Demography, not immigration, part 1

“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?

See also Part 2 and Part 3.

26 Responses to “Demography, not immigration, part 1”

  1. 1 Paul 27 June 2010 at 17:47

    Actually, it is a simple question – do we want to be a small first world country with a high tech economy like Denmark or Slovenia or do we want to remain a developing country that needs a low earning population base to support a smaller number of elderly disabled people. I am not against selective immigration to fill specific needs but not the kind of race to the bottom where foreign talent are imported to work to lower the wages and living conditions of Singaporeans and to prop up the regime.

  2. 2 Fox 27 June 2010 at 19:55

    Firstly, there is an implicit assumption here by Alex. TFR is not correlated to immigration i.e. the trend in TFR will not change if immigration level is reduced or increased. Given the complaints that the so-called foreign talents reduce the bargaining power of Singaporean workers in general and depresses wage levels and job security, there are reasons to believe that there may be an inverse relationship between TFR and immigration level.

    Secondly, oddly enough, there is another assumption that a population of 2 to 3 million cannot be enough for a critical mass to draw the best and brightest. A city of 2 to 3 million is actually very big by US standards. Houston, Austin, San Francisco and Seattle have fewer people in comparison even if you include the metro population. Tel Aviv, the economic center of Israel, has a population of 3 million in its metro area.

    • 3 yawningbread 27 June 2010 at 22:08

      I never said there was any relationship between TFR and immigration. I only said that a below-replacement TFR creates the conditions that make immigration a compelling alternative ***if one wants to maintain or increase total population***.

      My point is that the debate should not be whether or not we like immigration (which seems to be how the debate is framed today), but should first address the question what is our target population, then secondly, address how we can get to our target population by biological means and only thirdly address how to tap immigration to top up the shortfall if any… or whether we should live with the shortfall and to hell with immigration, in which case you’re back to question no.1 – what should be the target population.

      (Thus the title: Address the demographic problem first before the immigration question.)

      American cities are open to huge inflows and outflows of human migration, and it’s a source of vitality for them. It is just that much of the migration is of other Americans from other parts of the US. The American examples are nowhere near what anti-immigration Singaporeans desire: a population that receives hardly any outsiders.

      Paul’s suggestion of Denmark (pop 5.5 million) and Slovenia (pop 2.0 mil) are much more relevant, IMO. But it does beg the question: To what extent do proximity and economic integration with rich neighbours contribute to these little countries’ wealth? In which case, the response might be look at New Zealand (pop 4.2 million). . . which gives a rather equivocal answer, in that this country has over the last generation fallen behind Singapore in GDP per capita (Singapore approx US$37,000 versus NZ approx US$30,000).

      • 4 Paul 27 June 2010 at 23:13

        Thanks Alex

        New Zealand is a good comparator. Although the GDP per capita might have dropped, that might involve some currency issues.

        A more accurate issue is how many Singaporeans have taken up New Zealand citizenship vs how many New Zealanders have taken up Singapore citizenship. That kind of objective data is more meaningful than an easily manipulated GDP figure.

        I have often wondered why NZ, a small country with no natural resources managed to produce the world’s most famous rugby team and a Nobel prize winner or two


        ps Good re-framing of the debate.

        pps. Since the 14th century, Singapore has been an island of prosperity amidst a larger southeast Asian sea with the interlude of 1500-1819 so rich immediate neighbours have not been part of our equation – our location in between China and India trading routes or the West and Japan has always been our best asset

      • 5 Fox 27 June 2010 at 23:26

        “I never said there was any relationship between TFR and immigration. I only said that a below-replacement TFR creates the conditions that make immigration a compelling alternative ***if one wants to maintain or increase total population***.”

        What if the immigration is strongly anti-correlated with TFR? In other words, TFR drops whenever immigration level increases and vice versa. For instance, if we take in an extra 5,000 immigrants and the total number of new babies falls by 4,000, are we better off? Then immigration would not be such a compelling alternative, would it.

  3. 6 Fox 27 June 2010 at 20:14

    “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.”

    Singapore’s economic growth trajectory in the 80’s and 90’s really depended on the country having a relatively small population of school children and retirees which reduced government expediture on health and education and allowed national savings to be directed towards economic investment. We were in a demographic sweet spot (a population pyramid with the bulge in its middle) that allowed us to maximize economic growth. Clearly, the demographic situation was unsustainable – we simply cannot have a small population of school children and retirees forever. Even if we were to have a TFR of 2.1, that still wouldn’t give us that middle-heavy population pyramid. It would merely result in a more bottom-heavy population pyramid. On the other hand, if you were to have a steady influx of workers in their 20’s and 30’s, then you can get the middle-heavy population pyramid.

    This may explain why the government prefer immigration to going for a comprehensive overhaul of employment conditions.

    • 7 yawningbread 27 June 2010 at 22:09

      Indeed, that’s a very interesting perspective – that we are trying to replicate the demographic sweet spot we used to have. But this comes at the cost of much socio-cultural discomfort.

      • 8 Fox 27 June 2010 at 23:59

        If not for national defence, then the declining TFR would not be such a big deal.

        I don’t think that Singapore’s immigration policy is aimed by making up for the shortfall in the TFR but rather at maintaining a population pyramid that has its bulge in the center i.e. a high working to non-working population ratio. That ratio is not reproducable or sustainable with a TFR of 2.1. It is not sustainable with any kind of TFR.

        A high working to non-working population ratio allows the government to accumulate surpluses for economic investments. It was no miracle that the Singapore government was able to build up a large reserve and accrue yearly budget surpluses in the 80’s and 90’s. However, with an ageing population, national savings will have to be drawn down and if the government does not try to maintain that ratio, it will find itself short of resources to finance that sort of economic growth.

  4. 9 Ted 28 June 2010 at 00:51

    You and your commentators may find the following paper of some relevance:

    “No Elixir of Youth: Immigration Cannot Keep Canada Young (September 2006)”

    Click to access backgrounder_96.pdf

  5. 10 Jackson Tan 28 June 2010 at 08:52

    On top of the difficulty of determining a maximum (or ideal) population, I think there is the added dimension of the rate at which that is achieved through immigration.

    I suspect part of the anti-immigrant sentiments arises out of the rapidity in which immigrants were brought in, thereby changing the social and cultural landscape. Change is of course inevitable, and there will be a few people who will resist all sorts of change. But most people, I reckon, can accept some changes as time pass by. Unfortunately, the rate at which these changes are happening are going beyond what is acceptable to them.

    This problem, the rate of immigration, falls under the second question of how we should approach the ideal population. Yet, it does affect the first question because it will determine how fast (and if ever) we will settle into the ideal number. These two problem thus becomes coupled.

  6. 11 yawningbread 28 June 2010 at 10:06

    Fox 27 June, 23:59 –

    I can see your point that it may primarily be the urge to stay within the demographic sweet spot (a high working adults to dependents ratio) that accounts for the high number of foreigners in our midst, but I would argue that this motive relates more to temporary residents, i.e. work permits and employment passes. It does not fully account for wanting immigrants who bring in their children and who will eventually age here.

  7. 12 Fox 28 June 2010 at 12:10

    Yawningbread 28 June 2010 at 10:06:

    I see your point. In that case, perhaps the immigration policy is aimed at both maintaining a high working adults to dependents ratio as well as a ensuring that the resident population does not get hollowed out by a declining TFR.

    Are there any figures on the fecundity of PRs and new citizens?

  8. 13 anony 28 June 2010 at 12:14

    Almost 2 million foreigners (PRs + non-residents) versus 3 million citizens in Spore. We are almost even. Shocking indeed! The Abu Dubai of the East I guess.

    I say we join Malaysia. Historically & culturally linked. Its the mindset of Sporeans that have to change. If the Chinese Malaysians can stick with it for over a century, so can we. Yes, I know Chinese Malaysians have been emigrating to the west & their population has dwindled but they are still economically powerful. If we set our minds to it, we can be good citizens of Malaysia too.

    Better Malaysia than China. I just find the idea of subsuming under China way too repulsive despite being an ethnic Overseas Chinese.

  9. 14 sg lee 28 June 2010 at 15:08

    Very good article by yawning bread.

    Joining China is better than Malaysia. Malaysia will tax singaporeans dry and discriminate against the Singapore chinese and indians.

    Look at the Hong Kong SAR. The beijing government has given a high level of autonomy, encourage tourism and investment to Hong Kong. Hong Kong is still prosperous and Honkie do not need to worry about national service.

    • 15 Robox 28 June 2010 at 22:30

      sg lee, in all due respect, if joining China is better than joining Malaysia so that Indians and Chinese don’t get discriminated against, I suggest that joining China would only result in discrimination against Indians – again – and Malays.

      Not only has China already established a track record in discriminating against its ethnic minorities, Indian and Malay Singaporeans already have the experience of being discriminated against by the Chinese right here in Singapore.

  10. 16 george 28 June 2010 at 16:12

    “Better Malaysia than China. I just find the idea of subsuming under China way too repulsive despite being an ethnic Overseas Chinese.”

    It is quite enticing to return to the days where we can drive across the causeway without any custom and immigration formalities. But, can we
    accept the racial or race-based politics? Can we
    allowed race (read bumi), religion(read Islam)
    to circumscribe everything you do? Will we be able to progress under such circumstances? Will the Malaysian ‘lepoard’ ever change its spots?

    But why are we even contemplating this? By foreseeing this possibility, aren’t we also saying that this ‘Singapore venture’ of ours to date is but little more than a selfish LKY act of defiance to cock a snoot at his Malaysian political adversaries which he never had any intention of making it last beyond his own lifetime?

  11. 17 Melbourne 28 June 2010 at 16:13

    Don’t you think you are missing the forest for the trees?

    Two questions to challenge your assumptions:

    1) Why do you jump to the conclusion that immigration is the only answer to our declining population?

    2) Why is our economic success so dependent on population growth? Are there alternative economic models to consider?

    A more sustainable solution may be to examine and rectify the root causes for the population decline… or the demographic changes, as you put it.

  12. 18 Roy 28 June 2010 at 18:32

    How big is big enough especially in this region of exploding mega cities? Population growth is not a battle we can win, and in the long term, I don’t think it will be so relevant because of the way people move about, live and work in the future. Even in Australia where there is so much land and resources they are rethinking population now along the lines of sustainability.

  13. 19 yawningbread 28 June 2010 at 22:51

    Melbourne, 28 June 16:13 –

    1) Where do you see me jumping to the conclusion that immigration is a must-have?

    2) If you go through the comments by Fox, Paul, etc above and my responses, you will see indeed that the discussion about other models is beginning.

  14. 20 KiWeTO 29 June 2010 at 00:34

    On the other hand,

    Why should we start the debate with how big a population we aim to have? Isn’t that in essence buying into the 6.5m argument, and we are just arguing about the number?

    What kind of geo-polity does this city state seek to be in 20 years? Should that not be more of concern first than the number of people we should have? Blindly chasing a number is the result we currently see – immigration of people who not necessary better the lot of our current people, and has the side effect of continuing to depress wages even though there is inflation (currently held at bay by our high currency; which is killing our exports’ competitiveness).

    What kind of Singapore do we aspire to? An isle of political calm, equitably like its geological status? A beacon of order and functionality in a world of boleh (without action?)?

    Where do we see (and at the same time, examining our own racist or elitist perceptions) ourselves in this region? The island won’t be floating away to somewhere more economically attractive like off the coast of Guangzhou (or bay of Bengal?) for a few more generations yet.

    Forget the number. Ask the question of our role in this region, and whether it will be viable 20 or 50 years from now. If the philosophy is accurate, the details will just start to make their own sense.

    Who are we?


  15. 21 Let 30 June 2010 at 11:35

    Alex you wrote that, “Foreign talent” is a term that raises many hackles in Singapore, and that there is a groundswell of opposition to the continued high rate of immigration, often expressed in xenophobic, even racist ways.

    But a recent Institute of Policy Studies (IPS) study claims that “Only 22 percent of Singaporeans felt that foreigners make Singapore worse off” –

    IPS is a think-tank within the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy at the National University of Singapore. Are they lying or presenting slanted studies to propagate the view of the Government?

  16. 22 yawningbread 30 June 2010 at 13:05

    Let, 30 June, 11:35 –

    Yes, I saw that report in the Straits Times. It is interesting isn’t it?

    I don’t think it is at all fair to suggest that the Institute of Policy Studies would lie. There is however a possibility that people, when surveyed, would give answers they think the questionner wants to hear… the usual study design problems, not at all unique to IPS. More likely, however I think the study does reveal a truer picture of public opinion than anything else we’ve got so far. I would certainly trust it more than I would trust a cursory glance at digital speak. The internet is NOT REPRESENTATIVE. As we know, it tends to be anti-govt anyway (and therefore not truly representative of a people who voted 2:1 in favour of the PAP at the last election)

    I would bear in mind however that the reality is probably a lot more complex than any survey can uncover. For example, even people who might think positively about immigration could turn angry once it gets too close to home (literally, as in the plan to put a workers’ dormitory close to middle-class Serangoon Gardens Estate).

    I daresay I am more representative of the typical Singaporean: On a 0 to 10 scale (where 0 is absolutely hate immigration), I’m probably a 6 or 7. I see problems with the details of the current schemes, but I don’t see much wrong with the general principles.

  17. 23 yawningbread 30 June 2010 at 23:26

    Fox, 28 June 12:10h

    Re your question about fecundity of immigrants, this news story in Straits Times 30 June gives a clue, but not numerical data:


    When immigrants also want fewer kids…
    By Li Xueying

    SINGAPORE is trying to reverse its falling birth rate by welcoming new immigrants, but they are instead becoming like Singaporeans – in terms of having fewer children, in some cases only one child.

    Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew made this observation yesterday – when asked about the trend of Singaporeans delaying marriage, and its impact on the country’s future growth.

    He was speaking during a dialogue with close to 700 officials and delegates at the Singapore International Water Week and the World Cities Summit.

    Mr Lee started by noting that Singapore is trying to rectify its baby dearth by welcoming ‘bright young educated immigrants’ from its neighbours, particularly Malaysia, India and China.

    To help ‘acculturalise’ them, Singapore has even started conducting English lessons for those from China.

    The acculturalisation process has, however, spawned a different problem:

    ‘The moment they come here, they also have one child, because they watch their neighbours and say, ah, if I have two children, I lose out… every child costs so much – kindergarten, ballet classes, music classes…

    ‘All these were not available or thought of when they were poor. But once they come here and get into our scale of values, they say, oh, the Singaporean family is right, let’s settle for one,’ said Mr Lee.


    • 24 Fox 2 July 2010 at 03:14

      Very interesting!

      Aren’t most recent immigrants from China, India and Malaysia from the middle-class stratum of their home countries? Given that middle-class families are usually small in those countries, it is no surprise that they would stay small. This seems to be especially true of middle-class immigrants from China.

      I wonder if the fecundity of the new immigrants can be broken down according to country of origin. There is no point having so many immigrants from China if they are mostly going to have one-child families. Perhaps, we can look to the Philippines or Indonesia for more immigrants.

  18. 25 Tan 1 July 2010 at 12:07

    The Institute of Policy Studies (IPS) study which says only 22 percent of Singaporeans felt that foreigners make Singapore worse off.

    Take it with a pinch of salt. The respondents include Permanent Residents.

    “The IPS survey was conducted from Dec 9 last year to Jan 6 this year, collecting responses from 2,109 Singapore citizens and permanent residents aged at least 21. Factors such as age, gender and race were weighed according to their proportions of the general population.”

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