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.

When it comes to the number of people in the world human beings will beat governments hand down every time.

The thought’s been bubbling in my mind for some time.

Ever since I earned a living forecasting population it’s something I’ve known.  But it’s come back into focus for three reasons.

First the never-heard-of-before (by me) Optimum Population Trust popped up on BBC news  programmes twice this month.  They punt the idea of an optimum (posh for best) level of population for both the UK and the world.  In particular

In the UK…population should be allowed to stabilise and decrease by not less than 0.25% a year to an environmentally sustainable level, by bringing immigration into numerical balance with emigration, by making greater efforts to reduce teenage pregnancies, and by encouraging couples voluntarily to “Stop at Two” children.

Then yesterday the UK Department of Work and Pensions claimed that by 2066 there could be more than 500,000 people aged 100 or over in the UK – there were 11,600 in 2009.

And finally, also yesterday, think tank Institute for Public Policy and Research published a briefing note that concluded net immigration is unlikely to fall much in the next year despite government attempts to curb it.

This is all an intensely political and emotional subject as a few quick Google searches will show.

On the one hand, those concerned by high levels of population are often characterised as neo-eugenicists – a clumsy phrase but hinting at some distant link with extreme right wing views.

On the other, those relaxed about higher levels of immigration are sometimes confronted with claims that white people will be a minority in Britain by the turn of the next century, if not sooner.

My take is rather different.  You can call it technical but it’s basically about the futility of government attempts to control the size of the population.

There are three immediate causes of population change

  • births
  • deaths
  • net migration – the difference between the number of people moving into the country and out of it.

The control of government over each of these causes in a democracy is at best distant, at worst non-existent.

The most controversial of the three for many is migration.  While government can to some extent control the level of immigration, it has little direct influence over emigration.  That depends on

  • how would-be emigrants perceive their own prospects in the UK for work, social advancement, education, the future of their children, and so on
  • work opportunities, lifestyle and government policy in each of the 190+ other countries in the world.

The lack of control is exacerbated by our old friend the law of unintended consequences, of which there are many examples world-wide.

Romania under communist dictator Nicolae Ceauşescu sought to increase its population when the consequences of static numbers for longer term growth in a planned economy were realised.  Most abortion was criminalised, income tax raised for childless adults and lowered for those with three or more children, divorce made more difficult, contraception illegal and so on.  The US Library of Congress produced a good summary of all the measures and their impact (you might say the full horror).  The birth rate, after an early increase, fell almost continuously throughout the remaining period of communist rule.  The adverse social consequences arguably remain until the present day.


China perceived the opposite problem – a population increasing out of control.  The government response was a one child policy with heavy penalties for parents having more than one child, increases in forced abortions, female infanticide, underreporting of female births, and a gender imbalance in the population.  Recent reports suggest one unintended consequence, perversely, is a much higher value placed on the education of girls and women as the economy has grown and a single daughter is seen by parents as a source of support in old age.  More dramatically, there is now concern at the longer term ability of the population to meet the needs of the labour market, and unfavourable comparisons drawn with India’s much more youthful population.

Even in the more benign environment of a democracy the consequences of public policy impact on population levels in unintended ways.

Who could argue with the principle that citizens should lead longer, healthier lives?  Yet no political party has a policy of increasing the number of people living to 100.  And the consequences of increased longevity are impacting dramatically on social service, health and pension provision.

Incidentally, for readers working in local government, the same truths apply.  The only circumstance in which you can control even the initial population in an area is to start with an empty site and build houses where there were none before.  But once the people have moved in understand you cannot control the number of children they have, how long they live for, and whether they move into or out of the area.

In a recent post on Ideas whose time has come I recorded the views of two experienced ex-politicians on what makes a successful government policy.  Their criteria included

  • ease of achievement
  • working with the grain of human nature
  • focus – don’t do more than you are capable of doing.

Politicians seeking to influence levels of population would do well to remember these points.  They certainly don’t seem to have impacted on the Optimum Population Trust.