Mid-point of Singapore general election throws up a ‘10 million hot potato’

singapore

By Ivan Lim
Former AJA President, Contributor to AsiaN

SINGAPORE: Midway through the seemingly tepid Covid-19 electioneering, the political scene unexpectedly flared up as parties clashed over whether there was any plan for the city-state to host a population of 10 million.

Lighting the fuse of the cracker, the feisty Singapore Democratic Party (SDP) chief, Dr Chee Soon Juan, stung the  PAP stalwart, Dr Vivian Balakrishnan, during their televised debate on Wednesday by demanding a “categorical” answer that the government would not raise the population to 10 million by importing foreigners on job passes.

Singaporeans, he said, were “deadly worried” that foreign professionals would come in to take away their jobs.

The SPD salvo, after dismissing the PAP’s ‘Jobs, Jobs, Jobs0 ’rallying cry as an ‘election jingle’, sparked a quick rejoinder from the seemingly unflappable Foreign Minister.

Hunching forward and eyes ablaze, he accused Dr Chee of spouting a falsehood. When the SDP secretary general tried to interject and defend himself— that Deputy Prime Minister Heng Swee Keat had mentioned the 10 million people figure  in a press report – Dr Balakrishan called it “ a cheap shot, ”citing a PMO statement advising people “like Dr Chee’’ to refrain from indulging in such falsehoods.

He then put on record that the government had never had a population target of 10 million. Instead it set store on having a core population that is sustainable.

The heated PAP-SDP duel on the population issue for a time overshadowed the PAP’s efforts to focus voters’ attention on livelihoods in the Covid-19 crisis, becoming a political hot potato just days before the polls on July 10.

Overnight netizens got into the act, commenting the 10 million population figure had indeed been tossed about in future plans for the city-state of 5.8 million.

For example, a government ’s White Paper on Population in 2013 cited a population of 6.9million. In 2015, the former chief planner Liu Thai Ker, mooted a 10 million population target for the Republic beyond 2030.

While acknowledging that Singaporeans might feel uncomfortable with a 10 million population, he said it would be better for the city-state to plan for a larger population so that any necessary adjustments in future would be smoother.

At a Nanyang University ministerial forum in 2019, Deputy Prime Minister Heng Swee Keat had made a reference to the ex-chief planner’s 10 million population idea during a Q & A on the government Population White Paper of 2013.

On July 2, in a Facebook post Heng clarified that he did not endorse it. “Let me be clear: the government has never proposed or targeted for Singapore to increase its population to 10 million.”

Following up on the TV political debate, the PAP yesterday issued a statement expressing its “disappointment” that Dr Chee’s party colleagues had stood by him on the issue and refused to apologise.

In defending the SDP’s  key plank of  ‘No’ to 10 million population, chairman Professor Paul Tambyah said, “We have got the PAP to give us a straight answer.Normally, when you have a little kid, you ask them ’yes’ or ‘no and the kid doesn’t give you an answer. Finally, the kid has given us an answer and they say ‘no’, which is good.”

“So we are going to hold them to it.” Indeed, the party has claimed a victory for getting the PAP to clarify its population policy.

Riding the moral high horse, PAP leaders sought to use the issue to question Dr Chee’s integrity but found itself on  a back foot.

Weighing in on the row, Progress Singapore Party (PSP) leader, Dr Tan Cheng Bock, rapped the PAP for what he described as its lack of transparency. “If the data is not given to you, people will speculate,” he said.

The former presidential candidate and retired PAP lawmaker said he would keep an open mind on a 10million population. “Just tell us, ‘we want the 10 million, and why we need it’.”

On its part, the Worker’s Party described Dr Chee’s statement as “fair comment”.

“When you have ministers in the past who’ve made allusions to how we possibly can have more, a larger population size, then I think there is room for fair comment about really what is the size that we are aiming towards,” said secretary general Pritam Singh.

Looks like the PAP would be backtracking strategically to its ‘Jobs, Jobs, Jobs’ campaign slogan after the ‘hot potato’ toss-up.

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