There are no simple answers to the complex issue of Singapore's population size and make-up, People's Action Party (PAP) organising secretary Ng Eng Hen acknowledged yesterday.
But in a response to Workers' Party (WP) East Coast GRC candidate Daniel Goh's criticism of the Government, he said the issue was not simply about the overall population number. It was also about what trade-offs Singaporeans were willing to accept given the slower growth of the local workforce and lower fertility rate.
His comments yesterday followed those of Dr Goh, who said the Government should stop sending mixed signals about its immigration policy, and clarify if its projection of 6.9 million by 2030 stands.
Echoing the WP's view, he said the Government should also stop focusing on using immigration to drive economic growth and look instead to boosting the quality of the Singaporean workforce. Referring to the 2013 Population White Paper, which projected the population could grow to 6.9 million by 2030, Dr Goh called for scrapping the use of population figures as planning parameters.
"I don't think there is a need to commit to any number. That is precisely the point. (Manpower Minister Lim Swee Say) said, and I agree with him - don't focus on the quantity, focus on the quality of the workforce," the WP candidate said at a walkabout at Bedok South.
And this quality, he said, should come from Singaporeans.
His team is contesting East Coast GRC against a PAP team led by Mr Lim. In his comments, Dr Goh said that since the Population Paper was debated in 2013, Mr Lim has reiterated that the Government has cooled the pace of immigration.
"So the question is, is the 6.9 million (population) planning parameter still valid? Why is it still there if you're cutting back on foreign manpower?" asked Dr Goh, an associate professor of sociology at the National University of Singapore.
The issue of population has been raised at election rallies of opposition parties. Each has criticised the 6.9 million figure, which they see as a target, although the authorities have made clear that the figure is the top end of a forecasted population.
WP chief Low Thia Khiang also did so, saying the party had asked for a slowing of the influx of foreign workers during the debate in Parliament, to stop Singaporeans from facing unfair competition for jobs.
In separate comments yesterday after a walkabout in Bishan-Toa Payoh, Dr Ng took issue with the tendency of opposition parties to "bang away" at a single issue - such as population - hoping "to rile up anger" without considering its inherent trade-offs.
"The trade-off is how do you accept slower growth when your local workforce will stop growing by 2020, after 2020? And when your fertility rate is down, what are the trade-offs?" he said.
"We can accept 1 to 3 per cent growth and we want to be more productive. But that requires... economic restructuring. So we can't only look at the population as a whole.
"You also have to look at what proportion of your workforce is ageing, what proportion will retire, what proportion can support your ageing population - and you have to ask yourselves, who do we get to man our nursing homes, take care of our elderly, build our homes, help our mothers take care of their children at home, drive the economy?"
He noted that businesses have been squeezed as foreign labour inflows have been tightened over the years, resulting in job losses for Singaporeans as firms struggle with higher costs. "These are not simple questions that you can 'sloganeer' away. You have to deal with really hard issues and ask ourselves really difficult questions," Dr Ng said.
"But I am confident that if the Government works with the people, we can find a balance that Singaporeans can live with."