At least there is some finality to the population debate.
“Let me be clear. The government has never proposed or targeted for Singapore to increase the population to 10 million,” said DPM Heng Swee Keat.
That was not all. “And if we look at today’s situation, our population is likely to be significantly below 6.9 million by 2030,” he continued in a Facebook post.
The 6.9 million figure was a key controversial point in a White Paper that generated a lot of hand wringing in 2013.
As many of us know, this flew smack into a torrent of anger against Singapore’s immigration policy.
The population issue was reignited when Singapore Democratic Party secretary-general Chee Soon Juan went eyeball to eyeball with People’s Action Party’s (PAP) Vivian Balakrishnan in a GE2020 live TV debate where the former raised the 10 million figure.
Alas, only if the DPM was as crystal clear in his dialogue as he was at a televised debate with NTU students last year.
At that time Heng could have put the matter to rest. Instead, he was not very precise.
In an answer to a question, he said that Singapore’s density is not excessive and that other cities are a lot more crowded when it comes to liveable space.
It would have been easy for one to take away from this that Singapore has enough space for a larger population. But where it gets tricky is when Heng made a reference to what former chief planner Liu Thai Ker said in 2014. And this is what Liu said: Singapore should plan for 10 million people for the country to remain sustainable.
Now, was there a need to bring this up, knowing that the figure will be contentious? No, I would argue. On hindsight, everything can be made to look perfect.
It is, of course, important to say that he never said Singapore should plan for 10 million people. And, of course, he did not mention the 10 million figure. He just quoted what Liu said.
Could he have said categorically in 2019 what he said yesterday? Yes, of course.
But then you have a Chee waiting to pick up on such items and make it into a battle cry in his manifesto.
Chee was selective in leaving out information, like the update provided to Parliament in 2018 which said that Singapore is likely to be significantly below 6.9 million by 2030.
And where was Chee when The Online Citizen was ordered to take down a 2015 article in which the writer talked about a 10 million population?
In ordering a takedown, the Attorney-General’s Chambers said the author of the article made a “patently false statement, namely that monies raised from the issuance of Singapore Savings Bonds will be used to finance the construction of an underground city for a population of 10 million.”
Let us all remember that this is all about politics.
Chee wants to draw the maximum advantage of what he knows is a testy issue. And the PAP knows that if there is one man it doesn’t want in Parliament, it is Chee, who is regarded as a troublemaker by the political establishment.
The ruling party dug up his past record and said in a statement: “Chee has staged this drama many times before, going back to 1996 when he refused to apologise for his wrong use of data on healthcare subsidies at a parliamentary select committee.
“Reputation is temporary; character is permanent, Chee said in 2015. One cannot agree more. A leopard does not change its spots. The new Chee — of which there have been many — is still the old Chee.”
Communications 101 tells us clarity is everything. Words and phrases have to be explicit and a newsmaker should not leave behind any doubt in the reader or listener’s mind about what you are saying. That is the takeaway for Heng.
For Chee and others like him, never be selective with your information.
One final word for the likes of both Heng and Chee. This is a fiasco that should never have happened. All that newspaper space and TV airtime could have been devoted to discuss more meaningful issues.
PN Balji is a veteran Singaporean journalist who was formerly chief editor of Today and The New Paper. He is the author of the book Reluctant Editor and is currently a media consultant. The views expressed are his own.