A Dynamic Population for a Sustainable Singapore – WP MP for Hougang SMC, Png Eng Huat
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From day 1 when the Population White Paper was released, the reaction from the ground is swift and negative. Whether the 6.9 million figure is a population projection or target, the White Paper is still a roadmap for Singapore’s population policies from now to 2030.
This government had released a few such roadmaps in the past under the URA Concept Plans. We were told in this House the population projections in those plans are based on foreseeable trends in economic growth, fertility rates, migration rates, etc over a long period of 40 to 50 years. But alarmingly, this government has developed a knack for getting the population projection wrong; not in the numbers but in the time taken to reach those numbers.
In the 1991 Concept Plan, this government was doing long-term planning based on a population figure of 4 million. We started that decade with 3 million people and a Singaporean core of 86 per cent. We ended that decade with 4 million people and the Singaporean core at 74 per cent.
In 2001, this government put up another Concept Plan with a higher population projection of 5.5 million as a basis for land use and transportation planning. Again at that time, we were told in this House that the projected population figure over a period of 40 to 50 years was not a target but a planning parameter or what is known in recent days as a worst case scenario.
By 2010, in a short span of 10 years, we reached 91 per cent of the 2001 projected worst case scenario population with 30 to 40 years to spare. Our Singaporean core went down by another 10 percentage point to 64 per cent. So what was projected to happen in 40 to 50 years in 1991 and 2001 became a reality in less than one quarter of time envisaged.
In 2007, the ex-Minister for National Development quickly revised the long-term population projection to 6.5 million, which is at the low end of the projected population for 2030 in the Population White Paper.
Today, Singaporeans are confronted with a stark population projection again. The Population White Paper, unlike the 40 to 50-year Concept Plan, has projected our population to hit 6.5 to 6.9 million over a period of just 18 years. And the percentage of Singaporean core would be almost halved.
Repeating like clockwork, the National Development Minister was quick to point out that the 6.9 million figure is not a target but a worst case scenario. His predecessor had this to add when he raised the long-term population projection to 6.5 million. The ex-Minister said in 2007 that the government had decided “that 6.5 million is a realistic number for the next 40 to 50 years. Whether and when we achieve this figure will depend on many factors.”
If such 40 to 50-year worst case scenarios can manifest in less than 10 years from projection twice, Singaporeans have every good reason to worry about the 6.9 million projection going forward.
Over the last 2 decades, this government has been likened to run Singapore like a company due to its opportunistic approach to grow at all costs. It has grown our population by almost a million a decade since 1991. It did not matter if the infrastructures were not up to scratch, opportunities and money came first.
Based on the upper end figures in the White Paper, our population is again expected to grow by about a million a decade until 2030 and the Singaporean core will drop to almost 50 per cent. The White Paper is not maintaining a strong Singaporean core. It is shrinking it further.
If the experience in 1991 and 2001 is anything to go by, the 6.9 million projection may not be a worst case scenario but could well be the worst nightmare for Singapore come 2030. The trust between the people and this government had been shaken twice because the line between a projected population and a target population is no longer distinct. Singaporeans do not want to be shaken a third time.
Already, we have one of highest population density in the world and increasing our population further cannot be good for liveability. It cannot be good for quality of life. This government has tried to be creative with statistics to allay the fear that we might go the way of Hong Kong and pack Singaporeans into tiny apartments when our population hit 6.9 million.
But we are already packed like sardines everywhere today; in the trains, buses, hawker centres, shopping centres and more. Any population increase above 6 million is just unthinkable. If we were to compute the population density for public housing alone, we will understand how dense it is to live in Singapore today.
In 2010, it was reported that 82 per cent of our resident population or about 3.1 million people lived in HDB flats. The 2010 figure on land use shows that public housing took up only 7 per cent of the total land mass or about 5,000 hectares in Singapore. This gives us a staggering actual population density of 62,000 people per square kilometer for public housing alone. We even beat the densest district in Hong Kong which comes in at slightly above 55,000 people per square kilometer.
When this government allocates only 7 per cent of the land to accommodate 82 per cent of our resident population, how do you think Singaporeans, whom the White Paper addressed as ‘the core of our society and the heart of our nation’, would feel at the prospect of living with 6.9 million people by 2030? How liveable can Singapore be going forward with more and more people?
According to a Forbes report in 2012, the most stressful cities in the United States are also among the biggest and densest. How is this government going to convince our young Singaporeans to stay and procreate when commuting to work every day is such a stressful thing to do?
I read with a deep concern that this government intends to optimize our limited land space just to accommodate 6.9 million people by building more housing units in mature estates on whatever pockets of housing land it can find.
Madam Speaker, the government sees these pockets of land as opportunities but many of us see these as essential green spaces to keep the sanity of living in a concrete jungle in check. If every piece of green space in a mature estate is measured by a number or a value, then we have missed the meaning of quality of life.
The top 10 cities in the Mercer’s 2012 Quality of Living Index all have lower population densities than Singapore with the exception of Geneva, Switzerland. Geneva is nested in a region of beautiful lakes, hills, and mountains for citizens to escape to away from the stress of high density urban living. We do not have the luxury of such open spaces so we should preserve whatever pockets of greenery out there especially in mature estates so as to mitigate the stress of living in one of the densest city in the world.
Different cities in the world have different priorities to become liveable and sustainable. What are our priorities? In the pursuit for growth, this government has acknowledged that it had neglected to pay close attention to the comfort level of the Singaporean core in areas like transport, housing, and other environmental and cultural issues.
While the people should give the government some time to fix its 20/20 foresight, the government should also give the people more time to experience what it is really like to live in a country with 5.3 million with all the shortcomings fixed. Because when yesterday’s problems are not fixed, the vision for a better tomorrow is a hard sell.
The irony of the Mercer survey is Singapore is ranked number 1 in infrastructure but 25th in Quality of Living. What that means to me in plain English is we are way too overcrowded here.
This government may have put its heart and soul into building a dynamic economy for people to come from all over the world to make money here but has it done the same to building our nation? In this context, the Workers Party is asking the government to do the hard things first i.e. to put its heart and soul to grow the TFR. When young Singaporeans want to have more children here, we would have a nation to call home. Opening the tap to immigrants is not that hard. This government has grown our population by about a million a decade since 1991 with relative speed and ease.
We all take different risks in life. This government wants Singapore to take a risk with 6.9 million people. We, the Workers’ Party, want to work with a smaller number and a stronger emphasis on Singaporean core. But no matter what numbers we project, the government of the day has to subject itself to do the will of the people who elected it. I am sure the will of people can be felt in your MPS, dialogue sessions, feedback sessions and even at the recent polls.
We can’t change the past but we can change the future. For that I oppose the motion.
Source: Workers Party political website