Singapore Population White Paper – A White Paper that Raises More Questions
I am amused by all the debates on the population white paper in the parliament and the Ministers back-paddling and insisting that a population of 6.9 millions is the “worst case scenario”.
Inside the white paper, there is nothing to say that the scenario is the absolute worst. It is simply a projection base on current growth policy and trajectories. The fact is, the lower end of the projection correspond to 6.5 millions which is an equal strain to the scarce land resources in Singapore.
What I find amusing is that for a country with relatively low birth rate and the population is expected to shrink, we are scrambling to find the right answers to prevent a 6.9 millions population. The entire episode becomes rather laughable as we are so focused on economic growth that we lose sight of what is truly important.
Economic Growth or Singapore Core?
The white paper mentioned a lot about getting people into the workforce. No doubt this move would reduce our reliance on foreign workers but it also has an increased social cost. By attracting mothers and grandparents into the workforce, we are in essence creating a barrier to childbirths by making the opportunity cost higher (they can now choose to work). What is Singapore’s strategy? We cannot be wishy-washy if we want to increase birth rate.
Land-scarce Singapore would be hit by higher accommodation cost when we require more workers. Accommodation is a basic need that is low on the Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. With rising accommodation cost, it would be more difficult for couples to have children as well. Moreover, when couples are older and have higher income, the opportunity cost of having children also increases. The risk cost of having children also increases with age and that is another factor that would lower birth rates.
As population size increases, there would be less resources for amenities and it is also likely that couples of childbearing age stay increasing further from their parents. The increased cost of child-care is not addressed in the population white paper as well.
To summarize, the strong Singapore Core is actually a misnomer. The strategy that the government is adopting seems to me a strong ‘naturalized’ Singapore Core. The government seems to be using immigration to mitigate a falling fertility rate rather than to address the problem.
Economic Growth Versus Real Income and Welfare
Interestingly, the Government keeps harping on how the population policies would benefit Singaporeans and help them realize their aspirations. Yet, there is no way in their white paper or any speeches that well articulate these aspirations.
When I was young, I was brought up with old adages such as “money is not everything”, “there is more to life than work”, etc. Sadly, the cost of living has risen considerably while income has not risen by much. The consumer price index may be marginally high but that is because the price of some basic necessities (eg sugar and rice) has not risen by much. However, on big-ticket items such as vehicles and accommodation, the prices had soar through the roof. Hence real income increase isn’t all that ‘real’. Money may not buy happiness but the lack of money in this high-cost country can definitely make many miserable.
We often talk of GDP growth in Singapore and Dr. Amy Khor has emphasized that cutting growth rate would hurt Singaporeans as companies are feeling the strains of the tightening foreign worker policies. However, the Government has not demonstrated the benefits of the incremental products these companies has on the economy. Does increasing foreigners and increasing the GDP translate to an increase of GDP per capita for Singaporeans? If the increase in total wages isn’t going to benefit Singaporeans, why should they care?
Moreover, there are many things that GDP cannot measure. It cannot measure the quality of family bonding, parents teaching and tutoring their children and many other important things in life. Asking grandpa to work and employing a domestic helper to look after a child would increase productivity and income but would lead to a loss of welfare for the family.
Increased Productivity For Business Versus Efficiency At Personal Expense
So far, all the talks are focused on productivity and how the increased productivity would benefit Singaporeans. However, business productivity comes at huge expense on personal level. Overall efficiency of people decreases dramatically as population size increases.
When the population size increases, there are many unintended social costs. Longer time wasted in commuting due to traffic jams, inability to board public transport made people spend more time for the purpose of work. Due to the control of vehicles by ERP, some of them may choose to go to work a couple of hours ahead of time and not return home until it is rather late. That results in a decrease in overall efficiency of Singaporeans and the productivity per hour (inclusive of travel and wait time) actually decreases. Even for those who are taking public transport, the commuting time may increase due to overcrowding. Moreover, commuting to work in a sardine-like manner instead of comfortable seats and ample spaces drains energy from commuters.
Due to the greater cost imposed on our personal time, Singaporeans are finding it more challenging to maintain work life balance and therefore even more unlikely to have children which result to a further reduction in birth rate.
In Conclusion: Not Everything That Counts Can Be Counted
Mr Khaw had even resorted to emotional blackmail recently by stating that if we do not adopt the policies, he would not be able to deliver the promise of 200,000 new home. The truth is, we do not need another 1.5 million foreign workers to build those 200,000 homes. Even if we take the lower range of the target, we do not need another 1 million foreign workers to build 200,000 new houses. Housing and development need to be planned. The population white paper suggestion is to maintain that number of foreign workers as part of Singapore’s overall population. What jobs would the foreign workers be doing when those 200,000 homes are built? Apparently, the number is still required in 2030 long after the houses are built.
He hit the nail when he said that it should be people first and not growth first. But, the plea does not suggest that he has given serious thought this white paper and think if it is really a people first policy and planning guide. If we increase the number of people in the countries by so many, 200,000 homes will not be enough. Do we need another 1.5 million homes? Where do we find the land? How many more workers do we need to build those homes?
Some of us still remember the good times not too long ago. A time when grandparents can leisurely teach their grandchildren; when parents can coach their children in sports or personal life,; amateurs doing crafts or sports or people volunteering themselves in society. There is no monetary exchange and all these do not contribute to the productivity numbers but they contribute greatly to the welfare, culture and soul of Singapore.
To sum up, not everything that counts can be counted. Welfare cannot be counted by our GDP alone. Neither can the quality of our lives. In blind pursuit of growth, seemingly good policies can turn out to have disastrous effects on our society as the welfare is neglected. The Government seems to equate benefits and aspirations solely on monetary returns and therefore did not comprehend the ground sentiments.