Tuesday 25 September 2012

PM Lee quizzed on ideal population size at forum

He says it's difficult to give a concrete number as the situation is evolving
By Phua Mei Pin, The Straits Times, 24 Sep 2012

A DISCUSSION on the country's ideal population size became the highlight of an hour-long televised forum with Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong last night.

And while he said it was difficult to pinpoint a concrete number, he estimated that Singapore would be able to house about six million people in the future.

Said PM Lee: "It's very hard to give a concrete figure because the situation is evolving. We're gradually increasing our land area, and if we rebuild our older towns, then we can accommodate more people.

"Today our population is over five million. In the future, six million or so should not be a problem. Beyond that, we'll have to think more carefully."

That number falls in line with the 6.5million figure that has been used as a government planning parameter since 2007. With the population standing at 5.26 million as at December last year, and frustration about currently overtaxed public infrastructure, concern has been rising over Singapore's population size.

The question followed a frank exchange with 30 Singaporeans on issues ranging from pre-school education to the state of the Chinese community.

Acting Minister for Community Development, Youth and Sports Chan Chun Sing, Minister of State for Finance and Transport Josephine Teo and Senior Parliamentary Secretary for Education and Law Sim Ann were also on the panel at the forum conducted in Mandarin.

Participants were upbeat about the prospects of future generations, and in full support of Mr Lee's call for less stress on children and more games-based learning at pre-school level. But several people voiced a reluctance to start families.

These sentiments spoke to a need for immigration to make up for the low birth rate, which Mr Lee said was difficult for the Government. "We know that we have a low birth rate... but we haven't found a perfect answer. Actually, a lot of societies have not found it. Until we find that solution, one of the ways we can address this issue is by bringing in more immigrants," he said.

But he said he knew that many Singaporeans may not agree, so took a poll of the audience.

Asked if Singapore should continue to bring in new immigrants, 67 per cent of the 30 participants said yes. To this, Mr Lee remarked: "Not bad. That's two to one."

About 77 per cent of the group also said Singaporeans can accept foreigners.

Company chairman Thomas Chua said foreigners helped drive economic development, but financial consultant Vincent Tan thought immigrants would leave if advantages moved elsewhere.

Mr Lee said he could understand if some Singaporeans held strong views about the impact of immigration, but he could not accept Singaporeans behaving ungraciously towards foreigners, as could be seen in anonymous anti-foreigner postings online.

"There may be real problems, and these need to be solved. But at a human-to-human level, there needs to be mutual respect," he said.


This is part of the dialogue process. Of course we cannot completely solve the problem, but at least we have a frank discussion, let everyone understand that it's not that easy.
- Mr Lee on the value of a population discussion


The next 20 years will be very different from the last 20 years. The world, and our society, are changing rapidly. But we have a strong foundation for the future.

Ask yourself: Which other country has made more preparations for the next 20 years than us?

I think it's hard to find such a country. They may have better conditions, but we have done a lot of homework.

We should be able to get a passing mark. If we can stay united and focused on overcoming our challenges, our future is bright.
- Mr Lee on the future

The 6 million question
With improvement to old towns, increasing land area, it's possible to accommodate 6 million people, says PM Lee
by Neo Chai Chin, TODAY, 24 Sep 2012

With older towns being rebuilt and efforts to increase Singapore's land area, a population of six million is possible, said Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong in a Mandarin dialogue with 30 participants televised yesterday.

Asked by moderator Chun Guek Lay what Singapore's ideal population should be if it is to continue its economic progress, Mr Lee replied: "It's very hard to give a concrete figure, because the situation is evolving."

He continued: "We're gradually increasing our land area, and if we rebuild our older towns, then we can accommodate more people. Today our population is over five million. In the future, six million or so should not be a problem. Beyond that, we'll have to think more carefully."

Speaking during the segment devoted to immigration, Mr Lee said it was a way of addressing Singapore's low fertility rate - which was 1.2 last year - although newcomers need to assimilate and tensions may sometimes arise.

Two-thirds of the dialogue's participants agreed in a poll that immigrants should be let in to make up for low birth rates, while nearly eight in 10 felt Singaporeans are accepting of foreigners. Some felt that new immigrants bring with them fluency in another language and professional networks, while others like financial consultant Vincent Tan felt that they were here for the benefits.

Mr Li Ye Ming, who was originally from Shanghai, felt that the impression of new immigrants not assimilating can be over-magnified when they are not distinguished from foreign workers or tourists - transient groups that cannot be expected to fully understand local norms.

Members of Parliament (MPs) and sociologists contacted by TODAY said Singapore could reach a population of six million in the medium term, but stressed that infrastructure like transport and housing had to keep pace with any growth in numbers. 

Noting the slowdown in citizenships and permanent residencies granted in recent years, Holland-Bukit Timah MP Liang Eng Hwa felt that population growth in the next 10 years would be much slower than in the previous decade.

From a high of 79,167 permanent residencies granted in 2008, only 27,521 were granted last year. Citizenships granted also decreased from 20,513 in 2008 to 15,777 last year, according to an issues paper published by the National Population and Talent Division in July.

With the completion of major construction projects, foreign worker numbers could also dip, said Mr Liang.

The issue of population is a matter of juggling many internal and external factors and finding an optimal position, said National University of Singapore sociologist Tan Ern Ser. 

These factors include ensuring adequate jobs, amenities and social services, an eye on reducing the age-dependency ratio and maintaining economic growth, as well as domestic politics and external economic and security conditions, he added.

Fellow NUS sociologist Paulin Straughan said urban transformation was "critical" to ensure quality of life. This can be done by learning from cities with higher population densities, bearing in mind that many of these cities have less crowded suburbs for urbanites to retreat to on weekends, she said.

The Government must also work to prevent excessive social inequality by boosting the skills of Singaporeans and improving their wages and job opportunities, said Associate Professor Straughan.

Ang Mo Kio MP Ang Hin Kee, meanwhile, felt that if marriage and procreation policies are enhanced, a balance could be achieved between immigration and organic population growth.

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