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Experts weigh in on population projections

SINGAPORE — 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.

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SINGAPORE — 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.”

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