Saturday 5 May 2012

Why can't S'poreans have more babies?

Participants at seminar on population projections question basic assumptions
By Leslie Koh, The Straits Times, 4 May 2012

A SEMINAR held to discuss population projections yesterday ended up with academics posing questions which they said Singapore must answer before deciding on population and immigration policies.

Among other things, they asked: Why can't Singaporeans have more babies? What quality of life do they want in the future? And, what trade-offs are they willing to accept if they want fewer foreigners?

The questions came after the Institute of Policy Studies (IPS) released projections of how Singapore's populace might look like between now and 2050.

It found that even if the share of foreigners went up from the current one-quarter to a third of total population, the nation's proportion of working-age citizens would eventually shrink, and its elderly population grow.

The think-tank's study came a week after the Government's National Population and Talent Division  (NPTD) released its own projections on the number of new citizens needed to halt population decline.

Bringing in foreigners to supplement the local workforce will push population figures up.

Architect Liu Thai Ker, one of the speakers at the seminar, urged Singapore to take a pragmatic approach.

'Population growth is like a flood, you can't stop it,' he observed. 'Rather than talk about stopping the growth, we should talk about how to deal with it.'

The issue of how many foreign workers and new citizens to take in is a politically sensitive one that has dominated public debate in past months. Many Singaporeans are unhappy with the Government over what they see as a liberal immigration policy, saying that migrants do not fit in well, compete for their jobs and drive wages down.

Their concerns were echoed by many of the 40-plus academics gathered at the seminar at Orchard Hotel yesterday, as they looked at the implications of a growing population for the economy, the environment and social integration.

But while much of the debate has centred on immigration policies, the academics went back to the basics and questioned some of the basic assumptions - such as, why Singapore appeared to have given up trying to raise its Total Fertility Rate.

This is the average number of children a woman gives birth to in her lifetime. Singapore's has dropped to 1.2, well below the 2.1 it needs to keep its population from shrinking.

Academics blamed this on changing lifestyles and inadequate childcare facilities, and called on the Government to do more to help couples raise families.

Sociologist Paulin Straughan said the problem lay even deeper: stress at work, big focus on careers and high expectations of marriage were delaying young people from tying the knot and having children.

'Even before you can encourage baby-making, you have to encourage courtship and marriage,' she said.

What made yesterday's discussion especially lively was the varied backgrounds of the participants.

Representing several disciplines, they included familiar names such as IPS special adviser Tommy Koh, IPS senior research fellow Gillian Koh, architect Liu Thai Ker, statistician Paul Cheung and economists from both universities and the private sector.

On the whole, most appeared to favour slower population growth and a smaller intake of foreigners, although they acknowledged that foreign workers would always be needed.

Economist Yeoh Lam Keong asked if Singapore really needed to keep growing its labour force at a high rate, and suggested that Singapore accept a lower economic growth rate in the long term, like other developed countries.

Others suggested that raising productivity more aggressively and bringing in only skilled workers could sustain economic growth without requiring a large army of foreign workers.

Some noted that a smaller population would ensure a better quality of life, as congestion in housing estates and on public transport would be less.

Others warned about the impact of a growing population on social tensions between locals and foreigners, and discussed ideas about how to get new citizens to integrate into Singapore society.

Psychology professor David Chan posed a more philosophical question, saying Singapore had to decide what kind of society it wanted before trying to arrive at hard numbers.

'This is about consequences and outcomes, not about optimal population figures,' he said. 'We have to define the outcomes we want... what people think about Singapore as a country.'

5 burning questions
By Phua Mei Pin & Matthias Chew, The Straits Times, 4 May 2012

ACADEMICS posed numerous questions about how many foreigners and new citizens Singapore should take in each year, and what kind of population growth it should aim for. These are the key questions:

How many people should Singapore house in 2050?

In their discussion on what optimal population Singapore should aim for, experts covered the potential impact of a large population on the environment.

Urban planning expert Malone-Lee Lai Choo noted that with limited land, more open spaces would need to be converted for high-density residential use. But some argued that it was possible to squeeze people into high-rise buildings, leaving the other areas intact.

Nevertheless, the academics raised concerns over the congestion that would result in MRT trains, in malls and in housing estates.

Statistician Paul Cheung noted that the MRT network was overcrowded because it had not been designed for the current population. So, he argued, Singapore should plan for 8 million in the future. 'Allow for higher, but settle for lower,' he said.

How can we make more babies?

A discussion of Singapore's low Total Fertility Rate (TFR) drew a lively response, with experts tossing up ideas on how it could be raised. Several cited examples of how Scandinavian nations had managed to turn their low birth rates around, and asked: 'Why can't Singapore do the same?'

Some said affordable housing, health care and social security were needed.

Agreeing, economist Tilak Abeysinghe cited a study showing that housing affordability could affect TFR. 'When homes are expensive, couples may delay marrying, buying a home and starting a family,' he explained later.

Sociologist Paulin Straughan blamed Singaporeans' excessive focus on work, which left little time for singles to date, and for couples to consider having children.

The competitive education system, she added, made it more stressful for parents. Her radical solutions: Get rid of PSLE and streaming, and abolish performance bonuses so people wouldn't feel pressured to spend long hours at work.

Will Singaporeans be willing to live with fewer foreign workers?

Experts repeatedly warned about the trade-offs that Singaporeans would face if they wanted to reduce the inflow of foreigners.

As Singapore's population aged, they pointed out, they would rely more on foreign workers to maintain their high quality of life.

'Which foreigner would you want to eliminate?' asked IPS director Janadas Devan. 'The maid who cleans your house and helps look after your children? The nurse who looks after your aged parents in a hospital or nursing home? The construction workers building the flats, train lines and hospitals you want built?'

But some, like the dean of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy Kishore Mahbubani, noted that many developed countries managed to sustain high female work participation rates - and high fertility too. They suggested that eldercare services be improved to support households better.

How much growth do we really need?

Should Singapore strive for high economic growth to compete with Asian giants like India and China? Or should it carve out its own niche and compete to be 'liveable' as a city, rather than try to be a bigger economy?

Such questions were raised during the exchange on economic growth goals.

Some suggested that higher population growth was needed to support higher economic growth. But others suggested that Singapore, being a developed country, should accept a lower long-term economic growth rate.

'It makes more sense to grow at 3 per cent rather than 6 per cent, than try to be something we're not,' said economist Yeoh Lam Keong. 'We are refusing to grow up as a developed city. The sooner we grow up, the better.'

Some suggested that the authorities be more selective about the type of people they let in. Taking in more skilled workers and less unskilled ones, they noted, would enable Singapore to maintain productive growth - and hence economic growth - with smaller numbers of foreign workers.

Can Singaporeans accept foreigners into their communities?

During a discussion of the social aspects of a rising immigrant population, some observed that Singaporeans had become less accepting of outsiders in recent years.

Labour economist Hui Weng Tat said the tension between locals and foreigners has risen because the influx of new citizens and foreign workers was seen as having depressed local wages. Others pointed to competition for space in housing estates and MRT trains.

'The change comes from the fact that suddenly, the competition became too intense. The Government was too slow in dealing with this,' said statistician Paul Cheung.

Experts noted, however, that integration can take a long time.

Sociologist Lai Ah Eng said she remained hopeful that better integration will happen among the young. 'The second generation and subsequent generations, that's when socialisation will happen,' she said.

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