Thursday 2 July 2020

How the projected 6.9 million population became 10 million: It's not a target

It started with this bombshell report about the Population White Paper released by the Government in January 2013:

Singapore's population could hit 6.9m by 2030

Which kicked off a chain of negative reactions:

To the point where the Government had to say the 6.9 million population is not a target:

Then along came Dr Liu Thai Ker to drop his 10 million bombshell:

The Sunday Times reported on April 28, 2013:
Singapore should look beyond 2030 and plan for a more distant future – perhaps even one with 10 million people, former chief planner Liu Thai Ker said at a public forum yesterday.

“The world doesn’t end in 2030, and population growth doesn’t end at 6.9 million,” he said, referring to the planning parameter in the Government’s White Paper on Population.

Singapore could do well to look ahead, perhaps to 2100 when it might have a population of 10 million, he suggested.

Mr Liu was one of five speakers at a forum organised by the Singapore Institute of Planners (SIP) and co-hosted by the National University of Singapore’s Department of Architecture, on the topic of planning for 2030.

Mr Liu, who used to head the Housing Board, argued that population growth is necessary for economic growth.

And since Singapore’s land area is essentially fixed, higher density is thus inevitable.

But he was optimistic that “high density and a better living environment are mutually compatible”.

Liveability can be preserved with adequate amenities, buffers of greenery, and alternating denser and less dense areas.
Since Dr Liu used to head HDB, some took what he said as the view of the Government even though it wasn't.

He reiterated his 10 million population stand on The Business Times front page the next year:

And again in The New Paper in 2017.

With headlines like these, no wonder many mistakenly believe the Government is pushing for a 10 million population even though Dr Liu doesn’t speak for the Government.

Then The Straits Times reported this about DPM Heng Swee Keat at a ministerial dialogue at NTU last year:
On the projected population of 6.9 million by 2030, set out in the Government's 2013 Population White Paper, Mr Heng said the number goes beyond how densely populated Singapore would be. The social space is as important.

Singapore's population density is not excessive, he said, noting that other cities are a lot more crowded in terms of liveable space.

He cited former chief planner Liu Thai Ker, who said in 2014 that Singapore should plan for 10 million people for it to remain sustainable in the long term.

Many, including SDP chief Chee Soon Juan, jumped on the "cited" part of the report as Mr Heng's confirmation of the Government's endorsement of Dr Liu's 10 million population fixation, although it was hardly a smoking gun.

Dr Chee campaigned on this issue with his "NO TO 10 MILLION Population" tagline:

And brought it up in last night's debate: "Mr Heng See Keat comes up and states in an interview, toyed with the idea of bringing our population up to 10 million. Singaporeans are deadly worried about this proposal."

Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan called it a "falsehood".

Dr Chee said it was "Mr Heng Swee Keat that came up with the idea of the 10 million population" and added "I'm citing the interview."

The "interview" Dr Chee was referring to was the one at the ministerial forum reported by ST last year.

After the debate, he shared the ST article on Facebook:

Which doesn't really prove that Mr Heng said what Dr Chee said Mr Heng said, although I understand how it could be misinterpreted that way.

UPDATE: Here’s a transcript of what Mr Heng actually said at the forum:
But seriously on the population issue, 6.9 million number that was put out earlier on. In fact, I met Mr Liu Thai Ker, our former chief planner, I think he had publicly said, it has been reported in the papers that we should go for even higher number and that how this little red dot can accommodate many more people. Now whether this little red dot can accommodate many more people actually is not strictly just a physical constraint. We cannot be thinking of 50 million people on this little red dot because it will just be so dense and unpleasant. But the population number is not just about physical space, it is also about the social space, it is about the sense of togetherness.

So he didn’t mention the 10 million figure at all.

Mr Heng himself finally responded this morning with his own Facebook post:
As the Straits Times clarified this morning, I did not say that Singapore should plan to increase its population to 10 million people, nor did I mention the figure.

I was asked at the NTU Student Union Ministerial Forum in 2019 about the Population White Paper. In my response, I mentioned that former chief planner Liu Thai Ker had publicly said that we should go for an even higher number. Far from endorsing this, I had explained that our population size was not just about physical space, but also about social space and how we can preserve a sense of togetherness.

Let me be clear: The Government has never proposed or targeted for Singapore to increase its population to 10 million. And if we look at today’s situation, our population is likely to be significantly below 6.9 million by 2030.

That is as definitive as it gets.

Even SDP has accepted it and claimed credit for it:

But does it mean this whole "Government wants Singapore to have 10 million population" thing is finally dead?

I doubt it.

PAP should be really annoyed with Dr Liu right now.

UPDATE: Did Nikkei Asian Review really report that URA plans to build underground infrastructure for 10 million population?

UPODATE UPDATE: Post-election, Dr Liu finally spoke on the controversy he created: