The 6.9 million issue – Part 2: Still short-sighted?

thumbnail-white-paperBy Howard Lee

In Part 1, it was noted that efforts by the Singapore government to manage population numbers using productivity as a benchmark were used in response to the public outcry for a slower rate of population augmentation. However, using productivity as a lever also means that, should the government choose, population growth can be reinstated to reignite GDP figures.

While the push for productivity seems to be in the vein of reducing foreign worker numbers, the condition of productivity still hangs over us, and there are no real assurances beyond rhetoric by ministers that there is no u-turn in efforts to reduce Singapore’s reliance on foreign labour. If anything, there seems to be too many concessions given to companies that are in need of foreign labour.

Which then begs the question: Is the government serious about reducing the figures through efforts to move the local workforce towards self-sustainability, or are there already indications of plans to keep population augmentation as an emergency card further down the road?

(Image - gov.sg YouTube channel)
(Image – gov.sg YouTube channel)

Working around the numbers

What should be of greater concern to us, and point to the government’s approach to the issue, is the amount of rhetoric that suggest the government is still looking at managing a population boom, rather than a making the best use of the organic population we are likely to have.

Ministers have openly voiced that the old model of population augmentation is not sustainable. What is less clear is whether this sustainability is couched in terms of the supporting infrastructure needed to keep this large population happy and productive, or whether a workforce that is highly dependent on foreign influx to keep the economy going is in effect a dangerous spiral.

Evidence in public discourse seem to suggest that the government is more intent on working towards building the necessary infrastructure to accommodate this boom in population. And this goes beyond physical efforts to improve the transport system.

At the IPS conference on Singapore’s future, two panellist spoke on building a sustainable city. Business strategist Peter Schwartz suggested that Singapore needs to seriously consider nuclear power if it intends to meet its future energy needs as a responsible nation. He noted various safe nuclear options to make this happen, including TerraPower by Bill Gates, and various methods to manage risks, such as through energy sharing with neighbouring countries.

Liu Thai Ker
Liu Thai Ker

Former chief planner of the Urban Redevelopment Authority Dr Liu Thai Ker, who was earlier lambasted for suggesting the possibility of a 10 million population, stood by his point that it was better to plan for a large population rather than let infrastructure lag behind. He firmly believes that with the right approach, Singapore can be a very liveable city even with a large population. “Not understanding the past and leaping into the future will not solve the problem,” he noted.

Both men presented very compelling arguments for what Singapore can do to accommodate a growing population. There are also very good odds that their ideas are right – safe nuclear is possible, and proper urban planning can lead to a better living environment in spite of congestion.

But are their proposals meant to be part of a national narrative to support population augmentation, given that IPS is meant to advise the government on policy issues? Has a decision already been made that we would need a bigger population, and that these areas of development, while worthy and feasible, are little more than putting the plan into action?

Being able to accommodate a larger population does not mean that it should be the way. I would give full credit to Dr Liu as an excellent urban planner, and we can also be assured that whatever our civil service set their minds to, they will be able to do. But should they be setting their minds on population augmentation? Who would give the instruction for them to do so?

Alternatives considered?

Interestingly, the IPS conference also witnessed a presentation by Byron Auguste, managing director at [email protected], who opined that it was of greater relevance to use technology to unlock talent and hence increase productivity. The use of technology to simply replace human resource at work might not cut it and could even lead to greater disenfranchisement among the workforce.

Byron Auguste
Byron Auguste

This sounds like a marked difference from the current initiatives to boost Singapore’s productivity through technology injection and upgrading, including SkillsFuture.

This is only compounded by the fact that there is very little reason to believe that a large population is necessary for Singapore’s survival. On the tail of the Population White Paper came criticisms that the government has not given due consideration to support its claim that the 6.9 million projection is indeed something that Singapore needs. Notable economists in Singapore have published a paper to examine the issue, to call bluff to the economic benefits of a large population and the survival myth that has been worked into the White Paper.

They concluded that “economics is not, and should not be, the only lens through which we examine, analyse and debate our country’s population policies. But when we do apply economics analysis, we should try to get it right.” In fact, there is essentially no evidence to substantiate the theory that a growth in population is necessary to support our economy, at least not within the White Paper.

It would then appear that the PM’s view of the “dilemma” that Singapore’s leadership faces on our population quagmire is fundamentally flawed. So why then is the PM once again speaking as if it were a natural truth?

For that matter, has the government given any thought on how to best make use of existing human talent? The evidence before us – the efforts to argue for acceptance, the policy moves to manage productivity couched as a solution to a thinning local workforce, and the examination of possible routes to take in enabling population augmentation – suggests that the government’s mindset is still back in February 2013.

Also read “The 6.9 million issue – Part 1: The productivity story, and other cultural folklore“.

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