A Dynamic Population for a Sustainable Singapore: Reclaiming Back Singapore – Workers Party MP for Aljunied GRC, Sylvia Lim
This debate may be one of the most critical Parliament will have. It is not just about population. It is about nationhood, the meaning of being Singaporean, how we want to face the future as a country. It is about reclaiming back Singapore.
Since 1990, Singaporeans have been subject to drastic population increases in a short time. From a population of 3 million in 1990, we had 4 million in the year 2000, and in 2010, 5 million. The share of Singapore citizens now stands at 62%, meaning that out of every 10 people, nearly 4 are foreigners. Indigenous Singaporeans feel under siege, wondering what happened to the Singapore they grew up in and whether they have a place at the table.
The Workers’ Party does not endorse the White Paper on Population as the population policy roadmap to address Singapore’s demographic challenge. The roadmap proposed in the White Paper will further dilute our national identity; it will also place us on a course towards needing even larger population injections in the future, which we do not believe is sustainable. While we accept that trade-offs have to be made, we believe such trade-offs should be made in favour of the well-being of Singaporeans and not GDP targets. Let me elaborate.
What is a Singaporean “Core”?
A key plank of the White Paper is its claim that it is proposing to keep a Singaporean “core” in the roadmap. It is proposing that Singapore citizens form 55% of the population as at 2030, which is significantly down from the 62% currently. 55% is too close to the all important threshold of 50% majority. Furthermore, a closer reading will also show that this 55% includes new citizens. Singapore citizens are projected to make up 3.7 million at 2030. If we were to look at the number of new citizenships given out since 2004, and add the new citizenships to be given out from now till 2030, what % of the population would be Singaporeans who have grown up here? Wouldn’t this figure be below 50%? Is this what the government means by retaining a Singaporean “core”?
The White Paper states that “Singaporeans form the core of our society and the heart of the nation”, with the word “heart” printed in bold italics. It further states that “To be a strong and cohesive society, we must have a strong Singaporean core.” Madam Speaker, instant citizens can be Singaporean in name and have all citizenship rights, but for the Singapore core to be strong, the core must be strongly Singaporean in values, worldview, culture, sense of place and history, and network of friends and family. This can only be cultivated over time, in institutional settings such as schooling, national service and community service. A strong Singaporean core should be made up of Singaporeans who grow up in and with Singapore.
Therefore, the policy of “topping up” shortfalls in our total fertility rate (TFR) with younger immigrants to make up the Singaporean “core” is flawed. The fact is that we are already facing integration issues with the new citizens we have, with a government department looking into the matter. Madam, you yourself as a backbencher had raised concerns about how new citizenships were given out and whether tests should be instituted to ensure that the new citizens understood our way of life. Speaking personally, I count some new citizens as my friends; while they make good contributions to Singapore’s economy, I know they see Singapore through a different lens, and can equally make a decision to leave if the circumstances change.
Accordingly, we do not agree with the government’s definition of what constitutes a Singaporean “core”. Under the roadmap proposed, Singaporeans who grew up here would fall below 50%, which would change the character of Singapore forever.
Focus instead on TFR recovery
How then, should we ensure a Singaporean core in our population? In our view, the best way is to improve Singaporean total fertility rate (TFR). The government has invested somewhat in marriage and procreation incentives. However, so long as immigration remains the government’s key plank for population growth, the measures to improve TFR will remain half-hearted, since one can always resort to immigration top-ups.
Why is Singapore a global champion in low fertility rate? There are structural problems which have not been addressed. These include lack of work-life balance, escalating housing prices, the stressful education system and others. The government seems resigned that TFR is not within their power to raise, saying it “hopes” to reverse the trend. However, other governments have been more committed and have shown significant success in reversing declining fertility.
For instance, South Korea too was facing a low fertility rate. However, it has been successful in reversing the declining trend and its TFR recovered by 0.15 in 5 years, from 1.08 in 2005 to 1.23 in 2010. Instead of just “hoping”, the Korean government recognized that procreation was being discouraged not by individual choice but due to structural institutional factors. The Korean government then set explicit hard targets to remove institutional obstacles to boosting TFR. These targets centred on providing institutional support for family life and promoting gender equity within the family. The government tracked hard statistics such as reducing parents’ share of childrearing costs, increasing GDP share of family-related spending, promoting arrangements for mothers to continue working, and even encouraging fathers to share housework. The commitment and approach of the Korean government is worth study.
My colleagues will speak more about the TFR issue later in the debate.
Promoting Singaporean-Friendly Immigration
We are not against immigrants becoming Singaporeans per se. One way to do this in a natural, organic manner is to prioritise citizenships to those who marry Singaporeans. As noted in the White Paper, 40% of marriages today are between a Singaporean and a foreigner. These non-Singaporean spouses are much more likely to integrate and be committed to Singapore. They will interact with Singaporeans, and be parents of Singaporean children.
Currently, many Singaporeans apply repeatedly, year after year, for their foreign spouses to be given citizenship status. Many are on Long Term Visit Pass which makes employment very difficult. Has the government studied how far this pool of foreign spouses in Singapore is an untapped economic resource? Could this be a good alternative to bringing in more foreign labour?
Do we really need a population of up to 6.9 million?
Since the release of the White Paper last Tuesday, the public has been fixated on largely one issue – the prospect of Singapore having a population of 6.9 million. The government has justified the population growth projection largely due to its GDP targets. It is gunning for GDP growth of 3-4% from now to 2020, and 2-3% growth from 2020 to 2030. The government also justifies these targets by citing the aging population and the declining old-age support ratio.
The Workers’ Party does not endorse proceeding headlong into the government’s suggested path.
Underlying its plan is that population injections of that magnitude are required for a dynamic economy. The proposal has severe ramifications. First, the economy is but one aspect of the nation’s quality of life. To quote population expert, Frederick Meyerson, immigration is “essentially a one-way policy tool with permanent or long-term social, economic and environmental consequences, and it cannot be reversed without human rights violations” (Meyerson, F. (2001). Replacement Migration: A Questionable Tactic for Delaying the Inevitable Effects of Fertility Transition. Population and Environment, 22:4. 401-409.). Second, immigrants grow old and consume public services as well, adding to the burden of the national budget. Who will support them when they grow old? By that time, it may be very difficult to try to solve our population needs through improving TFR, but instead have another White Paper to justify bringing in even larger numbers of immigrants.
What about land resources? The implications of planning for 6.9 million on our land use is instructive, and worrying. If we follow the White Paper proposal, the land use data prepared by the Urban Redevelopment Authority shows how little room we would have left to move. Under the plan for a population of 6.9 million, we will use up significantly more land. From 2010 to 2030, we will consume much more of our land bank, leaving the balance land under the “Others” category down from 14% to just 4% for future generations to cope with.
In short, are we simply kicking a big can down the road for our grandchildren?
At this critical time, we urge calmness and caution. It is still not too late now to continue the discussion with Singaporeans on this fundamental issue, instead of pushing this White Paper through.
Madam, on our part, the Workers’ Party would like to suggest an alternative approach to address the demographic challenge. Instead of the trade-off proposed by the government to achieve its GDP growth targets, we propose a trade-off of having a more moderate GDP growth, lower by 0.5% to 1% below what the government is proposing. This approach will reduce the population injections required to churn the economy. Let me sketch this out and let my colleagues expand further in the coming days.
We believe that Singapore should instead work towards a more modest GDP growth of 2.5 to 3.5% per year up to 2020, and from 2020 to 2030, 1.5 to 2.5% per year. We believe this rate can be achieved with productivity improvements at the same rate as that proposed in the White Paper, but with less population injections, if we can utilise more of our existing population. We could target to grow our resident workforce by 1% per year, by getting more foreign spouses, home-makers and seniors back to work. Second, our senior citizens may not be as much of a burden as the government makes out. Using the old-age support ratio to justify the need for higher GDP growth ignores the fact that, increasingly over time, many of our seniors would have their own economic resources to live on, reducing their need to be supported. Many seniors are also retiring later. Indeed, there is potential to tap our seniors further as a resource, rather than view them as a burden. Third, the more modest growth rate would consume less resources and be in line with sustainable development, preserving our precious land reserves for future generations.
This more modest GDP growth rate from now to 2030 would require a lower population to sustain it. We have done some estimates and believe that this is achievable with a population at 2030 of 5.9 million or less. My colleagues will elaborate on these projections later in the debate.
Our proposed trade-off is having 1 million less people than the government’s projections, in exchange for a reduction of GDP growth of 0.5% to 1%. This trade-off will mean less overcrowding, better integration of newcomers, a stronger Singapore identity, and less stressful labour market competition. This, in turn, is likely to have knock-on effects on TFR recovery. It will also not be at the expense of market competitiveness, as our economy continues to restructure to push the proportion of Singaporeans in PMET jobs from half to two-thirds.
What the government is proposing in this White Paper is to aim for its GDP targets and grow the population to achieve it. The Workers’ Party believes that the well-being of Singaporeans, our quality of life and our very identity will be put at peril under the government’s proposal. Is it worth it?
The government’s White Paper is entitled: “A Sustainable Population for a Dynamic Singapore”. While sustainability and dynamism are indeed important, we believe the government has gotten these priorities the wrong way round. Instead of having a sustainable population for a dynamic Singapore, we should have “A Dynamic Population for a Sustainable Singapore”.
For these reasons, the Workers’ Party does not endorse the White Paper on Population and will oppose the Motion.
Source: Workers Party political website