News analysis

Singapore GE2020: That 10 million figure - When facts get in the way

Falsehoods repeated often enough can be perceived as the truth, and there is a risk this is happening in the general election.

The latest example is the slew of statements on social media platforms and online forums, echoed by several political parties, saying that the Government plans to increase the population to 10 million by bringing in more foreigners.

Some online commentators point to a Straits Times report of a dialogue Deputy Prime Minister Heng Swee Keat had with around 700 students at Nanyang Technological University last year.

Singapore Democratic Party (SDP) chief Chee Soon Juan cited the report at a televised debate on Wednesday night, claiming that Mr Heng had, in an interview, toyed with the idea of raising the population to 10 million - a charge that was refuted several times by Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan of the People's Action Party (PAP).

Dr Balakrishnan had categorically stated: "We will never have 10 million. We won't even have 6.9 million. The Government doesn't have a target for the population."

Shortly after the debate ended, Dr Chee put up a Facebook post with a link to the ST article.

He highlighted two paragraphs: "Singapore's population density is not excessive, he (DPM Heng) 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."

No ordinary reader of the article - let alone these sentences - would think that Mr Heng wants Singapore to plan for 10 million people.

For good measure, ST's report on the TV debate stated that Mr Heng did not say Singapore should plan for 10 million people - nor did he mention the figure.

Had he done so, it would have been the headline, and very likely on the front page.

Instead, the headline for the article was: "S'poreans must remain open to foreigners, says Heng". It was on page 10 of ST's print edition.​


SDP chief Chee Soon Juan said during a TV debate that Deputy Prime Minister Heng Swee Keat had toyed with the idea of raising the population to 10 million.
PHOTO: LIANHE ZAOBAO

The main point, captured in paragraphs preceding those cited above, reads: "The need for Singaporeans to have an open mindset and a multicultural outlook was one of his key messages at the two-hour forum, during which he was questioned on a raft of issues, including population growth, technological disruption and meritocracy.

"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."

Yet, as misperceptions about the matter continued to swirl on social media, Mr Heng had to come out to refute them strongly.

 
 
 
 

Yesterday morning, he made a Facebook post to state clearly that he did not say Singapore should plan to increase its population to 10 million, nor did he mention the figure.

He also released a brief video clip of this segment of the dialogue.

It is also worth noting the wider context in which the 10 million figure was first raised. The SDP noted that it is not an invention or something of the party's imagination.

But neither has the Government put out plans or targets for a Singapore with 10 million. Rather, the figure was floated by a retired public servant as something to consider for the long term, out of concern about Singapore's future and its ability to continue planning for the long term. It is a point worth thinking about as Singapore's politics becomes more contested.

Three months after the Population White Paper drew negative reactions from many quarters - in particular, over its projection that Singapore's total population could reach between 6.5 million and 6.9 million by 2030 - Mr Liu, former Housing Board chief executive, suggested that Singapore should actually plan for a more distant future if it is to remain a viable, liveable city.

At a public forum in April 2013 on the topic of planning for 2030, Mr Liu said: "The world doesn't end in 2030, and population growth doesn't end at 6.9 million."

ST reported him suggesting that Singapore could do well to look ahead, perhaps to 2100, when it might have a population of 10 million. Since Singapore's land area is essentially fixed, higher density is thus inevitable. But liveability can be preserved with adequate amenities and buffers of greenery.

 
 
 

Mr Liu repeated the figure in July 2014, saying Singapore should plan for a population of 10 million in the long term if it is to remain sustainable as a country. "The question is: How long do you want Singapore to exist as a sovereign state?" he said.

He also said that if projections were based on the upper limit of 6.9 million by 2030, Singapore could reach a population of 10 million by 2090. If it is based on the lower limit of 6.5 million, the population may reach 10 million by 2200.

We may never hit these numbers. And 2090 is 70 years away, while 2200 is 180 years away. In fact, recent trends ensure that Singapore's population will be significantly below 6.9 million in 2030.

But for some, these facts get in the way of a campaign slogan to sway voters.


What was actually said

MARCH 29, 2019

A Straits Times report, headlined "Heng Swee Keat on keeping Singapore open: We don't want a world where people build walls", on a dialogue that Deputy Prime Minister Heng Swee Keat had with Nanyang Technological University students, reads: "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."

Mr Heng neither said Singapore should plan for 10 million people - nor mentioned the figure.

JULY 1, 2020

The National Population and Talent Division, under the Prime Minister's Office (PMO), issues a clarification saying recent statements on various online platforms that the Government proposes or plans to increase the population in Singapore to 10 million are untrue.

It adds that an update on the population outlook, provided in Parliament in March 2018, said given recent trends, the total population is likely to be significantly below 6.9 million by 2030, and this outlook remains valid today.

In a televised general election debate, Singapore Democratic Party chief Chee Soon Juan says Mr Heng "toys with the idea of bringing our population up to 10 million", and asks Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan if he would categorically tell Singaporeans that his party has no intention of raising the population to 10 million by continuing to bring in foreigners.

Dr Balakrishnan replies that the PMO has just issued a statement advising people like Dr Chee not to indulge in falsehoods, saying: "The Government doesn't have a target for the population." Shortly after the debate ends, Dr Chee puts up a Facebook post with a link to the March 29, 2019, ST article. He writes: "Dr Vivian Balakrishnan said at the debate that my claim that Mr Heng Swee Keat was toying with the idea of a 10m population was a falsehood. Here's what ST reported on 29 Mar 2019..."

JULY 2 

Mr Heng makes a Facebook post noting that he did not say Singapore should plan to increase its population to 10 million, or mention the figure. "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," he writes.

Mr Heng also posts a video of his response on the subject at the forum, which shows him saying: "On the population issue, the 6.9 million number that was put out earlier on. In fact, I met Mr Liu Thai Ker, our former chief planner, he had publicly said - it has been reported in the papers - that we should go for an even higher number and 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 if you look at our population density as a city, it is not excessive. There are many cities which, if you look at the liveable space, it is actually a lot, a lot more crowded. But the population number is not just about physical space, it is also about the social space, it is about the sense of togetherness."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 03, 2020, with the headline 'That 10 million figure: When facts get in the way'. Print Edition | Subscribe