Friday, 30 November 2012

PM wishes he had stressed population woes sooner

S'pore 'will be a retirement home, not a vibrant city, if nothing is done'
By Robin Chan, The Straits Times, 29 Nov 2012

PRIME Minister Lee Hsien Loong has said that he should have pressed home to Singaporeans earlier how quickly the world is going to change and the challenges of an ageing population.

While these subjects had been surfaced, they never quite registered, he said.

He was speaking in an interview with Bloomberg's editor-in-chief Matthew Winkler on Monday, when asked if there was anything he would have done differently since he took charge of the Government in 2004.

He said: "I think we would have started earlier registering with people how quickly the world is going to change on them and what a big problem we are going to have with population.

"It's always been sort of there in the public discourse, but not something which we have succeeded in bringing to the forefront of people's attention, to say: 'Look if we don't do something in 20 years' time, the population is going to have an average age, say 60, and this is going to be a retirement home and not a vibrant city.

"And that's going to be a very different Singapore. We have to keep this a vibrant city, even when you're old, we want young people around so that you can grow old happily.'"

So in the new year, the Government will be focusing on the issue, he said, as population growth is connected to that of immigration and economic growth.

Parliament will debate it extensively in January when the Government releases a White Paper on population policies. Singapore expects the number of people aged 65 and above to triple to 900,000 by 2030.

"It's a big issue," he said. "It's not something which we are going to be able to solve one-off, but we'll be dealing with it over the next 10 years, and longer."

He noted that immigration is necessary to make up for the baby shortage. But he added: "We must strike the right balance. And, at the same time, we must maintain economic growth. So that's a complicated set of trade-offs."

On rising home prices, Mr Lee said the property boom almost became a bubble.

However, he is confident the Government can tackle the problem successfully because it has control over the public housing market with new flats. "We can build more and we can make them available and affordable."

This year, a record 27,084 new Housing Board flats are being made available - the highest number since 2002.

On the two integrated resorts with casinos, Mr Lee said the Government "did the right thing" by allowing the IRs to be built.

Economically, they have been a great success. Socially, the impact is about what the Government had expected, he said, in his first public comments since the issue of casino gambling was debated in Parliament earlier this month.

Noting that gambling habits have not changed drastically, he added: "But we have to wait and see because the social impact is not something which happens quickly, it accumulates over time."

It is certainly something on Singaporeans' minds. We have had a property boom, almost a bubble. It's because liquidity is sloshing around worldwide and real interest rates are negative. People are looking for opportunities to invest their money and there aren't a lot of exciting opportunities where you see growth and possible new breakthroughs right now. So that's a difficult problem for us on the overall property market. In the public housing market with new flats, we have control and we can build more and we can make them available and affordable. It takes a while but it can be done.
- PM Lee, on the issue of housing prices

I think generally speaking, Singaporeans are sensible and they will do the right thing.

The question is in that environment, can we still get governments which take a long-term perspective beyond the immediate election, and do things which you need to do even though it might cost you over a three-, five-year period? That is the challenge we face.
- PM Lee, on the opposition gaining more support

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