The Straits Times
Published on Feb 19, 2013

Help people see the big picture


THE Population White Paper is unpopular because its projections go against our natural instincts and sentiments ("Positives from the population debate" by Mr Viswa Sadasivan; last Friday).

To discuss it with rationality, we have to go deeper to find the true reasons that prompted its formulation.

One good source to revisit is the population projections by the Institute of Policy Studies (IPS) in September 2011 ("Population will shrink without immigrants"; Sept 8, 2011). Its study showed how dire our demographic situation would become in future decades if there is insufficient intake of foreigners.

With hindsight, population planning should have been carried out in three stages.

In stage one, we should discuss our long-term population trends, in particular, how to prevent Singapore from becoming a "retirement village".

Five or six of the IPS' "middle-path" scenarios, and some extreme ones, could be used for comparison. These scenarios were derived based on different assumptions of new births and intake of foreigners.

Give more time for the people to digest and discuss these consequences caused by low fertility rate and the fast-ageing population.

A deeper understanding of these trends and implications would help us realise the need to allow our population to grow, including from more births.

In stage two, we could focus on two or three middle-path scenarios and compare their various implications on the workforce, public expenditure, taxation, housing, transport, land use, environment, water and energy requirements and so on.

We could then discuss which scenario would give us the most acceptable balance between benefits and costs in 20, 30, and 40 years' time, and see how much inconvenience we are willing to tolerate.

Policymakers would then decide on one or perhaps two scenarios to use for drafting the White Paper.

In stage three, we should discuss boosting births, building infrastructure, and improving the environment and quality of life, as well as tackling problems brought on by a larger population with more foreign-born people.

We should fine-tune the model if needed.

The Government could have done more to help people visualise our future demographic challenges, and assist them in organising the bits and pieces of information together to see the total picture.

I hope those who can see this big picture help the rest to see it.

Ng Ya Ken