Singapore is trying to fix a population problem it doesn’t have

The Singaporean government is urging its people to get married and have babies.
The Singaporean government is urging its people to get married and have babies.
Image: AP Photo / Wong Maye-e
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Singapore’s government might as well have dropped dynamite among the people when it recently addressed its aging workforce and low birth rate. Its solution: increase the population to approximately 6.9 million by 2030.

Already groaning under the weight of 5.31 million people (up from a population of about 1.9 million at independence in 1965), many Singaporeans are intimidated at the thought of more than another million people. The country’s usually first-class infrastructure is already overwhelmed with train breakdowns and skyrocketing prices. A survey conducted by the Economist Intelligence Unit has identified Singapore as the sixth most expensive city in the world to live in. Overcrowding is also a major concern; Singapore will be required to reclaim even more land to accommodate the projected population.

But the government’s logic is this: thanks to the demographic-economic paradox, the Singaporean population is beginning to age and decline. Without a growing, reliable workforce, Singapore will not be able to achieve economic growth, which is crucial for creating more jobs and growing wages. Also, an aging population means that there will be less working Singaporeans supporting more dependent citizens. The country’s gross domestic product (one of the highest in the world) could begin to fall, taking the government’s pride with it. Something must be done.

In response, pages like “Say ‘No’ to an overpopulated Singapore” have sprouted up on Facebook to oppose the government’s plans, with arguments occasionally crossing the line towards anti-immigration and xenophobic sentiments.

It doesn’t help that the government’s arguments are based on assumptions it has failed to justify. The demographic shifts experienced by Singapore are not unique, and neither do they necessarily spell doom and gloom. The Economist published an article back in 2006, which highlighted that numerous developed countries around the world were facing declining populations, yet concluded that this was a cause for celebration rather than anxiety. Although an aging population may lead to less GDP growth, it is also an indication of a higher quality of life for each individual within the country.

Various studies have also suggested that an aging population is not a problem that urgently needs to be solved, but might actually be good for society as this means that individual citizens are living better, longer and healthier lives. This also means that older people are remaining able-bodied and economically productive for longer, suggesting that an aging population does not have to lead to a smaller, burdened workforce.

There’s also the societal impact: although the white paper that the government released features beautiful photos of happy smiling Singaporeans and shiny, wealthy-looking buildings, many Singaporeans are not convinced that the projected future will bring happiness. How can it, if the government is too disconnected from the populace to really know what they want in their lives?

Of course, none of these problems obscure the real elephant in the room: the ultimate unsustainability of the government’s plans. Population growth might bring economic growth, but the population can’t keep growing forever. Experienced demographer Joseph Chamie has labeled population growth for economic gain as “Ponzi demography,” which suggests that Singapore’s government isn’t exactly on to a winning strategy. With space already at a premium, it is only a matter of time before another solution, one that turns away from population growth, is needed.