THE greater threat that Singapore faces is stagnation, ageing and shrinkage, not the threat of the population potentially growing to 6.9 million, said Minister for the Environment and Water Resources Vivian Balakrishnan on Monday evening.
He warned that fundamental challenges lay ahead for Singapore, citing as examples climate change, global competition - especially from China and India - and disruptive technologies that could wipe out jobs and production lines.
Singapore is also one of the fastest ageing societies in the world, and has what could be one of the fastest shrinking populations, he pointed out. "Our population will never go much beyond six million because if your fertility is low and your economy is not booming and people don't want to come, you don't have the problem of having to worry about 6.9 (million)," he said at the PAP rally in Commonwealth Avenue.
A population White Paper unveiled in 2013 had cited a population size of 6.9 million by 2030 for Singapore, stoking a flurry of concern about overcrowding. The figure has since been used by the opposition during these hustings to hit out at the government.
Dr Balakrishnan and the People's Action Party (PAP) team contesting the Holland-Bukit Timah group representation constituency (GRC) argued that the proposals put up by their challengers, a team from the opposition Singapore Democratic Party (SDP), would not work.
Dr Balakrishnan said the social welfare system promoted by some opposition parties was a failed model and "a route to disaster"; such a system has always meant imposing high taxes, especially on the middle class.
More dangerously, the problem with such a system is that when the population growth eventually slows down or shrinks, the system will go bankrupt - as is already happening in some European countries.
On the other hand, he said, the Singapore model was one where "we look after people who need help, but we do it on the basis of personal and family responsibility - we save, we take insurance and we do targeted subsidies"; this ensures that people who need help get it, and the reserves are not raided.
Dr Balakrishnan, turning to some opposition parties' suggestion that Central Provident Fund (CPF) monies be returned at age 55 instead of 65, argued that as Singaporeans were living longer, the best way to obtain pension was to buy into an annuity.
And on health care, he said Singapore has sought to balance the three key dimensions of quality, cost and access to it. No country in the world had a perfect system, he said: in the UK, health care is free but entails a long wait; in the US, cost is high and access, not universal.
Singapore's model, with Medishield Life kicking in on Nov 1, will offer full access to high-quality health care at reasonable cost, he said. The system could be improved, he said, but the opposition parties were pushing to dismantle a model that worked.
PAP candidate Liang Eng Hwa, Dr Balakrishnan's team-mate, took issue with the SDP's proposal of a minimum wage, pointing out that paying higher than market wages to all foreign workers would raise costs for businesses and households.
He also said that SDP candidates had "no interest to hear ground concerns of residents", but were only seeking the glamour of entering Parliament to make speeches. "We cannot have our MPs who are lazy in walking the ground, and only interested in making speeches," he said.
PAP candidate Christopher de Souza, referring to the SDP's proposal to cut Singapore's defence budget by close to half, said the move would compromise Singapore's security and "jeopardise Singapore's sovereignty".
The fourth candidate on the PAP slate for the GRC, Sim Ann, Minister of State, Ministry of Education & Ministry of Communications and Information, said that SDP's proposal to abolish the open market for public housing would mean that Singaporeans would not be able to benefit from rising property prices as they have been doing in the last 50 years.
Comments made by SDP candidate Paul Tambyah about Deputy Prime Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam during the lunch-time rally on Monday drew flak from several PAP members last evening. Prof Tambyah had said that many in alternative parties were hoping that Mr Tharman would one day have a falling out with Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong and emerge as leader of a grand coalition of opposition parties.
Dr Balakrishnan said: "This reveals the mentality, the mindset and attitude they have on politics. I just have one message to send to the SDP - in the PAP, we do not have a tradition of backstabbing our mentors."