The Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act (POFMA) Office has been instructed to issue correction orders to The Online Citizen Asia and the Facebook pages of each of the Peoples’ Voice Party (PVP), the Singapore Democratic Party (SDP) and the Sin Rak Sin Party.

The order relates to alleged “false statements of fact claiming that a statement made by Dr Cheong Koon Hean at the IPS-Nathan Lectures in 2018  (which) suggested that our population would increase to 10 million by 2030”.

This is not a new point of contention. This issue first came about in 2018 at the 3rd IPS lecture on “Shaping The Future of Heartland Living” when HDB Chief Cheong Koon Hean refused to answer question posed by Ravi Philemon in relation to the urban planning principle behind the higher population density plans, espoused by her at the last lecture when she said that Singapore’s population density would increase from 11,000 people per sq km to 13,700 people per sq km between 2018 and 2030.

Cheong had apparently chosen not to answer Philemon’s question at that time which in turn resulted in some speculation and rumours about the government’s intentions where population growth was concerned.

At around that time, Cheang Peng Wah, had also written to the Straits Times Forum expressing his alarm after hearing the 13,700 people per sq km density figure quoted by Cheong.

This issue however came up again at the recent televised debate between Dr Vivian Balakrishnan of the the Peoples’ Action Party (PAP), Jamus Lim of the Workers’ Party (WP), Dr Chee Soon Juan of the SDP and Francis Yuen of the Progress Singapore Party (PSP).

Chee had raised the “10 million people” issue which was fiercely denied by Balakrishnan who repeatedly accused Chee of repeating falsehoods. Looking at Balakrishnan’s visceral reaction to the “10 million” people issue, it is no surprise that POFMA orders have been swiftly issued to any news outlet that seems to suggest that the PAP were in agreement with having “10 million people “in Singapore.

Without going into the merry go round of “who said what and who perceived what”, we should perhaps examine why the population issue seems to be such a sensitive one for the PAP. Could it be because it was something that they might have toyed with before they saw how badly the public reacted to it?

At the end of the day, this whole thing could well have been a miscommunication. Without rehashing the details again (because frankly, it is becoming grotesquely boring), the “10 million people” issue was based on a degree of reading between the lines in the first place.

Looking at the context in which the issues were framed and the way Heng Swee Keat had made references to it then, it is perfectly reasonable for the SDP to have come to the conclusion that it did. On the other hand, it is also true that Heng never explicitly said that he wanted to increase Singapore’s population to 10 million.

Given that all contestants are adults and that most issues are not binary, why can’t the PAP just acknowledge that they were perhaps not as clear as they could have been and as a result, the SDP misunderstood?  End.

Instead, the PAP has chosen the unnecessarily heavy hand of using POFMA to force the issue.

When someone overreacts to something, could it be because it might actually be true and they are trying their hardest to cover it up? Even if this is not true, the general public could be forgiven for thinking otherwise. After all, issuing POFMA orders over what looks like a misunderstanding is surely overkill.

Could it be that the PAP were indeed toying with the idea of growing the population significantly with the “10 million” number being just a ballpark, give or take and not set in stone?

However, judging from adverse public reaction and the fact that it is now the general elections, the PAP may have realised that this is a very unpopular suggestion and is now trying to distance itself from earlier suggestions. Of course, this may well be pure speculation but at the end of the day, to use POFMA to shut down discussions over something that the PAP could have been clearer about in the first place in the lead up to a general election could lead the public to conclude that it may be guilty conscience on the part of the PAP.

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