12 February 2013

Population White Paper 2013 — The Real Objectives

Population White Paper 2013 — A Sustainable Population For A Dynamic Singapore was released on 29 January.  It was followed by Land Use Plan To Support Singapore's Future Population — A High Quality Living Environment For All Singaporeans on 31 January.  Both were debated in Parliament from 4 February to 8 February, and endorsed by Parliament in a 77-13-1 vote.

Inasmuch as Population White Paper 2013 is, as Deputy Prime Minister Teo Chee Hean said, the population road map to address the country's population challenge, it is surprising that the Government gave the Opposition and Nominated Members of Parliament less than a week to digest and debate the important issues therein.

Perhaps, the Government believed that the Opposition MPs had already more or less reached a position on this matter.

Perhaps, the Government knew that, regardless of whatever the Opposition and Nominated MPs and the public had to say on this matter, the Government had enough votes in Parliament to ensure that the motions would be endorsed if it did not lift the whip (it didn't, of course).

No Need For Population White Paper

There was no need for Population White Paper 2013 because there is nothing in the law that restrains the Government from allowing foreign worker inflow or the granting of citizenship or permanent residence.  Neither is there anything in the law that restrains the Government from spending on infrastructure, apart from the requirement that it obtain the President's consent for spending past reserves.

So what were the purposes of the White Paper?

Public Relations Exercise I
In the run-up to General Election 2011, the PAP Government sensed that the people were very angry (though probably not angry enough) about many things, one of which was the foreign worker inflow, which had resulted in an over-crowded living environment and competition for jobs.  So it tried to placate the people by telling them that foreign worker inflow would be calibrated.

I have written in an earlier article [here] that the concept of calibration is so subjective that almost no one really knows what it means.  It would not be surprising if foreign worker inflow is calibrated with an eye — perhaps, both eyes — on GDP growth, no different from what it had been in the past decade or more.

Labour is an important factor for businesses.  The foreign multinational companies that are courted by Economic Development Board became nervous.  The business federations and chambers of commerce became nervous.

Population White Paper 2013 can be seen as a public relations exercise to allay their concerns.

Public Relations Exercise II or Testing The Water

Despite assurances by the Government that foreign worker inflow would be calibrated, frustrations on the ground with the over-crowded environment persisted and festered.

Population White Paper 2013 proposed reducing the annual rate of labour force growth to between 1 per cent and 2 per cent up to 2020, and to about 1 per cent per annum to 2030.  The result would be a population of between 6.5 million and 6.9 million by 2030, with 6.9 million being used as a planning parameter for infrastructure development.  Economic growth will be slower than before.  Population growth will be slower than before.  Wouldn't the public be pleased?

But Population White Paper 2013 was not well received by many people.

First, it was almost incomprehensible that foreign worker inflow would continue before the current over-crowding problems have been resolved.

Second, why 6.9 million, when it's already so over-crowded with 5.3 million?

Third, whither the Singapore core if citizens comprise only 55 per cent of the population, and many citizens are newly naturalised?

The sentiment was best summed up by Nominated Member of Parliament Eugene Tan who said, "The White Paper is disappointing in that, to all intents and purposes, it presents us with only one option.  That in order to have the requisite economic growth levels by 2020 and 2030, we need to have a certain requisite population...  The White Paper has, unwittingly highlighted the vulnerability and fear factor since it presents, depending on your vantage point, the best or worst options...  It reminds me of... [a] slogan: That There is No Alternative.  How do we create a sustainable and dynamic population and Singapore if we take that as our starting point?"[1]

It was a losing battle for the hearts and minds of the public right from the start.  Economic growth is largely intangible to most people 
— something that allows the wealthy to become more wealthy; what matters is that one's wages increase, and increase more quickly than the cost of living.  Population growth is tangible, especially when many people are still experiencing, and fuming over, the effects of rapid immigration over the past decade.

It led the Government to defend the 6.9 million figure.  It was a worst-case scenario, not a target.  Eventually, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said, "I believe that the total population should be significantly below 6.9 million, and beyond 2030, in the very long term, it should not increase beyond that.  So the final number should be significantly below 6.9 million.  That is something for a future generation to decide."

Finally, the motion to endorse "'A Sustainable Population for a Dynamic Singapore' as the population policy road map to address Singapore's demographic challenge..." was amended to "'A Sustainable Population for a Dynamic Singapore' as the road map to address Singapore's demographic challenge..."[3]

Does this mean that the population targets up to 2020 — a citizen population of between 3.5 million and 3.6 million; taking in 15,000 to 25,000 new citizens every year; granting permanent residence to about 30,000 individuals every year, to maintain the permanent resident population at between 0.5 million and 0.6 million; and growing the labour force between 1 per cent and 2 per cent a year — were endorsed?[4]

PM Lee and DPM Teo tried to tell the public that the conversation on population did not stop with the motion in Parliament and should, and must, continue.  Did it matter 
— was the Government listening to opposing or dissenting opinions during the Parliament debate?

The Government doesn't get it.  Two days after the debate ended, PM Lee said the Government could have done better in presenting Population White Paper 2013 to the public.  But it wasn't just the presentation; it was the substance that really bothered the people.

If Population White Paper 2013 was meant to be a public relations exercise or an exercise to test how far the public would accept proposed population targets, especially those involving immigration (including foreign worker inflow), it not only failed miserably but also intensified the frustrations and bitterness and heightened the polarisation of the people.

It didn't help that Population White Paper 2013 described nursing as a low-skilled job.  It was rectified by way of a corrigendum issued on the last day of the Parliament debate.  Following that, Ministry of Health's Director of Medical Services K Satkunanantham expressed his appreciation for nurses.


Having got the expected endorsement from Parliament, which it controls by a comfortable margin, the Government will embark on developing the infrastructure to accommodate 6.9 million people by 2030.  How will the multi-billion dollar budget for extensive land reclamation and doubling the rail transport network be funded?  Logically, past reserves should be drawn upon to increase the country's land area in order to support future economic growth.  But I suspect the budget will likely be funded by current taxes, not past reserves.

People should brace themselves for a rise in GST rates, since the Government seems extremely averse to raising income tax rates that will impact the upper income individuals.

When Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Finance Tharman Shanmugaratnam told Parliament last March that the Government would have to find new ways to raise revenues after 2016, he might not have realised how much more revenues the Government would have to raise in the light of these developments.  Hopefully, he will not bring forward his revenue-raising measures.

What if People's Action Party does not form the Government after the next general election?  Will the incoming Government continue with the principles outlined in Population White Paper 2013?  Will it be forced to continue with the infrastructure development contracts that have already been entered into, and consequently raise taxes?  If it doesn't want to raise taxes, will the President agree to use the reserves?



1. Debate on Population White Paper TODAY 9 Feb 2013.

2. White Paper Could Have Better Presented: PM Lee TODAY 12 Feb 2013.

3. The original motion

That this House endorses Paper Cmd. 1 of 2013 on "A Sustainable Population for a Dynamic Singapore" as the population policy road map to address Singapore's demographic challenge, and Paper Misc. 1 of 2013 on "A High Quality Living Environment for all Singaporeans" as the land use plan to support Singapore's future population.

The amended motion
That this House endorses Paper Cmd. 1 of 2013 on "A Sustainable Population for a Dynamic Singapore" as the road map to address Singapore's demographic challenge, and Paper Misc. 1 of 2013 on "A High Quality Living Environment for all Singaporeans" as the land use plan to support Singapore's future population projections; and supports maintaining a strong Singaporean core by encouraging more Singaporeans to get married and have children, supplemented by a calibrated pace of immigration to prevent the citizen population from shrinking; and recognises that the population projections beyond 2020 are for the purpose of land use and infrastructure planning, and not a population target; and calls on the Government to:

(a) place priority on resolving current strains on the infrastructure, particularly in transport;

(b) plan, invest in, and implement infrastructure development ahead of demand;

(c) ensure that the benefits of our population policies, such as better job opportunities and salaries, flow to Singaporeans; and

(d) carry out medium term reviews of our population policies and assumptions to take into account the changing needs of Singapore and Singaporeans, as well as changing domestic and external circumstances.

4. On the one hand, "population policy road map to address Singapore's demographic challenge" was amended to "policy road map to address Singapore's demographic challenge".  On the other hand, "the population projections beyond 2020 are for the purpose of land use and infrastructure planning, and not a population target" implies that the population projections up to 2020 are a population target.


  1. Yes, agree that this white paper is a criminal waste of trees. They have already increased the population from 3 million to 5.3 million without any toilet, oops, white paper. So, why now?

  2. Thank you for the info. It sounds pretty user friendly. I guess I’ll pick one up for fun.

    thank u...

    Calibration Singapore