Saturday 9 February 2013

PM Lee's Speech at Parliamentary Debate on Population White Paper

Population-plan review nearer 2020: PM
Future clearer by then, he says; House backs amended motion
By Jeremy Au Yong, The Straits Times, 9 Feb 2013

PRIME Minister Lee Hsien Loong delivered an impassioned defence of the Population White Paper yesterday, as Parliament wrapped up one of the most heated debates in recent years.

Speaking before the House passed an amended motion to endorse the Population White Paper with 77 ayes and 13 nays, he said the plans would have to be reviewed closer to 2020, as it was not possible to see so far ahead.

Well before that, he added, the conversation about Singapore's population challenges would have to continue both in and outside Parliament.

PM Lee made clear that it would have been easier for him to "kick the can down the road" and avoid taking up the thorny issue of population and immigration, but that would have been irresponsible.

Singapore faces a real demographic challenge, which it has to discuss openly and face squarely. He urged Singaporeans not to look at the White Paper as just a document discussing a difficult problem.

"It's really an affirmation of faith in Singapore's future, belief that Singapore has a future which is worth building, protecting, striving for," he said.

The Prime Minister was the last of the more than 70 Members who joined in the debate this week.

While the fireworks that punctuated the first four days were largely missing yesterday, PM Lee made sure the last leg of the debate had its fair share of emotional highs and lows.

At one point when speaking about the meaning and importance of a Singaporean core, PM Lee, eyes reddening, had to pause for a sip of water to gather himself before continuing.

Like several of his ministers, he said that the 6.9 million figure was not a target and has been taken out of context. The future population, he said, actually depends on Singaporeans of tomorrow, and not the Government of today.

"Nobody knows what's going to happen in 2030. Even in 2020, you cannot be sure... Therefore we cannot decide on a population trajectory beyond 2020. That has to be left to a future government and future Singaporeans to decide," he said.

His own guess was that it would be somewhere above six million to cater to an ageing baby boomer generation but yet "significantly below" 6.9 million.

He saw the road map ahead as being split into two phases: "Between now and 2020 we have some clearer idea of what the world will be like, beyond 2020 we have to wait and see".

In the more immediate future, he said the Government was slowing down the inflow of foreigners and economic growth significantly as that was the most viable path for Singapore.

"It's a significant move, it's a calibrated move, I think this is a judicious thing to do."

Plans in the White Paper for the next decade will have to be reviewed towards the end of this one, he said.

"Beyond 2020, things are still vague, uncertain... and therefore nearer 2020, we will review the policy, population projections and our policies again. And then we can decide how much further we should slow down in that next decade."

He acknowledged feedback from some MPs that it might have been better to solve existing problems before talking about future ones, but said that the Government had a duty to tell Singaporeans about the challenges ahead.

"Our purpose is to do the best for Singaporeans. Singaporeans are at the centre of all of our plans and everything which we do is to improve Singaporeans' well-being, your security, your welfare. And everything else, whether it's economic growth, whether it's population policy, whether it's your housing, your trains, those are means to this end," he said.

In a speech that lasted more than an hour, in English, Mandarin and Malay, Mr Lee also spoke about the importance of the Singaporean core and how policy will always seek to strengthen that identity.

Here too, he said Singaporeans had a role: "We can provide the common spaces, but it's up to all of us to nurture the healthy, vibrant communities. We can create the opportunities, but it's up to us the people to define who a Singaporean is."


This White Paper is not just a discussion of a difficult problem. It's really an affirmation of faith in Singapore's future, a belief that Singapore has a future which is worth building, protecting, striving for... And to make tomorrow better than today, we have to get our population policies right, so that we give ourselves the best chance of success.
- Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong

Discussions on issue of population 'will go on'
By Rachel Chang, The Straits Times, 9 Feb 2013

THE national conversation on population does not end with the parliamentary debate on the White Paper, said Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong yesterday.

Based on public reaction since it was released two weeks ago and on the MPs' speeches, "it's clear that there are at least three areas which we need to talk about further", he added.

The first is marriage and parenthood, and what more the Government can do to encourage Singaporeans to have children.

The second is the economy, and how to restructure it to rely less on foreign labour while continuing to improve Singaporeans' lives through growth, especially beyond 2020 when economic growth will slow.

The third is national identity, and how it can be strengthened even as Singapore society remains open to the world.

PM Lee said "these are deep and important questions" and he wants Singaporeans to continue discussing them in the years to come, including in the ongoing Our Singapore Conversation exercise.

"We are all in this together," said Mr Lee, quoting former prime minister Goh Chok Tong, who addressed the House on Wednesday.

"This is an issue not just for the Government or the PAP, but for all Singaporeans, including all political parties," he added.

"We have to go beyond the rhetoric to develop actual plans that address our challenges and improve our lives."

Mr Lee asked for Singaporeans' support in tackling the three challenges, and said that "if we make the right choices, our future is bright".

Singapore is in a strong position globally, with a high international standing, he reminded the House.

And it has emerged from bleaker circumstances in the past.

"We have overcome long odds before with creativity and fortitude," he said.

"In our darkest days after Separation in 1965, Mr Lee Kuan Yew vowed to Singaporeans that 10 years from now, this will be a metropolis. Never fear.

"And we did it. Together, we built a nation," PM Lee added.

"So never fear. We can build an even better Singapore for all Singaporeans."

The right policies to ensure success
Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong spoke during the debate on the Population White Paper in Parliament yesterday. Here are extracts from his speech.
Published The Straits Times, 9 Feb 2013

WE ARE not pursuing economic growth blindly. These are not our objectives. These are just our means to the end. Our objective is to ensure that our next generation, in fact our next two generations, of Singaporeans can continue to live happily and peacefully here in this society, in this country. Every generation can continue to do well.

This White Paper is not just a discussion of a difficult problem. It's really an affirmation of faith in Singapore's future, belief that Singapore has a future which is worth building, protecting, striving for; belief that Singapore can grow from strength to strength and the next generation deserves to live better lives than this generation.

And to make tomorrow better than today, we have to get our population policies right so that we give ourselves the best chance of success. This is a long-term issue. Tomorrow against today, it's a small difference. Next year versus this year, it's noticeable.

Ten years from now, compared to today, the trends have built up and accumulated another 10 years, they've become irreversible. Therefore, we cannot wait till a convenient moment. We have to work hard to address the problems, to address the long-term problems, at the same time as we're addressing the current problems which preoccupy Singaporeans.

But in parallel, we have to deal with this population issue. This is a multi-faceted problem. First, it's a problem of numbers - how many babies are born, how many people immigrate, how many people emigrate, how many foreign workers we need, what is our total fertility rate? At that level, it's an exercise in spreadsheets and arithmetic. Anybody can do the sums. Doesn't mean anybody can make the sums work, can solve the problem. But that is one, only one aspect of our population problem.

Another aspect is identity. Many MPs have spoken about it and I think just now, Professor Eugene Tan was one of them. Who are we to our children, to immigrants, to people who are working, people who are visiting here. Who are Singaporeans? It's more complicated for us because we are a cosmopolitan city, unlike, say, Japan or unlike, say, China where the populations all look the same, speak the same language and it's quite clear if you're Japanese, you're Japanese. But in Singapore, who are you? We have to be open. We have to be varied. We have to have all sorts of people here. But at the same time we're not just a city. We're not just like New York or like London. We are a nation. And so we need both that vibrancy and openness but also the sense of identity and that sense of belonging among citizens that we are Singaporeans together. And that is a very difficult combination to create - to be cohesive without being close, to identify with one another and not be xenophobic, to be open and yet not to be diluted and dissolved. But that is our karma and we have to keep a balance between the two.

The third aspect of the population issue is the economy - how do we keep thriving and prospering. I almost hesitate to make this argument because everybody in the chamber, or so it sounded, or many people in this chamber and many people outside too, have taken the view that economics is not so important and that we have overemphasised economics as a government. But I think I should make my position quite clear. We're not pursuing growth at all costs.

We're trying to juggle many different objects, including population, including cohesion, including our social tensions. And we're trading off, reducing immigration, reducing foreign worker inflows, slowing down the economy significantly, so as to deal with these tensions and pressures, and so as to address other issues which we want, whether it's quality of life, whether it's income equality, whether it's the environment. We accept this because we want the growth to be sustainable, we want high quality growth and we want workers and families to benefit. Finally, it's for Singaporeans.

Why growth is needed?

GROWTH is not for its own sake. But growth is not unimportant. We can only afford to say that it doesn't matter because we have already got it. If we didn't have it, we wouldn't be so blase. You need growth to improve education and health care, to build better homes and towns, to invest in reliable and convenient public transport. If you don't have the resources, you will not have the means and you will not that quality of life.

We also need growth to improve incomes. And I say this advisedly, incomes are important. If you are in the top 5, 10 per cent of the population, you may say, well, I have enough, I manage, I can live within my means.

If you are at the bottom 10, 20 per cent of the population or even the median Singaporean - not poor, not rich - I think it would be patronising and cavalier for us to say they don't need more, growth is unimportant.

It is important for us to raise the incomes of the low income Singaporeans. It is important that we're able to have growth which enables a broad mass of Singaporeans to improve their lives. And when people say that the cost of living is high, I want help with cost of living, really the best solution is if your incomes can go up and you have more means to afford the things which you want, then you will be under less pressure. But for the incomes to go up, unless the economy grows, I must rob Peter to pay Paul. And somebody has to volunteer, take the money from me, give it to them. And it is not a sustainable solution.

Our experience has shown that in fact when the economy is growing, the low income Singaporeans get benefits, their incomes go up. When the economy crashes or slows down, it's the low income Singaporeans whose salaries stagnate, and at the top quite often incomes continue to rise. It's a problem with us. It's a problem with many countries. And so that is why although we have many objectives, and we are trading off, growth still counts, together with sense of belonging and nationhood, together with work-life balance, together with family-friendly environment.

One of the things we must not forget is we need to make a living for ourselves.

Immigrants add to core

IMMIGRANTS have been critical to Singapore's success and over the years, many have embraced Singapore's cause, and made important contributions to Singapore, being the fiercest defenders of Singapore and the most able propounders of our cause and pushing our story worldwide. Rajaratnam was just one of them. That's how we became a shining red dot. As Mr Rajaratnam said and many of you have quoted: "Being a Singaporean is not a matter of ancestry. It is conviction and choice."

I accept that the situation today is different from what it was at Independence in the 1960s. The founding generation was brought together by an accident of history at a time of great change, and they were bound together by a common cause of survival and building a nation. And because of them, they built a nation with a distinctive Singaporean identity.

So you recognise a Singaporean. You don't have to wait for him to speak. You don't have to hear him. You just look at him, see how he walks, his body language. There's something about him; you say, I know he's one of us. Not in Singapore, but you can be in America, you can be in India, anywhere in the world, he is distinguishable.

And therefore, because we're distinguishable and identify with one another like that, it's harder for a new arrival to come in and become like those who are born and bred here. Never quite the same. The accent will be a bit different. Your body language will be a bit different. Over time, the accent maybe will become like Singlish, if you come young, especially.

But the first generation has something not quite the same about him. Which is also why he's valuable to us, because he adds something to us, or she adds something to us. And we still need them to strengthen our core, to reinforce our talent pool and to make life better for Singaporeans.

We expect the new citizens to make the effort to integrate into our community, to commit their loyalty to Singapore. And indeed there are non-Singaporeans who have lived and worked here, who deeply appreciate what Singapore stands for, and they want to contribute to the Singapore Story, by becoming Singaporeans.

They have seen the world, they have seen how things work elsewhere, they have seen how Singapore is and they say: Yes, let me make this my home and nation.

I say we should have the big heart and the open spirit to welcome such people and help them become Singaporean. Let their children grow up in our schools, let their children be part of the next generation of Singaporeans.

The Singapore spirit

SO WE have to be open in a controlled way and if others accept our values and commit to building a better Singapore for all of us and can make a contribution and can integrate into our society, then we should accept them as one of our own.

Around this Singapore core, our society will need a pool of transient non-residents, people who come to live and work here for a time, not to retire, not permanently. And they serve Singaporeans, build our flats and MRT lines, take care of our elderly, bring skills and experiences that we ourselves lack.

So this is the other aspect of the problem which vexes people, because if the non-residents outnumber the core, then the core asks: Are we being diluted? The young Singaporean, the young girl whom I met in Teck Ghee market asked me this question. I didn't give her such a long explanation, but after a short explanation she asked a supplementary question. She said: "Will there be a Singapore core in 2030?"

So I said: That is the whole aim of this exercise, that's what we are trying to achieve, and if your generation have more children - because she's teenage now, by 2030 she will be well into child-bearing age - then I think it'll be easier for us to have a core.

There's a lot of discussion over the percentage. If you go to 6.9 million, then only 55 per cent will be citizens and is that enough?

I think the numbers do matter, and we will track and control the numbers of non-Singaporeans and the inflow of immigrants so that we are not overwhelmed just by the sheer flood of people coming in. But whether the core is strong or not and how the transients fit in also depends on the role which the different groups play in Singapore, how they fit into our society.

For example, if a big group of the transients are construction workers, which is a fact today, I think we have about 250,000 or 300,000 construction workers here temporarily for a project, to do something for us. I don't think that that will weaken the Singapore core.

They are here, they do a job, we are grateful to them, when the job is done, they go home, provided we can house them and transport them suitably and provided that the numbers don't cause problems in our housing estates or in our public transport. If we can manage that, this is a transient population. We are not expecting you to integrate; you're doing a job and we are grateful for what you are doing for us.

So we will watch the numbers. But the Singapore core is not just about the numbers, it's about the spirit, and when I talked about the spirit earlier and if the spirit is strong we can manage, and I think it's critical to imbue the younger Singaporeans with the Singapore spirit.

We will always put Singaporeans first and make sure that the benefits of population in our population policies flow to Singaporeans.

First of all, in our society, we make sure that Singaporeans are clearly in the majority, so that our identity is not diluted by new arrivals.

Secondly, in our policies, treating Singaporeans better than non-Singaporeans, especially when it comes to health care, education and housing.

And thirdly, in our workforce, giving Singaporeans every opportunity to upgrade and take up good jobs and enjoy fair and equal treatment from employers.

And I know there are grouses, I heard Prof Eugene Tan talk about his specific issues and Mr Patrick Tay raised this also from a union point of view, but we will make sure that Singaporeans are fairly treated. It has to be so and it will always be so, because the Government is elected by Singaporeans and responsible to Singaporeans.

Everyone plays a role

BUT let me add also that at the same time Singaporeans cannot afford to be just here for the ride - passengers. We are not an oil state, where citizens can live on the oil wealth and non-citizens do the work.

For Singapore to thrive, we Singaporeans must always stay lean and hungry. If we lose our drive we will lose out. Mr Teo Siong Seng, Mr Liang Eng Hwa and others talked about this, but I'd like to underline this point, that it is a privilege to be a Singaporean, it's a special status which we should be proud of, but we should not think of it as a perk. It's also a responsibility because we are not just the beneficiaries of the country's success; we also need to be architects and the builders of our future success.

So we've got to fulfil our duties as citizens: defend our country and fellow Singaporeans against danger, especially if you're an NSman in the Singapore Armed Forces or the Home Team; help one another to build a strong community, and work together to help Singapore succeed. If we retain this spirit and work together, we can create a much better tomorrow for our children. And that's my promise to all Singporeans.

Three big questions

THIS conversation on population doesn't end today. Based on the public views and based on the MPs' speeches I think it's clear that there are at least three areas which we need to talk about further - further, meaning not just over the next few months but over the next few years.

First, marriage and procreation. What more can we do to encourage Singapore?

Secondly, economy. How to strike that balance between a vibrant economy and our other objectives? How do we restructure our economy to rely less on foreigners? How do we benefit Singaporeans more through economic growth, especially beyond 2020 when the economy is going to be slower?

Thirdly, the question of identity. How do we strengthen Singaporeans' identity even as we keep our society open?

I think these are deep questions. They are important ones for us and we will have to continue to discuss them and encourage Singaporeans to continue to discuss them over the next few years, including in Our Singapore Conversation.

We are all in this together, as Emeritus Senior Minister Goh Chok Tong reminded us. This is an issue not just for the Government or the People's Action Party, but for all Singaporeans, including all political parties and we have to go beyond the rhetoric to develop actual plans that address our challenges and improve our lives. And I ask for your support in doing this.

If we make the right choices, our future is bright. We are in a strong position, with a high international standing. We have overcome long odds before with creativity and fortitude. In our darkest days after Separation in 1965, Mr Lee Kuan Yew vowed to Singaporeans, 10 years from now, this will be a metropolis. Never fear. And we did it.

Together we built a nation. So never fear. We can build an even better Singapore for all Singaporeans.

Parliamentary Debate on the Population White Paper -Day 1
Parliamentary Debate on the Population White Paper -Day 2
Parliamentary Debate on the Population White Paper -Day 3
Parliamentary Debate on the Population White Paper -Day 4

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