Population growth wrongly related to livelihood

I refer to the 20 Feb 2013 Straits Times letter “Population growth’s relevance to a livelihood” by Mr Fred Yap Hoe Kiat [1].

Mr Yap claims that a conducive business environment and foreign direct investments (FDI) naturally leads to immigration. The following table [2] shows the top 20 economies by per capita FDI between 2007 and 2011. Most of these top FDI recipients had low population growth. FDI leading to immigration and population growth is anything but natural.

Country Name Average per capita FDI (2007 to 2011) % population increase (2007 to 2011)
Cayman Islands $1,525,869 3.70%
Hong Kong SAR, China $48,895 2.10%
Belgium $48,708 3.60%
Ireland $41,543 3.00%
Singapore $37,769 13.00%
Iceland $29,820 2.40%
New Caledonia $27,927 2.70%
Macao SAR, China $26,198 9.90%
Bermuda $16,257 1.10%
Norway $15,556 5.20%
Switzerland $13,981 4.70%
Hungary $13,200 -0.80%
St. Kitts and Nevis $13,025 5.10%
Turks and Caicos Islands $12,367 13.90%
Qatar $11,330 58.70%
Malta $10,750 2.40%
Bahamas, The $10,670 5.60%
Sweden $10,623 3.30%
Netherlands $10,561 1.90%

The following table [3] shows the top 20 economies by ease of doing business ranking. Again, most of these top ranked business destinations had low population growth. Again, conducive business environment leading to immigration and population growth is anything but natural.

Country Name Ease of doing business rank % population increase (2007 to 2011)
Singapore 1 13.00%
Hong Kong SAR, China 2 2.10%
New Zealand 3 4.20%
United States 4 3.40%
Denmark 5 2.10%
Norway 6.5 5.20%
United Kingdom 6.5 2.70%
Korea, Rep. 8.5 2.40%
Sweden 10.5 3.30%
Australia 10.5 7.30%
Finland 10.5 1.90%
Georgia 10.5 2.20%
Malaysia 13 6.70%
Iceland 13.5 2.40%
Ireland 15.5 3.00%
Canada 16 4.70%
Thailand 17.5 2.50%
Germany 19 -0.70%
Estonia 20 -0.10%

Unless we recently forgot how to process and manage foreigners, our many recent problems cannot simply be an issue of processing and managing foreigners. Our recent problems correspond to the massive numbers imported recently as shown in the table below [4]. The 488,700 foreigners imported in the 5-year period 2008 to 2012 are more than that imported over the preceding two 5-year periods combined. So it is about numbers and how fast they grow. While population growth is synonymous with Singapore’s economy, massive population growth such as the 723,800 increase over the period 2008-2012 is unheard of since independence. It is almost as though we are re-colonising the island all over again.

5-year increase foreigners (‘000) 5-year increase population (‘000)
1963 – 1967 227.4
1968 – 1972 174.8
1973 – 1977 172.9
1978 – 1982 321.2
1983 – 1987 -59.9 128.3
1988 – 1992 160 455.9
1993 – 1997 291.7 565.3
1998 – 2002 120.5 380
2003 – 2007 212.4 412.6
2008 – 2012 488.7 723.8

While there have been calls to reduce foreign worker growth, there have been no calls for us to take it easy. Gunning for productivity growth is not taking things easy, continuing to rely on population growth is. If such calls are unrealistic to the ruling party, it might be better some other more capable team to take over. It is not as though we have never embarked on risky economic restructuring before; economic restructuring is a never ending process since the mid-1980s. Mr Yap got it wrong, it should be: without business investments there would be no economic growth rather than the other way round.

Mr Yap points to the fact that in all his 20 years in sales, his bosses never reduced his growth targets. He forgets to mention that his bosses also never expected him to massively expand his sales force to generate those sales. He claims that no one will trust a non-growing company. But at the same time, no one will seriously regard a company whose only growth strategy is to grow worker numbers.

Mr Yap feels it is senseless to turn businesses away. But we have been turning businesses away since the mid-1980s to improve jobs and wages. If we had continued to cling on to businesses of earlier times, we would have been poorer for it.

Mr Yap feels that crowded trains is a happy problem, it is not. To many coping with the daily crush, it is anything but a happy problem.

Mr Yap claims we do not have severe unemployment. But we never did even when population growth was slower as shown in the table below [5]:

Year Population (‘000) Population increase (‘000) Resident Unemployment (%)
2001 4,138.00 3.7
2002 4,176.00 38 4.8
2003 4,114.80 -61.2 5.2
2004 4,166.70 51.9 4.4
2005 4,265.80 99.1 4.1
2006 4,401.40 135.6 3.6
2007 4,588.60 187.2 3
2008 4,839.40 250.8 3.2
2009 4,987.60 148.2 4.3
2010 5,076.70 89.1 3.1
2011 5,183.70 107 2.9
2012 5,312.40 128.7 2.8

It is Mr Yap who cannot understand the hard problems and therefore feels that our fears and uncertainties are based on emotions. While there has never been a time when Singapore had few foreigners, there was never a time when Singapore mass imported foreigners like it did over the last five years. While Singaporeans are descendants of foreigners, Singaporeans are not foreigners.

While feeling lucky that Singapore is blessed with a stream of foreign direct investments, Mr Yap should remember that the mastermind behind that strategy was Dr Albert Winsemius, not Lee Kuan Yew.

Mr Yap claims he was employed by a foreign talent who gave him opportunities to grow his career. But that doesn’t mean that a local employer won’t also give him opportunities to grow his career. He says he was pushed to work hard by his high expenses as he simply could not fail. If Steve Jobs had been pushed by high living expenses to work hard, how would he have found time, energy and inspiration to create Apple Computers?

Mr Yap should understand that our goal is not to create a different Singapore but a better Singapore. How can Singapore be better if life gets harder?

Mr Yap is asking us to spare a thought for the wrong people. Businesses that are fuelled by foreign direct investments tend to be high in technology and low in manpower demand. Their success should not depend on mass import of manpower.

Mr Yap should look beyond ministers’ promise to look after Singapore’s interest and see the reality of what is happening to Singapore today.

If Mr Yap doesn’t want our economy, politics and national integrity to be compromised, he should oppose the Population White Paper because explosive population growth undermines the economic wellbeing of the people and compromises politics and national integrity. How can Singaporeans feel proud, secure and protected when they have little to gain and everything to lose?

[1] Straits Times, 20 Feb 2013, Population growth’s relevance to a livelihood

[2] World Bank databank
First sum the FDI for each country from 2007 to 2011 (latest year available), then divide by population in 2011 to get FDI per capita over the 5-year period. Could have divided by average population from 2007 to 2011 but doesn’t make much difference to outcome. The period 2007 to 2011 (latest year available) is chosen because it corresponds to our years of growth at all costs which is the period of our concern.

[3] World Bank databank
Average out ease of doing business scores in 2010 and 2011 (the only two years available).

[4] Singstats

[5] Ministry of manpower website


One Response to “Population growth wrongly related to livelihood”

  1. Ace Says:

    Mr Yap does not realize that being in the correct industry is more important that being capable. I hope that the industry that he works in will continue to enjoy the favour of the government for many more years.

    If he finds his industry falling out of favour with the government, then he may finally understand how the displaced workers in Singapore feel. It is virtually impossible to switch industry when you reach 40 years of age even if you do not mind getting an entry level salary.

    There are also just too many under-employed Singaporeans who are excluded from the unemployment statistics. The sea may look calm but the under current is strong.

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