Goh Chok Tong & the Disintegration of the Singaporean Core

Goh Chok Tong & the Disintegration of the Singaporean Core

by Chua Suntong

In January 2013, Singapore’s ruling People’s Action Party (PAP) Government released a Population White Paper which proposed to increase total population from the existing 5.3 million to 6.9 million in 2030. (link).

The paper contradicted itself with a desire to maintain a Singaporean core while aiming for a big immigration increase. This paper also did not define what was the Singaporean core. A likely explanation was it referred to local origin persons with a sense of belonging to the Singapore Republic.

To understand what the Singaporean core might be, will require some historical understanding of Singapore and its population statistics.

From 1786 to 1914, Britain gradually extended its control over the Malayan Peninsula & the northern part of Borneo Island. Singapore, geographically as being part of the Peninsula, was continuously ruled as a British colony from 1819 to 1942 & again from 1945 to 1959. During this period, immigration to British Malaya increased significantly.

By 1930, contemporary writers noted immigrants who originated outside of British Malaya had produced significant numbers multi-generational Peninsula-born descendants. The British colonial government at Singapore conducted limited census in 1947 & 1957.

In 1959, the PAP started to rule Singapore as a self-governing state & subsequently as an independent sovereign republic from 1965 onwards. A 1970 Singapore census was conducted & published. Meanwhile, mainland British Malaya & most of North Borneo became the Federation of Malaysia.

Place of Birth/Year 1947 1957 1970
Singapore 526,500 (56.0%) 930,178 (64.3%) 1,543,624 (74.4%)
Mainland British Malaya & North Borneo 44,878 128,548 187,192
Others 366,838 387,203 343,691
Total  938,216 1,445,929 2,074,507
Table 1: Census of Singapore Origin Persons between 1947 & 1970

This combined information also showed two key features. Firstly, between 1945 & 1970 when Singapore was transformed from a colony to an independent sovereign republic, the significant majority of the population was of Singapore origin. Secondly, during this period, people from the mainland Malayan Peninsula were always a small minority. This meant a Singaporean social core clearly existed. Whether mainland Peninsula origin individuals should be considered as part of the core was not numerically important.

In 1987, Deputy Prime Minister & the future Emeritus Senior Minister (ESM) Goh Chok Tong started a pro-natal policy with a settler immigration supplement. In 1997, as Prime Minister, he changed the population strategy into settler immigration-centric, officially known as the foreign talent (FT) policy.

In order to persuade existing citizens to accept & integrate the maximum number settler immigrants from maximum diverse backgrounds at maximum speed, the official demographic character of Singapore was changed from descendants of immigrants to that of a collection of immigrants.

The ESM & his population planners appeared to have forgotten that the 1970 Census report noted a transformation of the population from external-born to local-born.(Chapter 8 Point 15) The ESM began to reinterpret the history of the Peninsula Mainlanders in Singapore & declared them as foreign talents. The pro-PAP government mainstream media also tried to give an indirect impression that foreign talents always formed a significant minority, perhaps even the majority of the Singapore population.

This created social confusion because existing homegrown citizens in 1997 had limited contact with 1st generation settler immigrants. The homegrown citizen sense of alienation increased when the ESM continuously advocated homegrown citizens to integrate with settler immigrants but not the other way round. It was only in 2012 when the PAP Government began to urge naturalized citizens to adopt Singapore ways. (link)

Some homegrown citizens suggested the FT policy should give official priority to Peninsula Mainlanders due to historic links & to reduce socio-cultural conflicts. This suggestion was impractical because numerically, historic Peninsula Mainlanders formed only an insignificant part of the Singaporean Core. Bringing in large numbers of post-1965 Peninsula Mainlanders was no substitute for homegrown citizens.

Furthermore political & economic changes also changed the Peninsula Mainlanders’ perception of Singapore. After 1997, prolonged political separation meant most of these persons saw Singapore as a foreign country. Due to currency exchange rate differences, these persons also had an incentive to maximize gains in Singapore while staying rooted to the Federation. This was an unofficial privilege which their pre-1990 predecessors in Singapore did not enjoy.

Year 1973 1980 1990 1997 1998 2000 2010
SGD1 to MYR 1 0.98 1.49 1.90 2.34 2.2 2.37
Table 2: Singapore Dollar (SGD) to Malaysian Ringgit (MYR) exchange
rates (link)

The significant currency exchange rates & living costs between Singapore & settler-immigrant origin countries added to the existing impracticalities of the FT policy. Within the homegrown citizenry, senior managers of employing organizations were very happy to follow the ESM exhortation to turn the local workplace into a miniature United Nations.

The ESM proactively encouraged these employing organizations to adopt a maximalist approach in bringing in immigrant white collar PMETs (Professionals, Managers, Executives & Technicians). He managed to convert these senior managers into thinking that immigrant PMETs would upgrade organizations to the next higher level. The ESM never intended immigrant PMETs to be cheap labour but economic realities partly encouraged homegrown senior managers to take such an approach.

Concerns about homegrown PMET displacement increased. The refusal of the ESM to discuss this issue between 1997 & 2012 led to speculation & conspiracy theories. One reason could be unawareness. Homegrown citizens with good career paths including the ESM probably never thought of displacement until they were affected themselves.

Another reason was the ESM obsession with Singapore being young, vibrant & cosmopolitan. His priority was to ensure maximum immigrant PME inflow & rejected a selective approach. In simple terms he & his population planners were neither aware nor bothered about PMET displacement until the beginning of 2013 when the White Paper created a wave of objections. Large scale immigration from 1998 to 2010 meant homegrown citizens would become a minority & the Singaporean core would disappear.


Categories/ Years 1980 1990 2000 2010
Homegrown Citizens 1,875,300 (77.7%) 2,313,700(76.0%) 2,681,400 (66.6%) 2,911,900 (57.4%)
External Origin Citizens 319,000 310,000 304,500 318,800
Permanent Residents 87,800 112,100 287,500 541,000
Non-Residents 131,800 311,300 754,500 1,305,000
Total 2,413,900 3,047,100 4,027,900 5,076,700
Figure 3: Singapore Homegrown Citizens 1980-2010. Sources: Singstat 2010 Key Population Trends & Censuses of Various Years. Purple Italics are estimates due to inability to locate relevant 1990 census data.

During a National Day dinner on 11 Aug 2013, the ESM spoke government measures to help displaced PMETs. (link) This might be a historic admission by the ESM that his FT policy failed totally. He urged a national resilience spirit to overcome the problems of a slower economy & social tensions. His reference to patriotism could be practically irrelevant as his globalization strategy had disintegrated the Singaporean core

[pdf-embedder url=”https://www.theonlinecitizen.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/08/sisa1980.pdf”] [pdf-embedder url=”https://www.theonlinecitizen.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/08/sisa1970.pdf”]





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