“Foreign talent” (usually spoken with a sneer) is a term that raises many hackles in Singapore. There is a groundswell of opposition to the continued high rate of immigration, often expressed in xenophobic, even racist ways. Like so many issues of public importance, there is a dearth of intelligent discussion about this; it is often reduced to just a convenient punching bag for anti-government voters venting their frustration about everything that’s wrong with People’s Action Party (PAP) rule.
Opposition parties, hoping to ride this wave of discontent to victory at the polls, either shout along or duck, offering few ideas about it. The mainstream media is too constrained by the government’s sensitivities to do much more than parrot whatever ministers say.
(In this essay, when I use the term ‘immigration’ I am referring to the process of giving people from other countries permanent residency status with the hope or aim of eventual naturalisation to citizenship. The term does not encompass the issuing of short-term work permits or employment passes, though the widespread complaint that there are “too many foreigners” seldom distinguishes between these two categories.)
The first thing that is problematic with this non-debate is to treat immigration as an issue by itself. It makes no sense: We cannot grapple with the issue without discussing why there is immigration, and the Why is our demographic trends. The question of immigration is secondary and consequential to the problems posed by demography.
In this respect, new data published by the National Population Secretariat make sober reading. Let me begin by highlighting two numbers:
Citizen births in 2009, i.e. babies born to parents of whom at least one is a citizen: 31, 842.
Resident births in 2009, i.e. babies born to parents of whom at least one is a citizen or permanent resident: 36,925.
What do these numbers imply? If we had no more immigration, sending foreigners home, and merely restocked our population with offspring of existing citizens, and assuming (a) the above numbers remain stable over time and (b) a life expectancy of 80 years, then in about a generation’s time, Singapore will have a population somewhere in the region of 31,842 x 80 = 2.5 million.
If miraculously, all offspring of permanent residents eventually naturalise to be new citizens (something which many anti-foreigner voices object to) , then our future population will be somewhere in the region of 36,925 x 80 = 3.0 million.
However, without immigration, even 2.5 – 3.0 million may be too optimistic. This figure after all is based on the assumption that citizen or resident births remain at 2009 levels. The long term trend however, is that they have been falling, and there is no indication that this decline will be arrested. Projecting forward, 2 million may be a more likely citizen population in a generation’s time if we stopped immigration today. This is about 40 percent below the present figure.
What do you think a Singapore with only 2 million citizens will look like? What are the implications for our economy (even if we were to still have half a million foreigners working here on short-term passes — keeping the same ratio as today of foreigners to citizens) and our security? What will be our place in the world when China and India will each have 10 or more cities with over 20 million apiece, and just about all the capital cities of our Southeast Asian neighbours, e.g. Kuala Lumpur, Bangkok, Jakarta, Hanoi, Manila are also in the 10 – 30 million range, with higher living standards than they have today?
(I can anticipate the argument that there is no reason to believe that other Southeast Asian capitals, despite growing populations, will be able to uplift their economic standards, in which case even with 2 million, we wouldn’t be so badly off by comparison. To this I say: If our neighbours do not uplift themselves, we’d be in even worse shit. We’d be a minor city in a depressed, moribund part of the world! In any case, whether our neighbours develop or not is something outside our control, so don’t count on it. Don’t count on having a race to the bottom to win.)
I do not think that 2 million is sustainable: We would be a sleepy backwater, and like many sleepy backwaters, any young man or woman with spirit and ambition will want to emigrate as fast as possible. So we will find ourselves in a vicious cycle of losing the best and brightest, further reducing Singapore’s significance to the world. Our living standards will decline as we lose out on talent, critical mass and connectedness with the rest of the world. That connectedness, after all, would be meaningless without human movement — the very thing that the more rabid of Singaporeans want to stop. And if we cannot sustain ourselves economically, we will not be able to sustain ourselves security-wise. At some point, we will have to consider crawling over to join Malaysia or Indonesia, or likely in my view, though nobody wants to take me seriously, apply to join China.
Demography is an existential question for Singapore. It is not even a far-off question. If you have young children today, then consider this: It is a question they will face by the time they are in their thirties or forties. In fact, you yourself may still be alive, queuing up with your walking stick to turn in your pink identity card for another colour.
* * * * *
Here are some other statistics released by the National Population Secretariat. They are not essential to this essay, but I’m putting them here in case they prove useful sometime in the future.
* * * * *
Before getting into the thick of any immigration debate, the starting question for us should be: What is the maximum population we can sustain commensurate with increasing living standards and maintaining a momentum for advancement?
The next question is: How do we get that population?
Whatever that target is — and I assume it is higher than 2 million — it will require us to confront the question of creating new citizens. Either we make them biologically, or we make them out of imported material. Each in turn calls for mature, intelligent discussion that doesn’t fly away from given facts.
For the biological, the facts are these:
About 30 percent of women citizens are still unmarried by their early thirties when their child-bearing years start ticking away. Of ever-married citizen females aged 40-49 years — i.e. the cohort that has just completed their child-bearing years — they have an average of 2.08 children. But younger females are marrying less and appear to be having even fewer children, as we can see from the much lower total fertility rate (TFR), which for residents is 1.22 (the TFR figure for citizens was not given).
For a population to replace itself with each succeeding generation, a TFR of 2.1 is needed. We are way below that, which is why I said above that our population will decline if we rely only on biological production of new citizens.
But how to nudge up the birthrate is a very difficult question. So many factors come into play. However, it may boil down to two dimensions: People must want to have children and they must be able to afford them time-wise and income-wise. The situation is so serious, it calls for very radical thinking. Yet, all I have seen is tinkering. There is a reluctance to go back to the drawing board, jettisoning our pet cultural and work norms and reexamining our consumption aspirations.
I will take this question further in Part 2.
Meanwhile, the sad thing is that all the heat (and no light) sets aflame the question of immigration. It is made into an “us versus them” kind of problem, and by that I mean not only the habit of placing in opposition native-born citizens versus foreigners, but also that of the (disadvantaged) common people versus the (uncaring, money-faced) government. The trope is typically one of the government inflicting high levels of immigration on the people. Is that all there is to it? Is not the source of the problem the people themselves with their ultra-low birthrate?