Population: More people, bigger market, more options

Improving the country’s infrastructure to handle a larger volume of people would make a growing population less of a worry for the people living here. Another area of focus should be how to help foreigners and new immigrants socially integrate bett
Improving the country’s infrastructure to handle a larger volume of people would make a growing population less of a worry for the people living here. Another area of focus should be how to help foreigners and new immigrants socially integrate better into Singapore society. ST PHOTO: MARK CHEONG

A larger population - and by extension more foreigners - would benefit Singapore in the long term, argued roundtable panellists.

Companies here would have a bigger base for marketing their products and a larger talent pool, two of the four panellists noted.

This is a controversial stance, given that the issue has long been a prickly one for Singaporeans.

The Population White Paper released in 2013 detailed plans the Government was making to prepare for a population parameter of 6.9 million, sparking an uproar among citizens.

Singapore's total population has since hit 5.54 million, five years after crossing the five million mark. Policymakers are worried about the country's flagging birth rates and its ageing population.

Roundtable panellists did not suggest an ideal population size for Singapore, but noted that policymakers should not shy away from a faster population growth rate.

Professor Ng Yew Kwang of Nanyang Technological University said Singapore's economic growth is partly limited by its small size.

"A larger population will provide better business opportunities, a bigger market and more talent. It's, in fact, good for Singaporeans."

Negative public sentiment towards population growth has been due in large part to the misconception that more people will mean more congestion, Prof Ng said.

To make a larger population more politically palatable, policymakers should make infrastructure development a priority, so services, such as transport, can handle larger volumes. "Then we won't have to undertake restrictive policies, as we have in the past few years, that put firms under pressure.

"We need the cooperation of the Government, academics and the media to convince the public that, in fact, in the long term, a larger population with adequate infrastructure is good for us."

Other panellists agreed that population should be a key issue in discussions about Singapore's economic future, but pointed to potential stumbling blocks.

Infrastructure aside, policymakers should also closely examine how better to socially integrate foreigners and new immigrants, said Asme president Kurt Wee.

"At the end of the day, we all come from immigrant backgrounds. How do we embrace and assimilate, how do we integrate better?"

Mr Wee noted that the adverse public reaction towards continued population growth has also had an impact on firms here, which have been hit hard by tight foreign labour policies.

"2011, 2012 and 2013, those were the years when (companies) were very frustrated because there was a bigger market that they could serve, but they just didn't have the manpower capacity to serve those markets, so they felt that there was money to be made but they couldn't make it," he said.

Population growth alone is no panacea for Singapore's long-term economic challenges, however - Boston Consulting Group's Ms Aparna Bharadwaj said a larger population might boost growth but is not a "be all and end all".

Companies no longer need to depend on a large market to grow - instead, they can use technology to "leapfrog". "If you use digital as a medium, a medium-sized company can go international," she noted.

Population growth "won't by itself solve all the problems. It will just grant us some more time".

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on October 18, 2015, with the headline 'Population: More people, bigger market, more options'. Print Edition | Subscribe