Taking a Global View of the Population Issue

By Derwin Pereira

Singapore's skyline at night. Reactions to the country's recent population white paper have stoked debate. Source: Christofer Andersson's flickr's photostream, used under a creative commons license.

The controversy over plans for a more crowded Singapore ignores global demographic trends and risks undermining the country’s growth.

The thought of Singapore being inhabited by even a hypothetical 6.9 million people by 2030 has focused minds with a vengeance that is normally reserved for Toto or football match results. As in a lottery, there is a harrowing sense of winners and losers; as with football matches, visceral emotions have been brought into rough play.

But some of this angst would be eased if Singaporeans were to think of demographic change as inevitable. They have only to look at what is occurring elsewhere to place in perspective the choices which they will have to make if they want their country to survive and prosper.

This is hardly happening.

Demography is only one aspect of a Singaporean unwillingness to accept some of the international realities of life. Ironically, in spite of Singapore being a thoroughly globalized city-state, its economic success appears to have insulated its people from remembering what it means to be a part of the world. Singaporeans act as if bad things occur elsewhere; only good things take place, or are expected to happen, at home. Thus, difficult choices such as letting in more foreigners are relegated to other countries. Singapore, it appears, can get along just fine without having to make those choices.

What this mindset does is to arouse unhealthy expectations. A four-hour traffic jam in Jakarta and the political gridlock in America are the norm in those places. Indonesians and Americans get along with their lives as best as they can. But in Singapore, floods in Orchard Road turned into a natural disaster with an existential catastrophe looming behind them.

The feared flood of foreigners falls into the same category of national alarm. Why are 6.9 million people – if ever it comes to that number – unimaginable in Singapore if the public infrastructure can be revamped on time to meet demand, if immigrants can be integrated into society, and if multi-racialism prevails? The assumption among those opposed to a larger Singapore is that substantial immigration will be fatal to a small country. But it is not space that matters; it is how space is allocated, how social interactions are lubricated, how people get used to more people that matter.

It is these demands that Singaporeans should address, as Hong Kong has done. Shying away from them is merely trying to postpone the inevitable. Social systems that have confronted realities with foresight and planning have won. Those which find it difficult to do so are condemned to playing catch-up.

Consider the dangers of a shrinking working-age population in this context. The Rand Corporation, a United States-based think-tank which focuses on demography as a core international issue, notes that the world’s working-age population, aged from 20 to 59, will grow by more than 25 per cent between 2010 and 2050. That is the good news.

The mixed news is that it will grow rapidly in some places but will shrink in others. In East Asia, which includes China, the number of working-age people will contract by nearly 25 per cent, from 938 million to 715 million. In South Asia, including India, by contrast, it will expand by more than an astonishing 50 per cent, from 833 million to 1.3 billion. In
Central Africa, it will nearly triple – from 328 million to 943 million.

Such demographic shifts will have not only economic but also strategic results. A study published by the Rand Corp – Global Demographic Change and Its Implications for Military Power, by Martin Libicki, Howard Shatz
and Julie Taylor – finds that the US, exclusively among the large affluent nations, will continue to witness modest increases in its working-age population because of replacement-level fertility rates and a likely return to “vigorous” levels of immigration.

In Europe and Japan, however, working-age populations are expected to fall by 10 per cent to 15 per cent by 2030, and 30 per cent to 40 per cent by 2050. Consequently, the US will contribute a larger percentage of the population of its Atlantic and Pacific alliances in the next four decades. The bottom line: the US will remain a healthy global player compared to
Europe and Japan.

In Singapore, too, the focus should be on remaining healthy, as an economic entity that can be defended militarily. Common sense says that the proportion of the working-age population will be critical to the future of the country, particularly as its neighbors improve on their economic performance.

If higher birth rates, increased productivity and getting older people back into employment – all of which are legitimate targets in themselves – are insufficient to sustain the country’s economic momentum, immigration must be seen as a necessary top-up of the population.

But if the attitude is to prevent or severely curtail immigration at all costs and then argue backwards to finding alternative solutions that might or might not work, the consequences could be calamitous.

Who would be responsible in 2030 for wrong choices made now? What, if anything, could be done then to get the country back on track?

The need of the hour is for Singaporeans to internationalize their minds. It is human nature to be parochial but enlightened self- interest demands a broader view of trends. Changing patterns of demography are an international phenomenon from which Singapore cannot hope to escape.

Nobody wants Singapore to change out of recognition because of foreigners arriving in hordes but the Singapore that we know and cherish will change out of recognition if low birth rates and lagging productivity undermine the economy and society.

Mr. Derwin Pereira is a former Straits Times journalist, and currently the head of Pereira International a Singapore-based consulting firm. This post first appeared as an op-ed in The Straits Times on February 18, 2013.


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