21 October 2012

Population — Why Stop At 6.5 Million?

In February 2007, we learnt that the Government was laying the groundwork for a population of 6.5 million, a target that could be reached within 20 years.  We were told that the Government wasn't aiming for 6.5 million, but that number was a planning parameter which would form the basis of Singapore's development plans for housing, recreation and land transport.
The population then was 4.4 million (June 2006), comprising 3.1 million citizens, 0.4 million permanent residents (i.e., foreign nationals who have been granted the privilege of long-term stay in Singapore with quasi-citizenship benefits) and 0.9 million non-residents.  That is, 70.6 per cent citizens, or roughly 7 citizens to 3 foreigners.

The previous planning parameter of 5.5 million, set out in Concept Plan 2001, was already in danger of being exceeded.  It was supposed to be a planning parameter, not a target.

Then-Minister for National Development Mah Bow Tan said that it was crucial to plan and invest for the future.  Otherwise, precious business opportunities would be lost if potential investors found insufficient land and infrastructure for their needs.  Nevertheless, he tried to assure us that Singapore would not be bursting at the seams.

However, in January 2008, then-Minister Mentor (and former Prime Minister) Lee Kuan Yew said that he had not quite been sold on the idea of a 6.5 million population size in Singapore.  Saying that it was necessary to preserve the open spaces and the sense of comfort, he projected an optimum population size of 5.0 to 5.5 million.

By mid-2012, the population had grown to 5.3 million, comprising 3.3 million citizens, 0.5 million permanent residents and 1.5 million non-residents.  61.8 per cent citizens, or about 3 citizens to 2 foreigners.

Although the Government has tried to assure us that it would calibrate immigrant and foreign worker inflow, many people believe that we are moving inexorably toward the planning parameter of 6.5 million population.  And, probably sooner rather than later.

What will happen when the population reaches 6.5 million?  How will the economy grow from that point forward?  Will the Government tell us that the country cannot accommodate any more people and every iota of GDP growth must come from productivity growth?

Or, will the Government tell us that the country can — and must — accommodate yet more immigrants and foreign workers because we need to grow the economy for the same reasons as it has been giving us all these years — for example, we cannot afford to fall behind and must stay ahead, foreigners create good jobs for Singaporeans, the old-age support ratio is rising, the State needs the tax revenue to provide social services and infrastructure, etc.?

And what simpler and easier way to grow the economy than by adding more immigrants and foreign workers?  Not citizens, because many citizens simply do not want to raise enough children to replace themselves in such an unforgiving environment and because there is a lag time of two decades from birth before a citizen is old enough to join the labour force (although the Ministry of Manpower includes all economically active residents 15 years and old in the labour force).

7.0 million?

What will happen when the population reaches 7.0 million?

It has to stop somewhere.  Everyone knows this.  Well, almost everyone.  There is a finite limit to the population that Singapore with its finite land area can accommodate.

Some city planners imagine, probably wishfully, that new ways may or will be found in the future to pack more people more efficiently and more effectively on a small island (just like semiconductor technology enables the number of components on an integrated circuit to double every 18 months), but do they empathise with the plight of citizens caught in the squeeze with nowhere to go?  They seem to forget that people need to commute between their homes and their work places daily and that they need space for recreation, healthcare, shopping, meals, education and institutional detention.  Unlike the wealthy, who will live and play in their enclaves or overseas, away from the maddening and oppressive over-crowding that most ordinary citizens have to endure and suffer every day.  Land reclamation is possible, but will be increasingly limited, increasingly challenging, increasingly expensive and increasingly slower.

What about the impact of such an environment on our total fertility rate, which has declined so much for so long that the future of the country may be threatened?  For whom will the wealth that the State has amassed benefit?

If we can (and must) stop further immigrant and foreign worker inflow when the population is 6.5 million or 7.0 million, why can't we stop when the population is 5.3 million or 5.0 million?

It is easier and less painful — and there is no doubt that it will be painful — to stop now, for at least two reasons.

First, the citizen core — 61.8 per cent of the population now — will likely shrink further in the future, and we be even more dependent on immigrants and foreign workers for their economic contribution and tax revenue then.

Second, some businesses survive here only by virtue of the availability of cheap (or cheaper) foreign workers.  They may be forced to close or relocate overseas.  The earlier they face the reality, the better.

Why do we subject ourselves to increasing stress and an stifling environment in order to accommodate more and more immigrants and foreign workers?

Why are we straining, or spending billions of dollars to expand, the infrastructure to accommodate more and more immigrants and foreign workers?

Who really benefits when the economy grows at a faster rate, rather than a sensible, moderate and sustainable rate, especially when it is fuelled by liberal immigration and foreign worker inflow?

Of what use are budget surpluses and national reserves if the citizen population stops growing or worse, shrinks?

Somewhere, sometime, somehow, the country must demonstrate the courage and the will to face the reality and say that enough is enough.

Isn't the time now?

1 comment:

  1. Re "Why do we subject ourselves to increasing stress and an stifling environment in order to accommodate more and more immigrants and foreign workers?
    Why are we straining, or spending billions of dollars to expand the infrastructure to accommodate more and more immigrants and foreign workers?"

    A total lack of ideas to grow the economy in other ways except thru population numbers?
    The lack of foresight to see that down the road we'll need more pple to support more pple?
    The inability to understand that no one wants to live nor set up business in an over-crowded place where things cost a bomb?
    A devious desire to eventually "invade" the neighbour?
    A need to top a couple more lists viz the most crowded country on the planet, and the country with the most foreigners?