SINGAPORE (Reuters) - The Singapore government unveiled a master plan on Sunday to double capacity at Southeast Asia’s busiest airport, build a new waterfront city, move its massive port and relocate a military airbase to free up land for development.
The plan announced by Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong follows mounting discontent in one of the world’s wealthiest nations over an influx of foreign workers and expatriates blamed for a range of problems - from strained infrastructure to among the highest living costs in Asia.
In an annual National Day address, Lee sought to allay those fears, elaborating on a trove of long-term plans that appear intended to counter a growing voter backlash against the People’s Action Party (PAP) that has ruled Singapore for more than half a century.
These include changes to Singapore’s health-care and education systems, and the move of its port - the world’s second-busiest hub for container shipping - to a new location in Tuas in western Singapore from 2027. That would free up land in Tanjong Pagar, next to the central business district, for a sprawling new waterfront city, Lee said.
He also unveiled plans for a fourth runway at Changi Airport, Southeast Asia’s busiest. This will allow the government to move a military airbase in central Singapore to Changi after 2030 and free up 800 hectares (1,980 acres) of land for homes, factories and businesses.
“This is how we can stay the hub in Southeast Asia and create many more opportunities for Singaporeans,” he said, citing competition from Kuala Lumpur and Bangkok.
Lee’s speech seemed intended to show voters that Singapore under the PAP will evolve well beyond the era of his father, the 89-year-old Lee Kuan Yew, the country’s founder prime minister. The elder Lee’s stern and technocratic policies are credited with turning Singapore from a colonial outpost in the 1960s into a flourishing financial center with clean streets and the world’s highest concentration of millionaires.
A new generation has begun to openly question the ruling party’s wisdom, clamoring for more say in the country’s direction.
Online forums bristle with criticism of government plans announced in January to lift the population of 5.3 million by as much as 30 percent by 2030, mostly through foreign workers to offset a low birth rate. This has sparked debate over how many people can fit onto an island half the size of London and how much the national identity will be diluted.
The younger Lee’s speech might help appease worries that the island is running out of space.
Changi Airport, a base for Singapore Airlines Ltd, operates two runways but can take over a third now being used by the military. A fourth runway will be used by the air force, allowing the military to shut its airbase in the central region of Paya Lebar.
Lee spent the bulk of his three-hour speech addressing concerns about housing, schools and healthcare -- hot-button issues that contributed to the PAP’s worst-ever result in 2011 general elections.
Lee said prices would not be cut for new Housing and Development Board (HDB) apartments -- subsidized homes where the bulk of the population live. But more grants would be provided to help lower- and middle-income Singaporeans buy new homes.
“I will make sure that every Singaporean who is working can afford an HDB flat,” Lee said.
The prime minister also said a state-administered health insurance plan, offered by local insurers Great Eastern Holdings Ltd and NTUC Income, will be extended to cover people as long as they live, up from the current cap of 90 years.
People will have to pay higher premiums, but the government will assist those who would have difficulty such as the elderly.
Additional reporting by Eveline Danubrata; Editing by Jason Szep and Raju Gopalakrishnan