Governance of a City-State
Let’s Put Some Colour Into S’pore’s Population Roadmap

By Christopher Gee and Yap Mui Teng

The National Population and Talent Division (NPTD)’s much-awaited publication of the White Paper entitled “A Sustainable Population for a Dynamic Singapore” is billed as a roadmap of the government’s long-term population strategies.  The White Paper is now to be debated in Parliament, following which enabling policies may emerge from various ministries and agencies to implement the strategies.

The headline-grabbing population projections (a population range of 6.5-6.9million estimated by 2030, of which 2.3-2.5million would be non-permanent resident foreigners) have the undesirable effect of focusing undue attention on figures that are dependent on assumptions and a range of interactions that are not pre-determined, nor cast in stone.  These numbers make it all too easy for us to impose our current living conditions on a set of extrapolated numbers for Singapore’s future, possibly magnifying in our mind’s eye the congestion and contestation we experience today.

We believe the debate should now move swiftly to filling in that which is not spelled out explicitly in the White Paper.

First, the primary strategies spelled out in the White Paper by which our Singaporean core can be maintained are concentrated on marriage and parenthood initiatives, as well as integrating new immigrants into society.  Efforts to maintain, and perhaps even  enhance, our Singaporean core population need to go beyond numbers, and defining what it means to be a part of this core: our shared values, our common rights and obligations, our national identity.  This process will not just be for new immigrants, but also for all Singaporeans, irrespective of origin.

Second, the economic imperatives set out in the White Paper are based on considerations of the diminishing size of the workforce and underpinned by a fear that our steadily greying population would lose “vitality and verve”.  Improving labour force participation rates and productivity are discussed in the White Paper as possible measures to counter the impact of population ageing.

The proposed productivity growth of 2-3% per annum over the current decade has been described by some as an ambitious stretch target.  This may not be so if Total Factor Productivity is considered, with an appropriate balance taken in the sharing of returns to labour, land and capital.  Moreover, whilst the addition of part-time or flexible workers may adversely affect labour productivity metrics, the overall improvement to society’s well-being as a result of that added income generated should not be ignored in the calculus.

Efforts to raise participation rates at both ends of the age spectrum can also improve aggregate productivity – although boosting the participation rates amongst the elderly has been oft-discussed and is consistent with an active ageing philosophy and should offset the loss of vitality, much less is discussed about reversing declining labour force participation amongst the young.  Educational expansion and extension are generally taken to be positive trends, but over-investment in education by individuals and society can lead to substantial opportunity costs which if avoided, could boost labour’s contribution to Singapore’s output.

Third, the White Paper’s discussion of ensuring a high quality living environment focuses on Singapore’s physical infrastructure.  We would like to propose that the development of the social infrastructure and social capital aspects of our future living conditions need to be filled in to complete the picture.  The institutions, norms and behaviours that will make Singapore a truly liveable city-state and allow a diverse, heterogeneous mix of people to live, work and play together are just as requisite as the physical, tangible components of where we live.

The White Paper provides us with a basic roadmap of Singapore’s future population strategies.  We now need to put some colour into this roadmap, and starting up the physical and social vehicles that are necessary to get us to our destination.


Editor’s note: For more information on population issues, you can also read the presentations from the CSC-IPS Roundtable on Singapore’s Demographic Challenges in May 2012 here.

Headline picture from White Paper: A Sustainable Population For A Dynamic Singapore.

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