SINGAPORE -- A terse exchange in a Singaporean election debate has brought simmering tensions over immigration to the surface, forcing the ruling People's Action Party to fend off opposition claims that it wants a dramatic increase in foreign workers.
The spat broke out during a televised debate Wednesday night, when the chief of the opposition Singapore Democratic Party suggested that Deputy Prime Minister Heng Swee Keat had entertained the idea of nearly doubling the city-state's population to 10 million, from 5.7 million as of June 2019.
"Singaporeans are deadly worried about this proposal," the SDP's Chee Soon Juan said, addressing the PAP's representative in the discussion, Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan. "Will you categorically tell Singaporeans right now that your party has no intention of raising our population to 10 million by continuing to bring in foreigners, especially foreign PMETs into Singapore, to compete with our PMETs for jobs?"
PMET stands for professionals, managers, engineers and technicians.
"That's a cheap shot Dr. Chee," Balakrishnan, a debater in his school days, fired back over objections from his rival. "Let me state for the record: We will never have 10 million. We won't even have 6.9 million. The government doesn't have a target for the population. What we want is a Singapore core that is demographically stable, able to reproduce ourselves, able to create opportunities and jobs for ourselves."
Chee, however, struck a nerve just ahead of the July 10 election.
"We have got to stop this foolishness of continuing to bring in foreign workers, especially foreign PMETs," he also said in the debate. "We have more than 100,000 unemployed [PMETs] in Singapore at the moment."
Immigration and population growth have long been burning questions for tiny Singapore. Ministry of Manpower data shows there were over 1.42 million foreign workers on all types of permits at the end of last year. While the city-state has an aging base of locals, the idea of further supplementing the workforce with labor from abroad has proved touchy in elections before. The number 6.9 million stems from a government white paper's projection that stirred controversy in 2013, before an eventual revision.
Tempers may be running especially hot in this race to the polls, as the coronavirus pandemic pushes the economy toward an estimated 4% to 7% contraction for 2020.
On Wednesday night, the government rushed to post a response on its website, stating that it "has not proposed, planned nor targeted for Singapore to increase its population to 10 million." On Thursday, the Ministry of Manpower said there were only 39,000 unemployed PMETs, citing a figure for 2019.
Heng himself -- the man tipped to be prime minister when current leader Lee Hsien Loong steps down, likely in the next term -- weighed in on Facebook on Thursday.
He sought to clarify remarks he made last year in a discussion with students, which seemed to be the basis for Chee's argument. A report by the Straits Times newspaper said Heng had cited former chief planner Liu Thai Ker's view that Singapore would need 10 million people, while arguing that the nation should remain open.
"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," Heng wrote on Thursday.
"The government has never proposed or targeted for Singapore to increase its population to 10 million," he added. "And if we look at today's situation, our population is likely to be significantly below 6.9 million by 2030."
The firm denials raised the prospect that the government might even invoke its fake news law -- the Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act. It has refrained from doing so, but the National Population and Talent Division under the Prime Minister's Office on Wednesday warned that action may be taken against further publication of false claims about the population.
This did not stop the SDP from following up on Thursday with a statement titled "No to a 10 million population," in which it insisted that it did not invent nor imagine the number.
The SDP is not the only opposition group pressuring the PAP on immigration and employment. The Progress Singapore Party -- which has drawn plenty of attention over the membership of Prime Minister Lee's estranged brother, Lee Hsien Yang -- also hammered the point in the debate.
"The facts still remain that you have among us the 400-over-thousand numbers of foreign PMETs working here," said Francis Yuen, the PSP's representative.
"And the fact also remains that there are a number of our own PMETs that are out of jobs, to the tune of 100,000. So, logic would tell us that our own PMETs certainly could fill up some of the jobs," he continued, suggesting the government should repatriate "excess" foreign workers and have locals fill the vacancies.
Tied to the issue of jobs and income, the subject of inequality also came up in Wednesday's debate. The Workers' Party's Jamus Lim highlighted his camp's proposal for Singapore to introduce a minimum wage.
"It is really a crime that we see the elderly continue to feel that they have to work, in order to make ends meet," he said. "Elements like a minimum wage would actually help us move toward increasing social mobility."