Singapore flagPopulation is an endlessly controversial topic for governments – its size, its composition, birth rates, migration. Populations sometimes expand rapidly, seemingly out of control. They sometimes seem bent on long term decline. Too many old people, not enough workers, not enough children. The list of concerns is endless.

So is the temptation for governments to try and determine or influence population numbers and composition. I have blogged on this subject before, noting some extreme measures, from the desperate attempts of Romania to increase its population to the similarly draconian measures of China to limit its.

These attempts are rarely successful and often incur bad unintended consequences.

The latest attempt to influence future population comes from the Government of Singapore. The country’s parliament has been considering a white paper on the subject and it has caused some local controversy.

The government says

Our population challenges are complex and multifaceted, and have far-reaching effects on our current and future generations. There are no simple solutions. We need to find a balance. If we do too little to address the demographic challenge, we risk becoming a steadily greying society, losing vitality and verve, with our young people leaving for opportunities elsewhere. But if we take in too many immigrants and foreign workers, we will weaken our national identity and sense of belonging, and feel crowded out of our own home (White Paper, executive summary).

Opponents are concerned at many aspects of the white paper, not least the government’s proposals for continuing large scale immigration.

The main response of the government so far, after debate in parliament, seems to be making a population figure of 6.9 million in 2030 a projection for infrastructure planning rather than a target.

So far, so wise. Achieving national targets for population numbers is one of the most ineffectual things governments can seek to do.

As you would expect from what is a wealthy first-world democracy (not a perfect one, but let the nation that is perfect cast the first stone), the government’s approach has been systematic and well-publicised.

And yet, and yet…a number of issues about what has happened niggle at my once-upon-a-time population forecaster’s brain.

Technically, the projections are not actually that transparent. I would expect to find a technical volume setting out how the projections were made, including all the assumptions about fertility, mortality and migration. It may exist but I cannot find it on the White Paper web site or in the publications list of the responsible government department, the National Population and Talent Division, Prime Minister’s Office. There are plenty of issues papers and occasional papers, but where are the projections used?

As an indication of the potential confusion around this technical point, different projections in the White Paper run to 2030 (Chart 1.3), 2050 (Chart 1.4) and 2060 (Chart 1.2).

None of this may be significant, but it does limit anyone’s ability to comment authoritatively on the figures.

There is an online summary of views expressed in the public consultation undertaken for the White Paper. It states

The many constructive and thoughtful suggestions reflect the significant public interest in population issues. There was a wide range of suggestions offering different — sometimes opposing — perspectives. While not every suggestion could be adopted, they were all taken into account as we sought to strike the right balance in our population policies to address our demographic challenge.

I am wary of this. It is a civil servant’s summary and I have perpetrated, sorry prepared, many of those myself. How much better it would have been to publish all written comments received and a verbatim transcript of public meetings. I know the temptation to apply a degree of editorial discretion in these exercises. The current protests in Singapore about the White Paper’s conclusions suggest that the optimism of the consultation summary may not be wholly justified.

The issue of immigration is a tricky one for Singapore. The White Paper says nothing about where the immigrants might come from except that ‘Most new immigrants share similar ethnic backgrounds as Singaporeans’ (para 2.30).

Will immigrants be sought from countries where those ethnic groups predominate – China, Malaysia/Indonesia, and India? Will a balance be maintained that reflects the current ethnic make up of the population? These are sensitive questions, but ones the government is silent on.

The White Paper rightly says that Singaporeans are increasingly well-educated and working more in professional, managerial, executive and technical jobs. So is the purpose of immigration to fill the jobs Singaporeans don’t want to do? Perhaps not a great incentive to offer new citizens.

There is another, longer-term problem about relying on immigration to keep an economy buoyant. Almost everywhere in Asia, from wealthy Japan to poor Bangladesh, fertility rates have fallen and more countries will experience the demographic challenge of advanced nations like Singapore – people live longer and have fewer children. Where then are those immigrants to come from?

There is major reliance in the White Paper on incentives to encourage Singaporeans to marry and have children. It lists a whole range of measures already in place. But these have not stopped marriage and fertility rates falling over many years. Like many others, the Singapore government perhaps has not realised how human behaviour, driven by many factors outside official control, can thwart political intentions.

One major concern is the forecast decline in the workforce. Maybe the government needs to think more radically about internal measures to slow that decline. There is reference to ‘helping’ older workers stay in the workforce. But what about actually raising the statutory age of retirement? People stay fitter longer nowadays and even with a later retirement age would have many more ‘silver’ years than their parents and grandparents did. Other countries are already going down this route.

There is much more that could be said about the White Paper and the problems it seeks to address. I may return to the subject but this post is long enough already and I wanted to comment while the subject is still a matter of public debate in Singapore.