Two days ago there was a small protest of 4,000 in Singapore against the White Paper passed in parliament a few weeks ago. The white paper, for those unfamiliar, was a population route plan proposing a 6.9m population by 2030 – 50% of which would be foreign, due largely to the failing birth rate.
Not long ago, one of my bosses asked me what I felt about being Singaporean. I was quick to respond that I didn’t know what it meant to be Singaporean anymore because of the landscape changing faster than I could keep up with and I wasn’t sure if I liked it anymore.
He then said something very simple but summed the dilemma faced very well:
“In Asia – China, Korea, Japan… All these countries took a long time to become a country. Big financial growth and development came… later.”
Now I am no political science graduate or closet economist. But this made me think about the fundamental logic in what he said – that it essentially takes hundreds of years to stabilise a country, its identity and its financial worth.
We’re a really young and small country with no natural resources, and in under 50 years of grace from zero to hero, there are bound to be learning curves based on the policies that worked to get us to this point.
And we’ve done a pretty good job so far as Time Magazine so aptly put it, “Lee transformed Singapore from a simple trader of commodities into a sophisticated hub of finance and technology.”
I decided to do a table mapping the past five decades of Singapore to find out what went wrong and if there’s any real truth to the white paper, of if they were just trying to pull the wool over us. Especially with all the political parties leveraging on emotional waves.
I tabulated everything I could get my hands on – from our population to our declining birthrate, to unearth all sorts of key areas that would make sense to my simple mind.
Forgive my reductive interpretations, if any but here is my attempt at sharing the findings:
COMPARISON CHART OF 1962-2012 INCLUDING ESTIMATED WHITE PAPER FORECASTS
1. WE WERE FOUNDED AND SUSTAINED FROM DAY ONE ON THE BASIS OF FOREIGN MIGRANTS
Most of us ‘purebred’ Singaporeans forget that we were foreign not so long ago. You don’t have to go back that far to see this fact, just trace back to your parents and grandparents generation. Based on the data in the chart above, our Singaporean-ness should look something like this, seeing that 1.96m of our 3.81m residents were foreign-born. That only leaves us with a 1.85m strong population.
That is, until us fledging purebreds started asking for a national identity to match our passports. Absolutely nothing wrong with that, we’re a new breed of Singaporeans you see. Very new.
2. THE WHITE PAPER HAS PROPOSED TO SLOW DOWN THE VOLUME OF FOREIGN MIGRANTS TO THE LOWEST EVER IN THE HISTORY OF SINGAPORE, BECAUSE IF WE CONTINUED HOW WE HAVE IN THE LAST 20 YEARS, WE’D BE AT 6.9M BY 2020
We’ve been growing drastically over the last 20 years at an average of 2-3% a year And if we kept to those rates, we’d be over and beyond 6.9m by the year 2020.
So I guess they already know that fact which is why they are proposing to slow it down to a low rate never seen before in the history of Singapore’s foreign-immigrant reliant economy. Or at least, in accordance to my measly little excel sheet that took a week to complete in between my day job lunch breaks.
3. OUR IMMENSE GDP GROWTH HAS NEVER BEEN SUPPORTED ON A TOTAL INFRASTRUCTURE OF LOCAL SINGAPOREANS
There is a key trend with our GDP. Yeah, sure we grew from loin-cloth wearing orang laut to our refined HDB-dwelling kiasu selves. However, our GDP growth spikes seem to correlate to a T on the number of foreign workers allowed into Singapore on work permits in addition to the spikes of overseas born residents throughout the decades. (Note of course that out of the 1.2m work permit holders, only 500,000 of those are maids and construction workers, not all of them are the ones we tend to look down on, even though they work exceptionally hard for us.)
4. WE MAY HAVE ONE OF THE HIGHEST GDP PER CAPITA IN THE WORLD BUT THAT’S NOT A REAL REFLECTIVE VERSION OF WHERE WE ARE AT BASED ON A PURE SINGAPOREAN WORKFORCE
So yes we may have a US$60K per capita income. But with an average household median monthly income at S$1,990 but no minimum wage or functioning workers union that we all tend to zero in on.
CNA reported the average monthly income per household at S$7,040 which means the average ratio of working adults to household is 3.5 people. I’d assume this would drastically decrease as per point 9 when we start to fall into an ‘inverse’ society of more dependents than working-age adults if our birth rate continues. Which would bring massive issues to surface.
5. DESPITE OUR BRAGGING RIGHTS, WE STILL HAVE THE LOWEST GDP IN ASIA. WE STILL HAVE A LONG WAY TO LEARN FROM OUR PAST AND GROW
We’ve got away a lot over the last 50 years because we are a really small country and we’ve been able to reap the rewards by building and building at the speed faster than light. Now that the long overdue white paper has brought what should have been highlighted 10 years ago, we need to tap into our only natural resource, which is our people, in order to achieve an outcome that works.
6. YES, WE ARE THE MOST POPULATED COUNTRY IN THE WORLD, BUT FURTHERING THIS NUMBER TO 6.9M HAS TO BE OUT OF THE QUESTION DUE TO THE SOCIAL IMPLICATIONS OF OVERPOPULATION
To date, we are the most densely populated country in the world. And overpopulation is a very dangerous place to be in. John B. Calhoun, an American ethologist and behavioral researcher noted for his studies of population density and its effects on behaviour conducted on rodents. The conclusions drawn from the experiment were that, “when all available space is taken and all social roles filled, competition and the stresses experienced by the individuals will result in a total breakdown in complex social behaviors, ultimately resulting in the demise of the population.”
But they already know that, which is why they’ve proposed to slow down immigration numbers. However how can we prevent ourselves from hitting the inverted population approach as explained in point 9?
7. OUR FIRST (AND BIGGEST) SLUMP IN BIRTH RATES WAS DUE TO THE PAP’S ENFORCEMENT OF THE TWO-CHILD STERILIZATION POLICY, BUT IT MADE US AN INTELLIGENT SOCIETY THAT NEEDS TO BE APPRECIATED
Prior to 1969, Singapore’s 5.2 birthrate was slightly above the global average of 4.45 children in 1972. The PAP’s Two Child Sterilisation Policy in a 1969 attempt to tinker with eugenics, which was a widely revered concept in the 50s, hugely contributed to the massive slump. However it also gave birth to an incredibly well-educated society.
This was probably a good idea in theory at the time, however it’s now presented us with one half of the reason in why our birth rates declined so steeply.
8. THE PROPERTY BOOM IN 1994 MAY HAVE LEAD TO THE SECOND SIGNIFICANT DROP IN POPULATION WHICH MEANS WE ARE AFFECTED BY HIGH HOUSING COSTS AND NEED THIS ADDRESSED
Now if we look closely at the second fertility slump that happened post 1992, we can possibly attribute it to the first property boom in 1994, followed by the recession. This boom has since inflated further several times over due to the huge tax-free foreign investment-property buyers. Therefore we can assume this is a contributing factor to the further decline of fertility rates. This will continue as the cost of ‘average’ living to procreate responsibly continues to rise.
9. OUR ‘NATIVE’ POPULATION WILL BEGIN TO ‘INVERT’ IN THE NEXT THREE DECADES IF WE DON’T MAKE CALCULATED STEPS TO STRIKE A CAREFUL BALANCE BETWEEN OUR BIRTH RATES AND MIGRANT RATES
One of the most critical areas to think about is that we’re headed to low working-age numbers by the time we hit 2050. our birth rate is extremely low.
We’re 1.5 children below the global average at a rate of 1.05. The global trend is that everyone’s having less babies and living longer. But how do we solve this key issue when a side effect of overcrowding is a decline and standstill on reproduction rates? (see point 6 on Calhoun’s research)
10. ARE WE READY FOR A TRULY SINGAPOREAN ECONOMY?
Lets pause to think about all the accolades we’d received over the past 30 years and what we’ve become accustomed to. The pat on the back you get from people all over the world when they first find out that you’re Singaporean.
Great shopping, best airport in the world, highest GDP per capita in the world, one of the world’s best education systems at producing top grades, 5th least corrupted in the world, top three safest cities in the world… the list could go on.
I know, most of it sounds like a business pitch, rather than a happy, patriotic Singaporean, but most of this would not be possible without the artificial tampering of the much complained-about gahmen. Our own that has the least, has enough. And a handphone and fast broadband.
There’s perks in being small.
FOOD FOR THOUGHT: THERE IS NO QUICK FIX. ONLY A GRADUAL ONE TO TRANSFORM SINGAPORE INTO A MORE SINGAPOREAN ECONOMY. WE CAN’T CHANGE THIS SUDDENLY FOR THE BENEFIT OF NATION-BUILDING WITHOUT CAUSING A HUGE FINANCIAL CATASTROPHE
If we start to deconstruct what we’ve built based on ‘foreigners’, our economy will hit a severe recession. If we start to close the gates, we run the risk of ruining and losing key foreign investment that currently props up a lot of local jobs.
Oh, might I add that we’d need to also turn down the number of domestic maids available to Singaporean households. All 209,000 of them.
THE KEY IS GRADUAL, BALANCED AND EXTREMELY CALCULATED SMALL STEPS LEADING TO A BIG PICTURE CHANGE
Using our only resource, our people, how can we best achieve a win-win scenario that doesn’t cause a total overhaul on our economy? While the white paper does in fact, recommend a slow down in foreign worker growth, it still doesn’t lead to de-populating our already very chaotic landscape.
WHAT OUR POSSIBLE KEY OBJECTIVES ARE OVER THE NEXT 3 DECADES:
- Maintain our current lifestyle
- Urgently raise the birth rate from 1.05 to 2
- Scale back on foreign workers over time
- Forge a more Singaporean economy
- Establish a truly Singaporean identity
HOW DO WE GET THERE? SEND ME YOUR READER SUGGESTIONS:
[EDIT 20/02/13] I’ve had some great suggestions from readers which I have listed below:
Gilbert: Incentivise Local Singapore Talent Who Are Overseas To Return
“Considering the amount of highly educated locals that have had good training overseas and are doing very well, one of the steps you should suggest is to offer an incentive to invite successful overseas singaporeans back to contribute to the economy. What we are seeing is that the influx of migrants include a majority who are lesser or maybe equally qualified.”
Pei Toh: Restrict Foreigner-Eligible Properties To Curb Escalation Of Home Prices
“Make sure that foreigners can only buy properties in Singapore after working for a minimum stipulated number of years. This could curb speculations in properties by foreign buyers and curb the escalation of home prices. At the moment, any foreigner can buy a home in Singapore (except landed properties where they need a special approval.).”
Reclaim land to lower the population density
Singapore has 56 islands and a lot of land is wasted (for lack of a better word) on military training grounds and factory spaces. Is there a way we can compromise to create more space for the long term, while we recalibrate population figures?
Adam Toh Disagrees: We Should Not Reclaim Anymore Land
We SHOULD NOT reclaim anymore land unless absolutely necessary. Our marine environment was badly damaged in the 90s and 00s due to the massive amount of reclamation and we should not allow that to happen again.
Increasing First-Time Buyer, Second-Child and Family Unit subsidies
I know we already have huge subsidies, but this shouldn’t come in form of a careless cash subsidy. We need to think of a more practical approach where we aren’t treated like science experiments.
Increase Individual Tax (staircased by turnover and executive salaries above $150,000)
We currently pay barely any tax. A lot of Singaporeans confuse CPF with tax, but CPF is your pension fund. A brilliant product more countries should adopt.
Improve Quality Of SMEs and Corporations With Higher Tax & Regulations
Strict rules and regulations accompany start ups to encourage skilled start ups and not ones based on sole-proprietorships ‘undercutting’ which is a rising trend in the media industry for example. I was guilty of it too. There are no shortcuts to progressing in quality.
Reward Companies For Hiring Locals
Rebates are given for every local employee. In addition to corporate tax adjustments, it becomes more worthwhile to employ a local tradesman, than a foreign one to maximise personal gains of profit.
Encourage Thought Leadership and Supporting Local Products
Instead of cash grants, headhunt specific skilled leaders with expertise in the industries to create and nurture solid, sustainable routes of revenue for all things local.
What do you think? Please continue to send me your suggestions.