The main thrust of the white paper appears to be a discussion on the proposed role of immigration in solving Singapore’s pending demographic problem. For such a long-awaited and crucial government planning document, it is unfortunately an extreme disappointment – light on detailed analysis and justification with regards to too many factors and assumptions. In fact the attention to detail at times is so lacking that it is hard to interpret the document as what it claims to be – a “population white paper” – and in fact easier to see it as a lazy blue print for unsustainable economic growth instead.
For example, the most obvious questions regarding Singapore’s future population revolve around our total fertility rate (TFR). Firstly – why is Singapore’s TFR so low? I have read every page of the white paper and this question is not even asked let alone answered. Secondly – what should we do to increase our TFR? The white paper devotes one short paragraph out of its 78 pages to this question:
“Raising Singapore’s birth rate is also critical to maintaining our strong Singaporean core and addressing our demographic challenge. This requires the community, employers, families and individual Singaporeans to make the right choices and decisions, collectively and individually.”
It is interesting to note that this, the only paragraph in the white paper which describes raising Singapore’s birth rate, makes no mention of the role the government should play. Community, employers, families and individuals all have a role to play, but apparently not the government. It is hard to believe that this oversight does not stem from a deliberate decision not to ask the previous question regarding why Singapore has such a low TFR. Many would blame the government for the high cost of living, difficulty and delays in buying a home and the extremely long working hours many suffer in a struggle to make ends meet. Many would therefore also look to the government to rectify these problems with a view to improving Singapore’s TFR, but it seems the government will not be forthcoming.
In defence of the white paper it does present a list of government social policies broadly in support of family life and child raising. However these appear to stand somewhat alone from the rest of the white paper, almost as an afterthought. The role these policies play in solving Singapore’s demographic challenges, the intent or otherwise of the government to support our TFR, any suggestions for future family planning policies to reduce Singapore’s dependency on foreign workers by encouraging more births are all questions which again go completely unasked.
This lack of rigour in failing to ask, let alone answer, the most important demographic questions is one of the main reasons why I state above that it is hard to interpret the paper as what it claims to be – a “population white paper”.
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So what does the white paper talk about? The main metrics it appears to rely on are population, productivity and GDP. From the executive summary:
“Up to 2020, if we can achieve 2% to 3% productivity growth per year (which is an ambitious stretch target), and maintain overall workforce growth at 1% to 2%, then we can get 3% to 5% GDP growth on average.”
and in the next paragraph
“We may see GDP growth of between 2% and 3% per year from 2020 to 2030.”
I feel these points are key to understanding the true premise of the white paper. GDP appears to be described as a goal, something to be achieved. The equation can be seen as population + productivity = GDP. Population, supposedly the driving force of this paper, is in fact just an input, and GDP is the result. One only has to have the most cursory understanding of Singaporean politics to know that the PAP love few things more than GDP growth. It appears therefore to me that the document is merely an excuse to use Singapore’s upcoming demographic challenges as justification for fueling GDP growth by expanding the population of workers. In fact many (including a Nobel prize winning economist) have commented recently that this has been the governments sole economic policy for some time now.
Of course the white paper tries to avoid presenting itself in these terms. It presents various other parameters and observations in support of the hypothesis that demographics are driving the population and thus immigration aspects of government policy. Below I will analyse some of these, attempt to show that they do not hold water in a convincing fashion and encourage the reader to discard them. If they are to be discarded, the conclusion I suggest we are left with is the one I describe above, that the white paper is using the goal of GDP growth to drive population and, indirectly, immigration targets.
First of all let us talk of calibration – are the solutions presented by the white paper aligned to really solve the problems it warns us of? The white paper purports to be driven by pressing demographic changes – it talks of a “turning point in 2012” when the first cohort of baby boomers turned 65 and suggests that we need to act now. The paper also speaks of a decline in working age citizens from 2020 and a decline in the citizen population itself from 2025. The paper further warns us:
“These significant demographic issues will quickly be upon us. We need to take action early, so that we can address them in a measured and calibrated way”
Clearly there is a multifaceted demographic challenge facing Singapore, which has already begun, and which will continue over the next seven to twelve years and beyond. But in response to this multifaceted challenge, the white paper presents only very blunt answers – workforce growth of between 1% and 2% per year until 2020 and around 1% from 2020 to 2030. 15-25k new citizens per year. 30k new PRs per year. Where are the projections, the alignment, the calibration? Why not defuse the demographic time bomb by matching immigration to projected population trends? The white paper actually alludes to the challenge not being quite so immediate – our citizen workforce is in fact still growing today, and will continue to grow until 2020. So why not calibrate, and start from a much lower baseline of immigration today and increase the number over time as growing numbers of our workforce move into retirement? Why a blanket number of new citizens every year? If we will only see a decline in the citizen population after 2025, then why act now? Let us plan now, but plan to act in 2025 – if at that time we still believe that we need to grow the number of citizens, then we can. The white paper clearly tries to make all the right noises, but in looking at the details, we can see too many gaps. Does the white paper really aim to solve complex demographic challenges, without any calibration between cause and effect? Or is it actually a justification of existing and continuing policy – ultra liberal on immigration to support unproductive and inefficient industries in an attempt to keep Singapore’s GDP growing for some ill-defined reason?
Second let us talk of the lack of explanation – the white paper presents various concerns which it alleges to solve through immigration. But it doesn’t always explain whether the “problem” is really something that needs solving, or why immigration is even the answer. We can see this in the discussion of “support ratios”. As Singaporean society ages, we are told there will be less younger workers to support the aged. The paper tells us the support ratio today is 5.9 whereas in 2030 it will be 2.1. But there doesn’t seem to be any explanation of what is a sustainable support ratio for Singapore. Bizarrely the paper presents support ratios merely in terms of the citizen population, which is hugely disingenuous since Singapore already has a huge population of immigrant workers, and our support ratio values should be taken to be much higher. But what of the demographic challenge? Perhaps in Singapore a support ratio of 2.1 is perfectly manageable? The importance of a support ratio in society is typically to do with funding welfare spending and safety nets. In many countries, the public services provided to the elderly today are paid for from the taxes of today. In those countries, an aging population presents a significant challenge in terms of paying for more welfare for the elderly from a shrinking base of working taxpayers. Singapore is not one of those countries. The PAP’s aversion to welfare spending is known to all. Singaporeans are expected to look after themselves in old age and the large numbers of our elderly who sell tissues and collect cardboard is a reflection of this. So it is hard to imagine that lower support ratios are a significant challenge for Singapore, certainly not one that would justify ramping the population up to 6.9 million, when our current crop of foreign workers should be more than adequate. That the white paper even bothers to bring this up without suitable explanation or analysis is just frustrating, it could easily be seen as an attempt to convince people of the need for immigration when perhaps the need is not really there.
To conclude – for the reasons outlined above, it is hard to interpret the white paper as what it claims to be – a solution to upcoming demographic challenges through immigration – increasing the population to 6.9 million along the way to a dynamic Singapore. Rather, since the most important questions on Singaporean demographics have not been asked, let alone answered, the premise that demographics are driving this document is not well made out. Further, the government’s growth equation “population + productivity = GDP” reveals the true driving force behind this plan – that population is an input and GDP is the result, a result we all know the PAP craves. The inability of the document to calibrate its immigration solution to the complex, multifaceted nature of the upcoming demographic challenges facing Singapore betrays this reality – that GDP not demographics is driving the policy. Finally, when the paper does attempt to support itself with reference to demographics, specifically support ratios, the lack of analysis or explanation makes the argument wholly unconvincing. As many others have noted, I must too conclude. The “population white paper” is nothing of the sort, it is actually just a means to justify the PAP’s long-standing goal of maximizing GDP, and since the ruling party appears to have run out of ideas many years ago, they resort to the age-old tactic of increasing labour inputs.