Singaporeans Plan Protest as Lawmakers Debate on Population

Singaporeans are planning a protest next week against the government’s projection of an increase in the island’s population by as much as 30 percent by 2030, as Parliament debated the country’s demographics for a third day.

More than 1,100 people said on a Facebook page that they will or may join the demonstration on Feb. 16 at Speakers’ Corner at the edge of the city’s financial district. About 9,300 have also “liked” another page that calls for a stand against the government and “Say ‘No’ to an Overpopulated Singapore.”

An influx of immigrants has eroded the popularity of Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong’s ruling party as infrastructure strains and record-high housing and transport costs add to public discontent. The administration has outlined plans for a population of 6.9 million by the end of the next decade with Singaporeans, including new citizens, making up one of every two people on the island smaller in size than New York City.

“The new population policy is anti-Singaporean and it threatens our existence and livelihoods,” Gilbert Goh, the organizer of the protest who runs a non-governmental group to help unemployed citizens, said in an interview. “Singaporeans will be the minority by 2030. We want to show our displeasure.”

Demonstrations in Singapore are rare as the government has strict controls on assemblies and speeches, limiting outdoor protests to locations such as Speakers’ Corner. Authorities say such laws help maintain social stability in a country that was wracked by communal violence between ethnic Malays and Chinese in the 1960s. More than 30 bus drivers from China were arrested or deported after staging an illegal strike in November.

Population Jump

The number of people in Singapore has jumped by more than

1.1 million to 5.3 million since mid-2004, stoking social tensions as the government used immigration to make up for a low birth rate.

In a white paper called “A Sustainable Population for a Dynamic Singapore” published Jan. 29, the government said it will take in between 15,000 and 25,000 new citizens and grant about 30,000 permanent-resident permits annually.

Members of Parliament started a debate on the report on Feb. 4, with Deputy Prime Minister Teo Chee Hean seeking endorsement from lawmakers on the proposal. Teo said the 6.9 million projection is for infrastructure planning purposes, and not a target authorities are aiming for.

‘Sinking Ship’

The white paper is the government’s plan to forestall an “impending crisis” resulting from demographic challenges such as an aging population and a shrinking workforce, former Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong said in Parliament today. Singapore’s first cohort of baby boomers turned 65 last year, and its number of elderly will triple to 900,000 by 2030, according to the National Population and Talent Division.

“Unlike our previous crises, our demographic challenge unfolds imperceptibly over one or two decades like a slow, sinking ship,” he said. “Yet it is urgent, in that we need to decide how to act to right the ship.”

Singapore is the third-most expensive Asian city to live in and the sixth globally, according to an Economist Intelligence Unit ranking of 131 cities around the world published this week.

Lee is under pressure to placate voters without disrupting the entry of talent and labor that helped forge Southeast Asia’s only advanced economy. In a city with 3.3 million citizens and 2 million foreigners, complaints about overseas workers depriving locals of jobs and driving up home prices helped opposition parties win record support in the 2011 general election.

‘Political Price’

Since then, Lee’s People’s Action Party has lost two by-elections. The government “paid a political price” with the infrastructure strains as a result of a bigger population, the prime minister said last week. Still, his party holds 80 of 87 seats in Parliament, suggesting the white paper will be endorsed by the legislative body.

“We fully understand the concerns of Singaporeans of feeling displaced in their own country,” Grace Fu, a minister in the Prime Minister’s Office, said in Parliament yesterday. “We will continue to take a measured approach in taking in immigrants who can contribute and integrate well into our society.”

Protest organizer Goh, 51, said he expects more than 1,000 people to join the Feb. 16 event and has received permission from the National Parks Board to use the 0.94 hectare (2.3 acres) ground. Speakers’ Corner in Hong Lim Park, the venue of political rallies in the 1950s and 1960s, was modeled on the section of London’s Hyde Park traditionally set aside for free speech.

“We want to show the government that there is a consolidated voice against its population growth policy,” said Goh, who isn’t affiliated with any political parties after an unsuccessful run as an opposition candidate in the 2011 poll. “We want them to hear us, but I doubt if they will.”

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