PAP). Or it may become a unique achievement.
While debate in Parliament raged, news came that Singapore had risen in the rankings to become the world’s sixth most expensive city in which to live. So there’s another high price to pay.
It now has the third-highest cost of living in Asia.
According to the White Paper, three groups of foreigners will be in demand: Those who support the city’s social needs, such as healthcare and eldercare workers; low-skilled workers for construction, retail and food services; and global talent with cutting-edge skills and abilities.
At one stage of the debate Prime Minister Lee admitted that his government had previously failed to prepare for the foreign influx.
But his ministers assured Singaporeans that this time they would get it right, with a series of measures to handle the enlarged population, including:
_ Increasing land mass by 8 per cent, raising it from 710sqkm to 766sqkm, with several golf courses to be sacrificed.
_ Building 700,000 new homes. 
_ Doubling the Mass Rapid Transit tracks. 
_ Bringing healthcare planning forward by 10 years.
So far, the plan has been strongly opposed by the public and every opposition party.
A proposal by the main opposition Workers Party that the population target be cut from 6.9 million to 5.9 million was turned down.
The public was reportedly “furious”.
A public rally is being planned at Speakers Corner for this Saturday.
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. We are facing the crisis of our lifetime ... Our citizen population will halve every two generations.”