Monday 28 May 2012

Can we cope with 8 million on the island?

Much depends on how we plan - and provide - services to meet growing needs
By Warren Fernandez, The Straits Times, 27 May 2012

Xenophobia is alive and well around the world, including in some corners of this island.

Just look at the vitriol being spewed on the Internet against foreigners in the wake of the tragic accident on Rochor Road involving a speed demon from Sichuan.

A foreign observer might be forgiven for concluding that Singapore is not far off from spawning a nationalist party, whose rallying cry might be the mantra now being spouted by politicians of every stripe: 'Singaporeans first.'

This seems ironic in a nation where most people are second- or third-generation offspring of immigrants themselves. How has it come to this? What explains the visceral reactions to those who have arrived here more recently?

Sure, some new immigrants may be arrogant and uncouth. But when I hear venom being heaped collectively on 'foreigners', I can't help but wonder if those speaking realise that our forefathers too hailed from similar sources, probably spoke little English and had social graces that might not sit so comfortably in modern Singapore. They were probably looked down on, discriminated against, perhaps even abused, by their colonial masters.

Have we forgotten?

More importantly, what are the implications if Singapore turns inwards and spurns new additions to its ranks? Can a small city-state, ageing more rapidly than most other societies, really afford for immigration to become politically toxic?

Immigration and integration look set to dominate discussion, with several think-tanks and policy units releasing population projections and scenarios on dependency ratios recently. The Government also has a White Paper on the subject due later this year.

The anxiety in official circles is warranted, given that on current trends, there will be far fewer young people to support the elderly in future. The burden - financial, social, emotional - will be heavy. In response, many have begun asking what more might be done to boost Singaporeans' productivity, not just in the boardrooms but also the bedrooms.

But this debate begs wider questions - just how many people do we need, or want, on this island? How many can we cope with? The answers are crucial, for on them turn how we plan and prepare for the immigrants we allow in.

The trouble, though, is that because the issue is so highly charged, it is one that has often been sidestepped.

For a long time, Singaporeans were told that there might be 6.5 million people on the island 'by Year X'. But few seemed to know, or were willing to say, just when Year X was.

When asked, policymakers would hum, haw and assert that this was 'not a target' but a 'planning parameter' - whatever that meant. Presumably, it was believed that greater clarity would make it harder to achieve a happy outcome, socially and politically.

One day, however, Singaporeans awoke to read in The Straits Times that Singapore had close to five million citizens and residents. Year X was suddenly closer than we imagined.

We all know the result. Crowding, complaints, costs rising, as well as a mounting sense that things had gone too far, too fast, culminating in the voter backlash last May.

Given the time needed to ramp up infrastructure projects, it will be some years before the situation can be put right and social tensions are eased.

With immigration now an even more 'sensitive subject', my concern is that we might make the same mistake and seek to sugarcoat any discussion about just how many people this island can accommodate, physically, socially, and yes, politically.

Yet, there is just no running away from it. Going by population projections from the Institute of Policy Studies (IPS), even if Singapore has as many as one foreigner for every two residents in the next 40 years, the population will continue to age and the labour force growth rate will decline.

The result: The number of working-age people to take care of each elderly person will keep shrinking.

The IPS study shows that with the most aggressive intake of foreigners, when one-third of the people are non-residents, Singapore's total population is likely to grow to 7.3 million by 2050. If the intake is lowered to one-quarter or one-fifth, we might have 6.1 million people on the island.

How many people can Singapore cope with: 6.1 million? 7.3 million? 8 million?

Many will baulk at these numbers. Urban planners are already sounding the alarm that more open spaces might have to be converted to high-density housing. They point to congestion on MRT trains, on the road, in malls and our housing estates.

Veteran statistician Paul Cheung sees it differently. He argues that the MRT network is overcrowded because it was not designed for today's population. So, Singapore should plan and build for 8 million in the future, he says.

In other words, it is not the lack of space or facilities that is the main constraint on future population growth as much as the failure to plan - and deliver - the infrastructure required.

Clearly, any discussion on an optimal population cannot be conducted in isolation, but in tandem with plans for housing, hospitals, schools, jobs, transport and leisure options for more people. Otherwise, present realities will constrain thinking about the future.

So, for example, more details are needed on development plans for areas such as Dempsey, the old Turf Club, the waterfront areas and former KTM railway land around Tanjong Pagar, as well as Bukit Brown and Bidadari, or even offshore islands like Tekong. How will these be built up, and when?

Such reviews are done periodically when urban planners unveil the long-term master plans for the island. The next review is due next year. But that might be a year too late.

Without putting the population debate into this wider context, it will be difficult to get minds around the idea of boosting the population to 6 million, let alone 8 million, while keeping the doors open to immigrants.

Ironically, rather than physical limitations, politics might then prove the ultimate constraint to population growth.

This could do Singapore a grave disservice. After all, experience in recent years has shown the benefits of a larger population - not only has it helped boost economic growth, it has also led to a wider range of lifestyle options, from museums to music events, restaurants and retail outlets.

Most Singaporeans are not mean-spirited or xenophobic. In my view, the present angst and anxiety stem from a sense that the provision of essential services has not kept up with the population boom, and fears that this unhappy state of affairs will continue, and perhaps worsen, in future.

So when it comes to population planning, I say better to spell it out. Yes, it will mean more debate, perhaps more political heat, and even some controversy.

But the alternative is worse: A lack of a clear consensus on the way forward could give rise to divisive, perhaps unstoppable, political pressures that could turn us inwards, and ultimately, downwards.

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