SINGAPORE: Emeritus Senior Minister Goh Chok Tong said the White Paper on Population is the government’s plan to forestall an impending crisis.
Speaking in Parliament for the first time since he stepped down from Cabinet in 2011, Mr Goh also said decisions made will have implications on Singapore’s competitiveness and international stature.
Mr Goh said the government faces some serious challenges ahead such as addressing the constraints of space and the limits of an ageing and shrinking citizen population.
There is also the need to meet the higher expectations of a well—educated young generation for better jobs, promising careers, affordable housing and comfortable lifestyles.
Thus, the White Paper is a strategic plan to find solutions to sustain growth and prosperity to benefit all Singaporeans.
Mr Goh said: "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."
Mr Goh said he is reassured that the population figure of 6.9 million is a planning parameter and not a target.
And instead on being fixated on the population figure, he urged for agreement on the broad approach laid out in the paper.
These include changing to a lower gear in economic growth and a calibrated slow—down in expansion of the non—resident workforce.
Mr Goh said the White Paper seeks to strike a balance, with the interests of Singaporeans and businesses in mind.
He said: "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 may have to rationalize their operations. Some may have to relocate. Affected Singaporean workers must be helped."
Mr Goh said continual economic restructuring is one of the enduring features of the Singapore Story.
And as Singapore is a price—taker in international economics and geopolitics, whether the country can continue to shape international developments to its advantage, is contingent on it remaining vibrant and successful.
He said foreign businesses in Singapore are watching the debate and the next steps to be taken closely.
Mr Goh said: "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 PM 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 tomorrow for them."
He added: "I applaud PM 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."
Mr Goh said the challenges face concern all Singaporeans and that Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong did the right thing to lay out the challenges in a transparent manner so that Singaporeans and debate and build consensus on their future.
"PM 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."
Mr Goh asked Singaporeans to read the White Paper together with the many programmes that the government is rolling out to meet the needs of Singaporeans.
And together, he said, they formed the strategic plan to make lives better for all Singaporeans.
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