Shortcomings of a Population White Paper

In order to keep this post from being unnecessarily long, I focus mostly on the Population White Paper, which I have read as carefully as I can.

What I agree with

I support the need for maintaining a pool of Permanent Residents to support an immigration to make up for the shortfall in Total Fertility Rate (TFR) among Citizens. I like that the median targeted immigration rate of 20,000 new Citizens would stabilize the Citizen population along a trajectory equivalent to population replacement rate, i.e., TFR=2.1. I accept that this would mean Resident population would increase from 3.82 million currently to 4.1-4.4 million by 2030. This represents a 7-15% increase in Resident population over the next three decades, but I take comfort that the increase would become flat by 2030.

Proposed Non-Resident population size is the biggest problem

However, the White Paper takes several leaps in reasoning to suggest that the Non-Resident population can increase from 1.49 million currently to 2.1-2.8 million by 2030. This is a 41-88% increase, far outstripping the increase in Resident population.

In other words, Non-Resident proportion of the population will increase from 1/4 currently to 1/3 by 2030.

How, then, is this in line with the first pillar of maintaining a Singaporean core stated in the White Paper?

It is in contradiction with other parts of the White Paper saying that foreign worker intake has been and will continue to be moderated.

I have combed the White Paper to find the rationale for the increase in foreign worker intake and could only find the following reasons:

  1. to buffer the dependency ratio (page 13). However, Chart 1.5 only sketches one scenario with current low TFR and no immigration.
  2. to either (a) prevent a decline in, or (b) grow the workforce. Here, the White Paper is unclear (page 32) whether the objective is (a) or (b), which would require different approaches.
  3. to improve labour competitiveness (page 40-41) by: (i) by taking up lower-skilled jobs at lower costs, (ii) to kick start new industries, and (iii) to buffer up- and down-swings of economic cycles.

A key problem is that the White Paper stopped short of showing how eventual numbers of foreign workers were arrived at using these three reasons. (It is not even clear from the presentation of the White Paper that these are indeed the reasons for a high foreign worker deluge to come.) It was also not shown how this increase is to be sustainable beyond 2030.

  1. The White Paper needs to show how the scenario with population-replacement immigration would improve the dependency ratio. The White Paper then needs to first argue why this dependency ratio is still not acceptable, derive a target dependency ratio that is acceptable including showing how this was arrived at, and then finally work out a foreign worker population that would bring the dependency ratio to the targeted rate.
  2. The White Paper needs to be clear if the target is to: (a) avert a decline in the workforce, or (b) grow the workforce. However, if the target is (a), the population-replacement immigration rate of Residents should already achieve this without needing Non-Residents; this reason would therefore not support an increased Non-Resident proportion. If the target is (b), the White Paper needs to do better in arguing why it wants to grow rather maintain the workforce. We cannot grow the workforce indefinitely anyway, so how does this approach make sense for the long term?
  3. The trade-off between importing cheaper foreign labour versus higher business costs and consequently higher taxes and costs of living has not been thoroughly  debated and internalized enough by the public yet. It is acknowledged that overdependency on cheap labour has impacted productivity and resulted in socioeconomic strains. To me, therefore, I would personally be willing to accept reasonably higher taxes and costs of living in future as long as those earning much less than me have a net increase in income, rather than the problems associated with addiction to cheap labour.


I am almost certain that the increase in total population from 5.31 million currently to 6.5-6.9 million in 2030, or 22-30%, will affect liveability in terms of green spaces and biodiversity. Even to provide housing for the current population, natural vegetation on reserve land is being destroyed, prompting protests from both nature lovers as well as nearby residents that enjoy the benefits of such natural vegetation. To support the possible population increase, the White Paper on Land Use already shows that coastal areas of East Coast Park and Pasir Ris Park will reclaimed over, while Tanjong Chek Jawa will be affected by both reclamation and road-building. Most natural green spaces outside of the Nature Reserves will be destroyed, while proposed train lines will cut under the Nature Reserve, with potential impacts on hydrology, flora, and fauna not openly acknowledged or addressed.

The Singapore Sustainable Blueprint by an interministerial committee endorsed in 2006 a target of 0.8 ha of parkland per 1000 persons to be achieved by 2030. I have problems with the “parkland” in this ratio, but let’s keep to it for the current discussion. In recent years, the ratio has languished below the 2005 peak of 0.77, likely due to a sudden population surge in the last few years but no corresponding increase in park area. With another population surge, even this flawed ratio will not be achievable.

I glanced the following headline on the Berita Harian when I walked pass a makcik reading it:

Singapura tidak akan sepadat Hong Kong

There has been comparisons between Singapore and Hong Kong, with Minister Teo saying that even with the population increase, our population density will still not be much less than that of Hong Kong’s. This directly contradicts openly available data (e.g., World Bank) showing that Singapore’s 7,200 people per km2 is currently already higher than that of Hong Kong’s 6,800 people per km2. This discrepancy is likely because he correct these densities with the percentage built-up area of Hong Kong (33% from the Hong Kong Planning Department, corrected density=20,600 people per km2) and Singapore (71% from Alex Yee et al., corrected density=10,100 people per km2).

However, does the correction actually reflect the living conditions? Humans are dependent on natural areas, therefore natural areas should not be excluded when considering the carrying capacity of a place. The 67% natural green area in Hong Kong provides place for city dwellers to escape to the countryside if they want to. On the other hand, with the possible population surge, Singapore’s 29% natural green area will be further reduced to only the small and already heavily-used nature reserves, putting stress on the ecosystem and also reducing per capita enjoyment of these areas.

On social media, already there is much talk about emigrating. If this is indeed a widespread sentiment, after the White Paper at its current state is endorsed, emigration will increase, further eroding the Singaporean core, therefore exacerbating the population woes.

Worst case

Although Ministers Khaw, Balakrishnan, Gan, and the Prime Minister have now tried to assure us that the 6.5-6.9 million number is the “worst case scenario” for planning long-term limits, this will therefore be another aspect where the White Paper has failed. Without even sketching out the target scenario, how can the White Paper only sketch out a worst case scenario? What, then, is the target scenario? Further, nowhere in the White Paper is it mentioned that this is a worst case scenario.


The White Paper in its current state is unsatisfactory. If the Party Whips are lifted for the vote on endorsement, I am hoping against hope that most Members of Parliament would vote against it unless the following points are addressed to satisfaction:

  • how was the Non-Resident proportion/growth rate arrived at?
  • why are we choosing to grow the workforce rather than maintain it at steady state? How is this a sustainable solution?
  • explain alternative solutions to population growth, such as allowing taxes and costs to rise, and compare the costs and consequences of these scenarios;
  • state clearly that 6.5-6.9 million is indeed the worst case scenario, spell out clearly the actual ideal scenario, and explain what measures will be taken to stay away from the worst case scenario;
  • review the outcomes of past population projections since the first Concept Plan, how they were busted, and how this current projection will not have the same fate.

I have written to my MP. Have you?

Today is the last day of Parliamentary debate on the flawed White Paper.

When I first heard last week that a Parliamentary vote of endorsement would be called on the White Paper, I felt some despair. The ruling party that is tabling it has a super-supermajority, after all. How then can we have any hope of even tweaking it in the direction that we think is better for Singapore?

Now, I feel quite a bit happier. Sure, it’s still going to be passed. But there has been some calls, from within the ruling party itself, for an Amendment to be passed along with it.

It seems that the small but significant increase in elected opposition presence in Parliament, the unfamiliar prospect of political competition for ruling party backbenchers, and help from the non-constituency opposition members and some nominated members of Parliament, was able to shake the authority of a supermajority that would have seemed immovable in the past.

Suddenly politics in Singapore seem real. Suddenly “Singapore politics” is no longer an oxymoron.

While some have lamented that the last General Elections have “divided Singapore”, others have talked about how, perhaps for the second time since 2006, during the period of hustings they suddenly felt Singaporean again. Likewise, while undoubtedly some would write in the the press and call for us to “move on as a nation” after the White Paper is passed, I think the debate on the White Paper has already moved us on as a nation.

Meanwhile, somebody needs to come up with a rival White Paper.

The debate in Parliament already sketches out what such a rival would look like. If this is indeed the most important policy document post-independence, then I think it would be hard for anyone to say that the Workers’ Party is not doing anything significant in Parliament anymore. What’s more impressive is how it seems to have channeled its campaign-rally strengths into its time in Parliament (see its slogan switching words around to change the emphasis, and the consistency among its MPs’ and NCMPs’ speeches).

Here’s how I think the valid counter-criticisms of the PAP can be incorporated into the WP proposal:

  • They opt for a relatively low citizen intake rate of 10,000 per year. At current total fertility and death rates, such a low immigration rate will certainly shrink the population, at least in the short term until initiatives are somehow successful in improving the TFR. They should instead come up with a formula where the coming year’s intake rate of new citizens will be a function of the last year’s TFR to match population replacement over the long term. Permanent Residencies on offer should similarly match the new citizenship rate.
  • They proposed zero growth rate of Non-Residents (note that this is different from zero Non-Residents, which is insane and nobody is saying this). In the short term this will certainly be a shock to businesses (Ministers KhorTan and Iswaran). What should be done is to target zero growth rate in, say, 5 years’ time, that gives a window of opportunity for workers to continue to be brought in to put up the infrastructure shortfall, e.g., housing, from the past years. Therefore, slowing the growth rate from the past (which is already being done, so the ruling party can’t object to it) in a systematic, predictive manner. I.e., the quota of S-passes and EPs and whatnot for the next 5 years will be announced so that companies can make plans to adapt. Can be further calibrated by sector, i.e., construction worker quotas can be kept constant but experience a more rapid tightening at the end of five years’, domestic worker quotas to match growth in number of households, etc.
  • They will need to show more courage in communicating trade-offs. The tightening in non-target sectors, e.g. services, will mean that these companies will (1) fold up or pack up and leave, or (2) pay more or improve working conditions to entice locals, or (3) innovate to eliminate tedious/labour-intensive tasks. It can argue that (1) is usually overstated, while (3) is a no-brainer. However, (2) will eventually result in (a) higher costs of domestic goods, and (b) less competitive exports. Accelerated inflation or (a) will hit poor families the hardest; the rival paper will need to address how incomes for the lowest strata will need to be raised at the same pace as projected inflation. Progressively richer and privileged strata will have to suck it up, but at least the rival paper needs to be honest about this consequence. (Populism is not always wrong; it is dishonest populism that is wrong.) More money will need to pour into social work (especially to improve social worker salaries and working conditions to attract best talent equivalent to that of the educational sector) and aid for the disadvantaged.
  • They target a population cap of 5.9 million. Intuitively, I like it. But the mathematics behind it need to be demonstrated.
  • The challenges of integration was touched on somewhere. One way to ease the integration process is to choose more of the similar. Malaysians and Indonesians, Southeast Asian countries, southern provinces of China where our forefathers come from including Taiwan and Hong Kong, and then further abroad; that should be the order in which quota are set. Further, a balanced diversity immigrants is essential, to reduce the formation of enclaves and push them to interact more with locals. Such measures to improve integration need to be explicit.
  • They propose that a higher quality of life and work-life balance is the real solution to low TFRs. This can be the emotive sell of the rival paper . One strategy to distinguish itself more clearly from the current two White Papers is to emphasize nature recreation as a cheap way to improve the quality of life. Conservation of natural and historical heritage will pitch the paper in a different emotive light: a sense of stability and security, and a people finally reaching maturity as a community.

This is a hard-to-come-by opportunity for an opposition party with a foot already in the Parliament door to strengthen its policy credentials. If the Amendment is passed, a rival paper will get its chance in 2020, after the next elections with possibly an even greater opposition strength in Parliament. If there is any time to invest in rival policy that will accelerate it closer to government-in-waiting status, this is it.

But during this time, things will have changed, so the policy making behind the rival paper must be in real-time: acknowledging positive directions and identifying additional damage.



  1. 3 February 2013 at 16:22

    great commentary. i will be writing to my MP too

  2. 2 June 2013 at 18:38

    […] appeared again later in the Land Use White Paper, which had tightly followed the other debacle, the Population White Paper. There were many other issues with the Concept Plan in the Land Use […]

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