Why It Matters

Takeaways from Singapore's population data

Singapore's total population grew by a mere 0.1 per cent to 5.61 million in the 12 months leading up to June this year - the slowest growth rate in more than a decade. In the 10 years before that, total population increased by an average of 2.45 per cent each year.

The annual population report, released last week by the National Population and Talent Division, indicates that the minimal rise is a result of a decline in Work Permit holders which, in turn , is due to a "weakening" in two sectors: construction, and marine and offshore engineering.

The falling number of Work Permit holders also led to the non-resident population here declining for the first time in 14 years. It dipped by 1.6 per cent to 1.65 million.

These numbers may give some people cause for cheer. In the lead-up to the 2011 General Election, Singaporeans were deeply concerned about the fast pace of immigration, and they voiced their displeasure through the ballot box.

In the decade before the 2011 election, total population grew by one million, or 100,000 a year. Compare this to the latest figures, which show total population rising by just 5,000 from 2016 to 2017.

The slight increase is a consequence of the Government moderating the foreign worker inflow since the election. At the same time, it has been working with companies to lift productivity, to reduce their reliance on these workers.

But there is a flip side to the changes. Raising productivity is not easily achieved. If the foreign worker inflow is not calibrated right, firms may lose their competitive edge, resulting in Singapore becoming less attractive to foreign investors.

At some point, there may be a need for us, as a nation, to have another conversation about Singapore's future as a cosmopolitan society and a vibrant economy, while preserving the sense of rootedness and identity among the local core.

For that conversation, last week's numbers provide much food for thought.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 03, 2017, with the headline 'Takeaways from population data'. Print Edition | Subscribe