Goh Chok Tong: Listen carefully, for he will say this only once

Goh, right
Goh, right

Goh Chok Tong has responded to criticism from the opposition that he had spoken up in Parliament only once in the last term.

“I spoke up once, but once was enough. It was impactful. That’s all I need to say,” Channel News Asia reported him saying.

The only time Goh spoke in Parliament was in relation to the Population White Paper. Let’s take a look at that impactful speech:

Mr Deputy Speaker, Sir, is the Singapore Story over? All nations face their own unique set of complex and intractable challenges. We too are at a crossroads where we as a people have to make some tough decisions. How we respond to these challenges, and how our leaders and the people rally together, will determine the future of the Singapore Story. This is what the White Paper is about – A Sustainable Population for a Dynamic Singapore.

As Singapore’s second Prime Minister, my key mission was to Keep Singapore Going. Keeping Singapore going includes growing the economy to improve the lives of Singaporeans. Why is the economy important? Because it means jobs, food, homes, clothes, schools, medical services, roads, trains and all the necessities and niceties of life. We pay attention to economic growth in order to create good jobs for fresh graduates and school-leavers, provide security for workers, accumulate resources to subsidise housing, health care and education, help the lower-income Singaporeans through schemes like Workfare, and save for the future. Gross Domestic Product (GDP) is an economic indicator to sum up the economic activities within a country. Pursuing GDP growth is a means to get a good harvest for Singaporeans. It is not an end in itself. The bigger the GDP, the bigger the harvest.

To Keep Singapore Going is like perpetually rolling a huge boulder up a mountain side. We have no natural resources and it is our fate that we have to keep rolling it to survive. But as we near the proverbial summit, the slope gets steeper, the air thinner and the boulder heavier.

Singapore faces some very serious challenges which the Prime Minister and his team must tackle. They include:

(1) Meeting the higher expectations of a well-educated young generation for better jobs, promising careers, affordable housing and comfortable lifestyles.

(2) Meeting the needs of the burgeoning older generation, in particular, their medical, social and financial needs.

(3) Preventing the citizen population and workforce from shrinking in the next decade and raising the Total Fertility Rate.

(4) Overcoming our physical space constraints.

(5) Coping with slower growth as the economy matures, even as demands to increase social spending grow.

(6) Reducing our reliance on non-resident workers.

(7) Keeping the Singaporean identity alive and not becoming a minority in our own country.

(8) Defending ourselves as future cohorts of combat-fit NSmen would be much smaller than today’s.

I read the White Paper as the Government’s attempt and strategic plan to find solutions to surmount our constraints of space and the limits of an ageing and shrinking citizen population.

In short, it is about sustaining our growth and prosperity, so that the young can pursue their dreams, the seniors can grow old with dignity, parents can raise families, and everyone can enjoy a comfortable life.

Regarding population size, I, too, am not sure about the idea of having 6.9 million people. Many Singaporeans cannot imagine how that can work, when their daily experience with 5.3 million people is of crowded trains and buses. It is good that Deputy Prime Minister Teo has reiterated and reassured all of us that 6.9 million is only a planning parameter and not a policy target.

What the optimal, stable, long-term population for Singapore should be is a legitimate question, a very important one. What proportion of citizens and foreigners should be in the population is also another important question to resolve. But this is not the time for us to resolve this. We should further debate this in the future.

But for now, let us not be fixated on the population figure in the White Paper. Instead, we should decide if we agree with the broad approach laid out in the White Paper. These are: (a) changing to a lower gear in our economic growth, (b) a calibrated slow-down in expansion of the non-resident workforce, and (c) extensive construction of infrastructure and affordable housing to meet the needs of the still growing population.

Continual economic restructuring is one of the enduring features of the Singapore Story. Since the Economic Strategies Committee released its recommendations in 2009, the Government has moved to enhance productivity and to wean businesses off cheap and easily available foreign labour, and with increasing urgency in the last two years. It is clear that we have brought in too many immigrants for our infrastructure to cope and for Singaporean society to integrate. The Government has recognised this and has taken steps to put things right.

The Government’s calibrated approach on reducing our reliance on foreign workers is realistic. Like weaning babies off milk, it has to be done gradually. Going cold turkey with foreign workers is traumatic. The White Paper seeks to strike a balance, with the interests of Singaporeans and businesses in mind. A reduced inflow of foreign workers will complement the impetus to raise productivity. Our businesses must adjust, and the Government will help them make the transition. Those which are structurally unable to adjust may have to rationalise their operations. Some may have to relocate. Affected Singaporean workers must be helped.

Members would have noted the letter from the AustCham and eight other chambers of commerce in yesterday’s papers on their members’ concern about the more restrictive inflow of foreign workers. I know that foreign businesses in Singapore are watching our debate and our next steps closely. We should take the views of these chambers seriously and weigh their interests against our need to restructure the economy and depend less on foreign workers.

I applaud the Prime Minister and his team for their courage and leadership in tabling this paper to sketch out the next chapter of the Singapore Story. The politically expedient alternative would have been to leave the issue to his successor to tackle.

But that is not the responsible way to govern Singapore. My experience in Government has been to be upfront with Singaporeans, face the unpleasant facts and work together to overcome problems and crises. Prime Minister and his team did the right thing by laying out the problems, the trade-offs, and our options in a transparent manner so that all Singaporeans can become more aware of our demographic destiny, debate it and build consensus on the way forward.

Indeed, as a people, we have come together and weathered successive tests of our unity, resolve and resilience. I remember the 1997 Asian Financial Crisis, SARs in 2003, the September-11 terrorist attacks, the discovery of a terrorist cell in Singapore and recently, the 2008 sub-prime crisis. I remember the anxiety and uncertainty of Singaporeans during these crises, and the tough decisions we had to take to overcome them. I remember most of all the fear in Singaporeans as SARs took its toll on the lives of Singaporeans and our economy. Our hotels went almost empty. But I also recall the courage and sacrifice of doctors, nurses, taxi-drivers, grassroots leaders and a host of front-line staff, and how we all pulled through together as one people.

In all of these crises, the critical success factors were the leadership of the country, the bond between the Government and the people, our unity, our trust and support of each other. In those crises, people could see and sense the immediate danger. We instinctively came together to tackle issues head on. We knew we would otherwise be worse off. We weathered the storms, emerging stronger from each.

The White Paper is the Government’s plan to forestall an impending crisis. Forestall an impending crisis. But unlike our previous crises, our demographic challenge unfolds imperceptibly over one or two decades like a slow, sinking ship. Yet it is urgent, in that we need to decide how to act now to right the ship.

That is the difficulty for the Prime Minister and his team. They have to think long term. They can see the population pyramid becoming unstable. They can see the silver tsunami coming. They can see the economy deflating at some point in the future. They fear the Singapore ship will sink.

But it is perfectly understandable that many Singaporeans worry more about the present than the future. They feel the effects of over-crowding, competition for schools and jobs, high home prices, and the large numbers of foreigners most keenly. They want these pressures to be eased now.

While we debate intensely the domestic implications of the White Paper, we must also remember that Singapore exists as part of a dynamic, competitive and constantly changing world. Singapore is a price-taker in international economics and geopolitics, and always will be. We are sandwiched between the economic powerhouses of China and India, and other fast-growing economies.

Whether we can continue to attract companies to provide good jobs for Singaporeans, and whether we can continue to shape international developments to our advantage, is contingent on Singapore remaining vibrant and successful. If our institutions are not forward-looking, our economy flat, our society divided, Singapore will not be able to punch above its weight. It will lose its lustre and influence. Why would others invest in Singapore and in Singaporeans if our house is in disarray and we cannot solve the big problems confronting the country?

These are tough, fundamental challenges which the Prime Minister and his Ministers will have to resolve. They will have to do this not only intellectually and logically, but also emotionally and sensitively. They will have to dispel people’s current and future fears, win their hearts and minds, while planning a better life for them.

Let me conclude by setting out my position on the White Paper in unmistakable terms.

One, I endorse it. I am reassured that the population figure of 6.9 million is a planning parameter and not a target.

Two, I support the calibrated approach in slowing down the growth of the non-resident workforce.

Three, I support building the physical and social infrastructure to ease the present crowdedness.

Four, we should read the White Paper together with the many programmes that the Government has rolled out and is still rolling out to meet the needs of different segments of the population. All these taken together, they form the strategic plan to move Singapore to the next level and make lives better for all Singaporeans.

Lastly, the challenges we face concern all of us. They are not just the headaches of PM and his team. They are not just the headaches of the PAP. They are also the headaches of the Workers’ Party and every Singaporean. On their own, Prime Minister and his team cannot resolve them. They require us, the MPs, and the people, to work with them. This means sharing our views and ideas with them, and forging a consensus on the way forward.

Singapore has succeeded only because of the courage of our leaders and people to face challenges squarely, and because of our will to succeed and our ability to work together to overcome issues of survival. This is the only way for us to ensure that the Singapore Story can continue. I support the amendment moved by Mr Liang Eng Hwa to the White Paper. On this note, Mr Deputy Speaker, I support the White Paper.

tl;dr Goh Chok Tong said he endorses the Population White Paper and is reassured that 6.9 million is only a planning parameter, not a target. Essentially, he signalled his support for a motion that, because of the PAP majority in Parliament and the party whip, was going to pass anyway.

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