Singapore is facing an imminent demographic crisis. Falling citizen birth rates and the rapidly aging population are presenting huge challenges for the economy. This problem is expected to exacerbate as the “baby boomer” generation retires, which could trigger a “silver tsunami” to the detriment of the Singapore economy and society. At the current rate without immigration, the citizen population will shrink from 2025 onwards. Similarly by 2030, there will only be a 0.7 citizen entering working-age for every citizen leaving the working age.[1] It is estimated in 2030, the number of elderly citizens in Singapore aged 65 and above will be 900,000, a huge increase from the 340,000 in 2011.[2] Such trends, if ignored, will blunt the economic competitiveness of Singapore and place a huge burden on the working population to support the aged.

In view of these concerns, the Singapore Government released the Population White Paper on 28 January 2013, which “sets out Singapore's population and immigration policies for the future”.[3] The White Paper, titled “A Sustainable Population for a Dynamic Singapore”, was formulated after the National Population and Talent Division gathered the feedback and views from Singaporeans.

The Population White Paper
The White Paper tackles the demographic challenges through a comprehensive strategy. It also stresses the importance of immigrants in helping Singapore to maintain economic competitiveness and manage the population issues faced. A three pronged approach is taken, which includes plans for building a “strong and cohesive society”, a “dynamic and vibrant economy”, and a “high quality living environment”.[4] Also complementing the White Paper are various other policies and policy documents to achieve the targets listed in the White Paper.

Encouraging marriage and parenthood
The White Paper places strong emphasis on encouraging marriage and parenthood. Just weeks prior to the release of the White Paper, the Government announced a series of enhancements and new measures to the Marriage and Parenthood Package. Some improvements include the Parenthood Priority Scheme “gives priority allocation for new HDB flats to first-timer married couples with children”, and one week Government-Paid Paternity leave for fathers.[5] These measures are aimed at encouraging couples to marry earlier and have more children, which may arrest the trend of falling birth rates.

Restructuring the economy
As Singaporeans are becoming increasingly well-educated and knowledgeable, the White Paper also proposes a change to the structure of Singapore’s economy. More Professional, Managerial, Executive and Technical (PMET) jobs will be created in future for skilled Singaporeans. To achieve this aim, Singapore will be focusing on more high-value sectors and professional services (e.g. legal, consultancy and accountancy services).

The Government will also be encouraging business to restructure and increase their productivity[6] in view of the population shifts. Recognising the challenges imposed by the curbs in immigration, the Government is targeting 2-3% of productivity growth per year up to 2020. With a workforce growth of 1-2%, the White Paper projects a Gross Domestic Product (GDP) growth of between 3-4% per year up to 2020, and between 2-3% per year from 2020 to 2030.

Population projections in 2030
Perhaps the most notable item in the White Paper would be the population projections it envisages by 2030. Singapore will be taking in 15,000 to 25,000 new citizens each year to prevent the citizen population from decreasing. To ensure Singapore has a pool of suitable candidates for citizenship, the Permanent Resident population will be kept between 500,000 to 600,000. The non-resident population will be between 2.3 to 2.5 million, to contribute to the growth of the economy. Singapore’s total population then will be between 6.5 to 6.9 million.

Infrastructure development:
The White Paper also acknowledges the shortcoming of infrastructure development in Singapore for the past decade, admitting that the authorities “under-estimated demand” for infrastructure, which led to “congestion on our public transport system and a tight housing market”. To prevent the same mistakes, the Government will be rolling out a series of infrastructure upgrades to support the expected increase in population. The White Paper mentions that new Mass Rapid Transit lines will be added, increasing the rail network by about 100 km to 280km by 2021. Accompanying the Population White Paper is the new Land Use Plan released by the Ministry of National Development on 31 January 2013, to manage the limited space of Singapore for industrial, business, housing, recreational, defence, and other purposes. For example, new housing estates will be established in areas like Tengah and Bidadari.

The response to the White Paper was mixed. A variety of individuals and groups expressed their opinion on the issue in the weeks after the announcement of the paper.

6.9 million: Target, planning parameter, worst case scenario, or best case scenario?
Much of the opposition and comments on the White Paper were focused on the projected population of 6.9 million in 2030. Many people expressed fear that the large population may mean that Singaporeans will form the minority in the country, and face increased competition from foreigners for housing, jobs and healthcare, among many other concerns.

Government ministers were quick to clarify what the population projection in the White Paper meant. Minister in the Prime Minister's Office S Iswaran stressed that the 6.9 million figure is not a target that the Government “must try and hit”.[7] National Development Minister Khaw Boon Wan also said that the figure is only the “worst case scenario”, and he hoped that the figure will not be reached.[8]

Deputy Prime Minister (DPM) Teo Chee Hean
In his parliamentary debates and addresses, DPM Teo stressed the perils of an aging population on the economy. He mentioned that taxes would be raised to fund subsidies for the elderly, and the associated economic stresses on young Singaporeans would force them to migrate, which “threatens the sustainability” of the Singaporean core population.[9] As such, he urged the Parliament to endorse the White Paper.[10]

Business community
As the White Paper projected a slowdown in the workforce growth, the business community expressed its worries about the potential impact on their operations. Many businesses in Singapore, especially Small and Medium Enterprises (SMEs), are heavily dependent on foreign workers to fill their ranks. The Singapore Business Federation (SBF) warned of "devastating consequences" for businesses, and the Association of Small and Medium Enterprises (Asme) urged the Government to reconsider the tightening of the inflow of foreign workers.[11]

Opposition parties
Workers’ Party, the largest opposition party in the Parliament, opposed the White Paper. Sylvia Lim, the party Chairman, said that the “Government, in expanding the population to reach its economic growth targets, has gotten its priorities the wrong way around”. It instead proposed that by 2030, the projected population would be 5.9 million, with a Gross Domestic Product (GDP) growth rate 1.5 per cent to 2 per cent from 2020 to 2030.[12] It released its own population policy paper on 23 February 2013, titled “A Dynamic Population for a Sustainable Singapore”.[13]

Other opposition parties, including the Singapore Democratic Party, National Solidarity Party, Singapore People’s Party[14], and the Reform Party, also expressed their opposition to the White Paper, with some parties offering alternative proposals.[15]

Hong Lim Park rally
A large rally protesting against the White Paper was held at Hong Lim Park, the only area in Singapore where protests are allowed, on 16 February 2013. This is a significant event as it was one of the biggest in Singapore’s recent history. Organized by Gilbert Goh, an opposition party member, thousands (estimates ranged from the low thousands to 4000) of people turned up during the event to oppose the Population White Paper.[16]

A man at the Hong Lim Park rally. Source: REUTERS
A man at the Hong Lim Park rally. Source: REUTERS

After a five day debate, the White Paper, with an amendment, was endorsed by the Parliament, with 77 yes votes, 13 no votes, and 1 abstention. The amendment supports a strong Singaporean core by encouraging marriage and parenthood, and recognizes that the population projection beyond 2020 is not a target.[17]

In his speech to the Parliament, Prime Minister (PM) Lee pledged not to let Singapore be "overwhelmed by a sheer flood" of foreigners. The Government is also “not passing the responsibility of planning” to the next generation of leaders. Looking forward, PM Lee said Singapore’s population in 2030 and beyond is for Singaporeans in future to decide.[18] Hence, the White Paper will be reviewed closer to 2020.[19]

Thinking questions
  1. How should Singapore balance its need for continuous economic growth with the need to control foreign immigration inflow? Which priority is more important?
  2. Should more Singaporeans be consulted for their views on the White Paper before endorsing it in the Parliament, after only five days of debate? Given the White Paper’s significance and importance on Singapore in 2030, should it be put up for a referendum?
  3. How should the Government balance its need to enact polices with the need to listen to its constituents and citizens?

Extra resources
The full Population White Paper
Executive Summary of the Population White Paper

[1] Population White Paper, National Population and Talent Division
[2] Silver tsunami & dwindling workforce can destabilise economies: Lee Yi Shyan
[3] Singapore's population could hit 6.9m by 2030, with Singaporean core
[4] Population White Paper, National Population and Talent Division
[5] Population White Paper, National Population and Talent Division
[6] Productivity is the amount of economic output from a given amount of input (Land, labour, capital)
[7] 6.9 million population is a projection: S Iswaran
[8] 6.9 million population projection is "worst case scenario": Khaw
[9] DPM Teo: Sustainable population the most important part of Population White Paper
[10] White Paper marks a slowdown in population growth: DPM Teo
[11] Call to relook curbs on foreign labour inflow
[12] WP opposes Population White Paper, says its chairman Sylvia Lim
[13] Workers' Party publishes its Population Policy Paper
[14] Parliamentary Speech on Population White Paper
[15] SDP, NSP raise concerns on Population White Paper
[16] Singapore Protest Exposes Voter Worries About Immigration
[17] Amended motion on white paper adopted; 6.9 million is not a target
[18] Parliament endorses Population White Paper
[19] Amended motion on white paper adopted; 6.9 million is not a target