Tuesday 5 February 2013

Reaction to Population White Paper 2013

Population priorities and perceptions
By David Chan, Published The Straits Times, 4 Feb 2013

THE strong public reactions to the Population White Paper and the Land Use Plan should be understood in terms of Singaporeans' current experience of the quality of their lives. As we discuss the population roadmap, we must address fundamental issues relating to the purpose, priorities and perceptions of population policies. These issues include effects of land use, social integration, sustainability and well- being.

Strategies to accommodate a bigger population while still offering a good quality of life are discussed in the land use report. Quality of life is multidimensional, with economic, social, psychological and environmental aspects. Ensuring good quality living is going to depend on how the land use strategies are implemented. Policymakers and planners will need to consider diverse views and adapt effectively along the way.

Not every land use issue has to be a zero-sum trade-off situation. For example, safeguarding heritage and green areas need not be inconsistent with urban redevelopment. A historic cemetery could be converted to a publicly accessible heritage park that contributes directly to urban redevelopment. This is feasible with intensification of land use in other areas and effective transport planning.

A holistic approach is more than a technical issue of coordinating between agencies. Each policy needs to be designed and evaluated in terms of multiple goals that together contribute to Singaporeans' quality of life, as opposed to solutions to singular problems. While the latter policy mindset may create unintended negative consequences, the former is likely to effectively achieve more and diverse goals with fewer resources and obstacles.

An example is the intensification of land use. Developing mixed-use clusters of buildings which increase quality living and hence their attractiveness will require us to be sensitive to rising housing prices and office rentals in and near these areas. We should guard against producing and reproducing economic, spatial and social inequalities.

We should think holistically about the diverse aspects of quality of life and the integrative functions of a policy. So instead of letting prices and costs freely rise as part of market conditions, we could adopt policies that would reduce such rises and enhance social goals. For example, there could be policies that lower the cost for residents taking up job opportunities in their neighbourhood. This serves integrative functions because work-home proximity enhances part-time work, flexible work hours and work-life balance, eases the strain on the public transport system, encourages women to enter the workforce and the elderly to remain economically and socially active, contributes to the sense of community in the neighbourhood, encourages entrepreneurship and innovation in business, and creates value- added jobs for various segments of the population.

The population discussion should pay much more attention to social integration, which is not a "nice-to-have" - it is critical and foundational. Without reasonable integration, large population size and high-density living will pose security, social and political challenges that make diversity a liability when it could be an asset for Singapore.

Social integration takes time to develop and once damaged is difficult to restore. The degree of social integration and the pace of its development is not as predictable as building houses or MRT tracks, and not as controllable as the number of foreigners to take in. Citizen well-being and the state of social integration should be key factors when deciding the number and type of foreigners to take in each year.

Large numbers of foreigners create threats to cohesion from crowding, clustering, competition, comparisons and conflict. We need to be more effective managing integration by being more citizen-centric, develop opportunities for contributions by locals and foreigners, invest in community development, be more sensitive in our communications, and better manage conflicts and crises.

According to the White Paper, the ultimate goal is to build a strong Singaporean core. But what is fundamental is citizen well-being, which contributes to national identity, commitment to Singapore and rootedness to the country. These are critical in developing a strong core, which is not only about jobs and wages.

The Government's purpose and society's goal should be about enhancing citizen well-being. So the question should be: "What is the desired composition profile of the population to enhance citizen well-being?" It is about the outcomes and consequences of various profiles, not about a magical number representing the optimal population size to target.

We should work out a desirable and sustainable profile of the population, establishing realistic projected population ranges for city planning and economy structuring. Both the profile and ranges are dynamic and may change over time in response to unexpected shocks and interrupted growth in the population trajectory. Population policy decisions should be made not only based on economic considerations but also the extent to which our society can remain cohesive and resilient.

Well-being is affected by issues of physical space involving land use and social space involving interactions among people. But well-being is also affected by psychological space involving how we think and feel about being Singaporean as we see how population policy decisions are made, experience their impact, compare the outcomes for different segments of the population, and locate ourselves in relation to the nation.

How then to discuss the population roadmap?

First, we need to understand and address citizens' concerns and aspirations.

Second, a strong Singaporean core is more than jobs, wages and taxes. We need to focus on national identity, commitment and rootedness to the country. At the centre is citizen well-being. We need to ensure that the population increase and intensification of land use are translated into outcomes that benefit citizens and contribute to our well-being.

Finally, we need to develop valid social indicators of citizen well-being and liveability. We need to measure and track changes in what citizens think and feel as they experience different domains of their lives. We can then use these results as inputs to policy formulation and revision relating to population numbers and profiles. The multiple dimensions and changes in citizen well-being should be the key impact and outcome indicators for Singapore.

The writer is director of the Behavioural Sciences Institute and professor of psychology at Singapore Management University.

Will our healthcare system be ready?
By Jeremy Lim, Published TODAY, 4 Feb 2013

The recently-released Population White Paper projects Singapore’s population to potentially increase to 6 million in seven years’ time and 6.9 million by 2030. The Government has sounded the reassurance that healthcare infrastructure is being ramped up and “the number of acute hospital beds will increase by 2,200, a 30 per cent increase from today”.

Health Minister Gan Kim Yong, over the weekend, reaffirmed that his ministry ensures its efforts align with the Government’s planning norm so that by 2030, “we will make sure that we have sufficient capacity to meet the population at that time”.

Is this enough?

The chart shows the number of acute hospital beds per 1,000 population in Singapore in 2011 and 2020 (projected based on the White Paper), compared with select Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) countries. Two observations jump out: Firstly, Singapore today has far fewer beds compared to many other developed countries.

Secondly, even with 2,200 additional beds in 2020, because of ongoing population growth, Singapore will increase by just 0.07 to 2.27 beds per 1,000 population, still far below the OECD average today of 3.4 acute hospital beds per 1,000 population.

However, unlike housing or transport, Singapore’s immigration-fuelled population growth may impact healthcare less severely. Age profile matters in health, and the conventional wisdom is that new citizens, Permanent Residents and migrant workers should be relatively young and hardly move the needle in terms of demand for specialist services and hospital beds. It is the elderly who form the largest users of in-patient care.

That said, there are still effects that warrant consideration as Singapore debates the White Paper.


While newcomers may not tax in-patient services significantly, they will need primary care (general practitioners) and emergency services just like everyone else. Singapore already has over-burdened polyclinics and Accident and Emergency Departments across the country, and this will likely push waiting times up even more.

Let us re-examine the conventional wisdom. While newcomers may barely need inpatient care, their relatives will. My experience in the private sector has been that some expatriates of Asian origin do bring their parents to Singapore for healthcare.

Of course, they seek private healthcare but remember we are an inter-related ecosystem and explosive demand in the private sector will undoubtedly lure more doctors out of the public sector and also increase healthcare costs nationally.

Our healthcare system is carefully balanced on a knife’s edge. For efficiency, we hover around the sharp inflexion point on the demand-waiting time graph, and even very small increases in demand can cause waiting times to spike dramatically.

See how waiting times in the Emergency Departments can be “magically” cleared by discharging a handful of patients from the wards. Conversely, a few patients refusing to be discharged in the wards above can wreak havoc in the emergency room below.


There is substantial literature on the effects of crowding in urban settings, and while the data is not conclusive, many academics generally agree that overcrowding is associated with increased levels of psychological stress.

It will be vital for policy makers to consider mental health issues in determining what levels of population densities are appropriate, and specifically make provisions for the lower socio-economic segments of society. As a Cornell University report highlights, “exposure to poor environmental conditions is not randomly distributed and tends to concentrate among the poor and ethnic minorities”.


Related to high population densities is the risk of faster spread of infectious diseases. One paediatrician raised concerns that we would see more outbreaks of Hand, Foot and Mouth Disease, influenza and the like. More epidemics, and more severe ones.

Also, would 6.9 million people make it harder to react and respond to a SARS-type outbreak? Are our public health crisis responses readied?

The health and healthcare effects of rapidly growing the Singapore population are not insubstantial. It is simplistic to consider only slivers of healthcare resources such as in-patient beds or the size of the healthcare workforce, but even the state of these do not reassure compared to other developed countries.

To allay Singaporeans’ concerns, the Ministry of Health should reveal the detailed projections and plans it has developed to cope with the multi-hued effects of population growth, including not just physical but also psychological health and pandemic preparedness.

Dr Jeremy Lim has held senior executive positions in both public and private healthcare sectors. He is currently writing a book on the Singapore health system.

Our impending integration challenges
By Terence Chong, Published TODAY, 5 Feb 2013

The Singapore Government’s much awaited Population White Paper was finally released on Jan 29. Within it, two primary challenges are recognised which, like pincers, are closing in at an alarming rate.

On the one hand, the country’s population is ageing rapidly, while on the other, its total fertility rate (TFR) of 1.2 is one of the lowest in the world. This shrinking and simultaneously ageing tendency of the population not only heralds slower economic growth for the near future but also draws attention to some key concerns, such as the impending inability to meet the nation’s military and security needs.

In order to address this future scenario, the White Paper has projected the population trajectory to hit 5.8 million to 6 million by 2020, and between 6.5 million and 6.9 million by 2030.

In light of these stark recommendations, the White Paper’s introduction to the public needed to be a politically managed event.

The Government had long sought to impress upon Singaporeans, in the lead-up to its release, the gravity of the population situation and the difficult decisions in store.

But even best laid plans go awry.


Initially scheduled for release at the end of last year, the Population White Paper was held up by the Punggol East by-election.

However, that did not only delay its release — leaving reports from DBS Vickers of a possible figure of 7 million to circulate unchallenged — but also led to a curious situation where concrete government measures to address the population issue were unveiled even before the public knew what the relevant figures actually were.

For instance, during the election campaign, the Government seized the opportunity to publicise several major policy initiatives.

The enhanced Marriage and Parenthood package that included increased Baby Bonus; extended paternal leave to encourage more local births; the building of 200,000 new homes by 2016; and the slew of public transportation measures to ease overcrowding, were announced in the heat of the campaign.

For a brief, surreal moment it was as if the medication was being prescribed before details of the ailment were made known.

These measures, in the end, did not stop the swing of votes away from the incumbent party, and may now have only limited impact in assuaging public concerns about a future population of 6.9 million.


To be sure, going beyond the headline-grabbing figures, there are several matters with regards to national identity and integration that beg to be addressed first. The first is the anxiety over national identity.

According to the White Paper, “Singaporeans form the core of our society and the heart of our nation. To have a strong and cohesive society, we must have a strong Singaporean core”.

But with Singaporeans making up only 3.8 million of the projected 6.9 million, or half of the total population, it is uncertain if this core will be stable or not, or whether it will even be identifiable.

While it may be true that identity and values are things that are constantly evolving, if one out of two people in Singapore is a foreigner, local identities and values will evolve at a rate so accelerated that it will cause strong anxiety and insecurity among core Singaporeans.

The rate of incoming foreigners will be unprecedented, especially in relation to the island-state’s small population size.

The proportion of citizens to foreigners may take the country past the tipping point where the idea of Singapore will grow increasingly ambiguous, and thus consign the nation-building project to a constant state of arrested development.


The integration process, comprising only of state-sponsored institutions such as the People’s Association or interested individuals like Integration and Naturalisation Champions, is also woefully inadequate.

This is because there are already psychological forces at play that cause anxiety over immigrants. One of these is the worry over limited national resources.

Consequently, the spectre of foreigners “out in force” in the property market “snapping up almost one in three new private homes in Singapore” only serves to fuel fears that Singaporeans will be increasingly priced out of dream homes.

At the mid to lower end level, citizens may grow more resentful of the variety of subsidies that Permanent Residents (PRs) enjoy in key areas such as health, housing and education.

To complicate matters, the persistent perception that the Singapore Government is parsimonious when it comes to welfare benefits may well strengthen the belief that foreigners have better access to the nation’s material resources than needy citizens.

This sense of loss is especially exacerbated in Singaporeans who have expressed suspicions of discrimination by foreigners in hiring positions, who prefer to appoint candidates of their nationality or ethnicity.


Perceptions of immigrants as exploitative and calculative are, of course, not limited to Singapore. They are quite routine, for example, in the wake of the inflow of Third World immigrants into First World sites where different trans-border groups such as refugees, asylum seekers and economic migrants are often considered welfare scroungers.

While Singapore’s strict immigration laws and tight border controls may have reduced the presence of refugees and asylum seekers to almost nought, perceptions of immigrants as scroungers are perpetuated when immigrants from less developed countries like China and India take up citizenship here to facilitate their move to destinations that they had considered more attractive from the start.

In other cases, local institutes of tertiary education may offer plum scholarships to PRC students to undergo their undergraduate or postgraduate courses, only to see many of these leaving for the United States upon completion of their studies.

In March last year, Deputy Prime Minister Teo Chee Hean revealed that as many as 300 of the 1,200 citizens who renounced their citizenship each year were actually new citizens. According to Mr Lee Kuan Yew, “some use us as a stepping stone, take courses at our university, then they go off to the US, where the streets are paved of gold, and some don’t come back”.

With the population increase, higher numbers of new citizens renouncing their Singapore citizenship can be expected. The image of them as “scroungers” persists primarily because they are from developing countries that are at least two or three generations away from the level of affluence Singapore enjoys.


While it is too early to speculate over the types of new citizens that will be inducted in the future, existing patterns are likely to remain. In other words, Chinese Malaysians will comprise the largest number of new citizens, with Chinese from China coming in second place.

New citizens are likely to be in their 20s, 30s and 40s, and in their economic prime. They are likely to have families, which would be in keeping with the Government’s drive to stem the decline in TFR.

New citizens are also likely to be better-educated than local-born citizens. According to the Department of Statistics, 69.7 per cent of “new citizens” at present have post-secondary education, in comparison to 44.1 per cent of “existing citizens”.

How this greater influx of better educated new citizens will affect less-educated local-born citizens remains to be seen. It is likely that class envy will eventually take deeper root, accentuated by the differences in country of origin.

Another related issue is the requirement of state policy to maintain the ethnic balance in the country. The local Chinese population has a TFR rate of 1.08, the Indian population’s is 1.09, while the Malay population’s is 1.64.

While Chinese from Malaysia and China will augment the local Chinese population and Indians from India the local Indian population, the local Malay population, despite its higher TFR, may decline proportionally given the low immigration rate from the region due to various sensitivities. This problem is bound to manifest itself in starker terms in the near future.


Finally, of the 6.9 million, it is estimated that 4.4 million will comprise the resident population, of which 3.8 million will be Singaporean citizens. This increase in PRs as well as new citizens will profoundly alter the residential landscape.

One possible outcome is that PRs and new citizens who share the same country of origin may converge on certain residential areas to form exclusive communities and social networks. Anecdotal evidence suggests that this is already happening with Indian nationals.

New citizens who live in such exclusive communities may not necessarily share common experiences with ordinary Singaporeans and may have little incentive to integrate. Ties to their country of origin may continue to be strong.

The question then is, will there be measures, perhaps akin to the existing Housing and Development Board ethnic quota policy, to ensure that new Singaporeans do not converge according to their country of origin? This, and other questions, will require definite answers long before 2030.

Terence Chong is an ISEAS Senior Fellow. This is abridged from an article which first appeared in ISEAS Perspective, which is published by the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, Singapore.

Experts weigh in on population projections
Past projections fell short of real growth, but some analysts feel that current forecast would have factored in buffer
By Woo Sian Boon, TODAY, 4 Feb 2013

As Parliament sits today to debate the White Paper on population, some experts have questioned the soundness and accuracy of the projected population figures, given the difficulty in forecasting population growth.

Citing the Government’s track record of underestimating population growth, they noted that external factors, such as the global economy and the demand for labour, would likely throw such forecasts off the mark.

Nevertheless, others felt that policymakers would have gleaned lessons from past instances and factored in a buffer in their latest projections.

In particular, demographer Gavin Jones from the Asia Research Institute at the National University of Singapore (NUS) pointed out that the population projections for 2030 factored in more than two million non-residents. This would give policymakers some “flexibility”, he noted.

The White Paper projects that by 2020, there could be between 5.8 million and 6 million people in Singapore. By 2030, the range is projected to increase to between 6.5 million and 6.9 million.

But Economic Society of Singapore Vice-President Yeoh Lam Keong reiterated that population growth “always tends to exceed projected forecast”.

“Because, firstly, there is very strong demand for labour from existing labour-intensive industries, and industry has a strong influence on immigration policy,” he said.

“Secondly, given economic uncertainty, during the times when we have growth, the Government tends to err on the side of caution and go for more growth. Given these two tendencies, we tend to systematically overshoot population growth, not intentionally, but because of circumstance and current institutional practice.”

While SIM University economics professor Randolph Tan noted that such forecasts are “always notoriously inaccurate”, he felt that publishing the White Paper was a “responsible” move by the Government, as it allows Singaporeans to air their concerns and hear “both sides of the debate”.

But he said that policymakers could have come up with a less definitive forecast. Instead, Singaporeans could be informed about the probability of reaching a population of 6.9 million by 2030, he suggested.

“The question therefore … is, what is the precision of the projections? What is the potential error range? How far can we afford to be wrong?”

The Government’s past population projections have been below the mark. For example, the Urban Redevelopment Authority’s Concept Plan in 1991 projected a population of four million to be reached after 2010.

By 2000, however, the Republic’s total population had already crossed that mark.

In 2001, the population was estimated to hit 5.5 million in the long term. When it reached 4.6 million in 2007, the projection for planning purposes was adjusted to 6.5 million. The Government had acknowledged that it was caught off guard by the surge in the number of immigrants.

NUS sociologist Tan Ern Ser felt that the Government, in learning from its past experience, “would have built in some buffers and not cut (the projection) too close”.

Agreeing with Dr Tan, NUS Department of Real Estate professor Tay Kah Poh added: “In other words, the plan assumes some degree of over-shooting, which is a huge change in thinking from before.”

National Development Minister Khaw Boon Wan noted last week that the projection was “aggressive” so that the Government “will not be caught under-providing, as we are experiencing currently” — a stance that Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said on Facebook that he fully agreed with.

Still, Mr Yeoh proposed capping the total population to 6 million in 2030 and 6.5 million by 2050.

He said: “A population of 6.5 million will be very cosmopolitan, (there will be) a lot of foreigners but it will still have significant indigenous components. And it will be relatively wealthy so it might resemble … Switzerland, with significant social cohesion and national identity.”

He added that, should Singapore ever reach a population of 8 million to 9 million, “it would look more like Dubai”. There could be “extreme income inequality, extreme dependence on foreigners and would be extremely crowded and unpleasant”, said Mr Yeoh.

Meanwhile, Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy Senior Fellow Donald Low criticised the lack of scholarship and academic rigour in the White Paper.

Writing on Facebook, Mr Low, a former high-flying civil servant, noted that there “wasn’t even a References section to show what research the writers of the paper had done, what social science theories they relied on, what competing theories/frameworks they looked at”.

Citing Australia’s recent White Paper on Australia in the Asian Century or reports by the British government, which he said are “always complete with references to the social science literature”, Mr Low added: “There was also a surprising lack of rigorous comparison with other countries that have gone through, or are going through, a similar demographic transition.”

Managing immigration: What S’pore can learn from others
By Ling Tok Hong, Published TODAY, 2 Feb 2013

At the announcement of the White Paper on population, Deputy Prime Minister Teo Chee Hean said the Government hopes to strike the “appropriate balance”. This balance is key.

The Government’s marriage and parenthood package may set the brakes on the falling total fertility rate and help build the core of citizens, but there is a limit to how much impact it will have in the long run. This is because of changing social trends and norms which have had a negative impact on global fertility rates.

A “closed-door” approach to immigrants in the long run will therefore not work. Immigrants are needed to complement the resident workforce by taking on lower-skilled jobs, as well as to provide access to highly-skilled workers who facilitate economic upgrading and productivity increases.

On the other hand, a fully “open-door” approach is also not the way to go, as it will put tremendous pressure on Singapore’s scarce resources and on social integration issues.

Finding a balanced approach to immigrants — “smart and managed growth” — will be key to the success of the population strategy, and Singapore could look to the experience of other leading cities that have sought to increase immigration levels. Their experiences provide a useful reference, even if they may not be fully applicable to Singapore’s unique context.


What is particularly important is that Singapore actively manages the type of immigrants it brings in.

A targeted policy to attract immigrants based on particular skill and resource needs, in areas where there is a shortage of locals, will have positive impact on growth; but these resource gaps must be carefully defined and continually updated as Singapore’s economy develops over time, global demands change and demographics alter.

The social and political impacts should also be managed. Suitable immigrants should be willing to sink roots and grow their families here. It will be important to create a national consensus around the need for integration and to encourage greater acceptance of immigrants.

While Singapore already works hard to ensure that ethnic diversity is valued and social cohesion encouraged, it should consider developing a multicultural social cohesion policy which is fully integrated with the city’s strategic planning processes. There would be well-defined objectives and initiatives, with periodic monitoring of their implementation.


Toronto is a useful reference point. It has a very big immigrant population but has managed to build a strong sense of national identity based on civic commonalities and values.

Every year, roughly half of Toronto’s new residents are born outside Canada and many more immigrate from all areas of the country. Specifically, 60,000 or more newcomers settle in Toronto each year, adding to the number of languages spoken and cultures mixing in the city.

Programmes introduced by the city of Toronto to help the integration process of newcomers include services like reception, orientation, translation and referral to community services — all of which can go a long way in helping them adjust.

Language can also become a significant barrier to inclusion and participation for many new immigrants, which is why basic instruction in French and English is provided.

Another way Toronto addresses the needs of young immigrants is by providing settlement workers in schools to help their families adapt to a new country. Its main approach to addressing the needs of young newcomers is by working with the family as a whole.


Closer to home, South Korea is an interesting example of where the government has sought to ease the integration of immigrants through encouraging transition to a multicultural society and reducing race-based discrimination.

In April 2006, the government granted legal status to people having mixed-race backgrounds and their families, “as part of measures to eradicate prejudices and discrimination against them”.

Universities were required to admit a certain number of “mixed-heritage” students; and special programmes were proposed to provide educational assistance, legal and financial aid and employment counselling to poor families. The law barring “mixed race” Koreans from serving in the military was also revised in 2006.

In June 2009, the Korea Immigration Service released a report, The First Basic Plan for Immigration Policy, 2008-2012. This 120-page report provides a basic blueprint for a transition to a multicultural society in South Korea and acknowledges the inexorability of global immigration to South Korea (for non-skilled workers, high-skilled workers, foreign spouses, the Korean “Diaspora” and others).

The report addresses key issues including social integration, citizenship and naturalisation laws or procedures, civic education on multiculturalism, educational policies and so on. The plan signified a dramatic, even fundamental, shift in South Korea’s official perspective on immigration: Multiculturalism, inclusivity and integration are key themes.


On the other hand, the Netherlands is one country whose immigration integration policies did not succeed in the 1980s, resulting in negative impacts.

Population measures had included capping the number of schooling years immigrants could have to ensure they would not compete with locals for higher-value jobs. That approach backfired. Immigrants struggled to learn the local language and integrate into Dutch society.

Last but not least, from our experience studying global cities and population issues, it is important to note that advances in technology mean that cities of the future can accommodate greater population numbers, and various strategic policies can be implemented to ease the infrastructural constraints.

The Government’s plan on land use, released on Thursday, is a key ingredient in the White Paper’s aim to strike the appropriate balance. An early positive sign are the plans to greatly expand the rail network.

Singapore’s strong tradition in urban planning and its cutting-edge position in urban technology and solutions also put it in a good position to meet these challenges.

Ling Tok Hong is Partner and Singapore Strategy Leader of PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC). Since 2006, PwC has been analysing leading cities to understand what challenges they have in common, published as Cities of the Future, Cities of Opportunity.

How useful are the numbers?
By Randolph Tan, Published TODAY, 1 Feb 2013

The White Paper is arguably one of the most important policy documents we have had in recent years.

By setting out the policy direction on population matters for the coming decades, it touches on a critical issue that will determine not just our economic viability, but the evolution of our national identity in the future.

As the discussion opens up on the issues set out in the paper, some key aspects of importance include potential follow-ups that the National Population and Talent Division (NPTD) could look into, the usefulness of the projections in the paper, the factors that affect the validity of the projections used to rationalise the policy arguments and what immigration should mean to Singapore.

The usefulness of the projections extends beyond just the figures. They inform us of the challenges we have been through on the population issue and suggests what is likely to occur under circumstances as we understand them today.

There are, of course, unknowns when you project that far into the future, and it is useful to consider what factors could significantly throw off the projections.

At least two come to mind: Technology and politics.


Much of our current technology was unimaginable mere decades ago.

If you go online today, you see videos showing how mobile phones can be used to recognise and solve a scrambled Rubik’s cube.

Yet, for all practical purposes, it is still very difficult for the average person to harness an iPhone’s massive computing capacity to do the laundry.

But, laundry aside, there are already indications that the reach of at least some forms of manpower could be extended by latching onto the increasingly powerful Internet connectivity that’s available to us.

In all areas of science and technology, we appear to be poised tantalisingly on the edge of new frontiers that could re-shape the relationship of human beings to work.

If we can envisage one day mining asteroids for rare minerals, we could then find that the equation for our economic efficiency is dependent on quite different variables from today’s.

We might then even consider a very different world where numbers of persons are less important than the technology they can wield.


The other great unknown is politics.

We do not yet know if the politics of the future will facilitate or inhibit the flow of manpower.

In contrast to the relatively slow pace at which technology has extended the reach of manpower, the political changes of the last three decades have been the primary factor accelerating it.

People travel across the borders of former adversaries, in numbers we thought impossible during the stand-off of the former Cold War.

The large movements across the Iron Curtain, or out of Vietnam or China, in the 1960s and 1970s were largely driven by conflicts and ideological struggles. Yet, they benefited their receiving countries, and led to significant transformations.

Who could have imagined a China possibly outstripping the United States and Europe as a magnet for the most talented manpower in the world?

At the same time, its workers man factories, build roads and staff offices from Africa to Latin America.


In the coming days, as the discussion probes the minutiae of the White Paper’s analysis, another aspect of potential interest could be the changing nature of immigration.

It is almost certainly going to be true that people will migrate across borders in increasingly large numbers.

The latest post on the Asian Development Bank Institute blog, Asia Pathways, discusses the potential for international workers to contribute more to global output growth than would the further opening up of trade.

Thus, the question here is not whether we need foreign manpower, because Singapore has depended on and benefited from the availability of such workers since independence.

The difference is the rate of increase in recent years.

Indeed, a Singapore without foreign manpower will not be possible.

If we recognise that, then the question is how much we can accommodate and what the policies needed to accommodate such a migrant workforce should be.

A slower rate of increase, in my opinion, should be better because it allows Singapore citizens time to come to terms with the changes while benefiting foreign workers at the same time.

Having said that, it would run counter to the efforts Singapore has made over the last few years if we turn against the tide of an economic vision of a borderless world for talent — just at the point when the rest of our competitors are embracing it.

The one thing we have learned is that we should be careful not to reach that point ahead of our time.

Randolph Tan is Associate Professor of Business at SIM University, School of Business.

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