SINGAPORE: The Workers' Party has released its own paper on Population, just two weeks after Parliament endorsed a report charting the country's strategies to mitigate an ageing and shrinking population.
Titled 'A Dynamic Population for a Sustainable Singapore', the Workers' Party makes a case for a population projection of about 5.8 million by 2030. This is down from the 6.9 million in the government's White Paper.
The party aims to achieve that with an annual resident workforce growth of one per cent, a freeze to the foreign workforce growth rate and a projected GDP growth of between 1.5 and 2.5 per cent in the next decade. That is half a percentage point down from the government's GDP projections.
The recent debate on population issues was one of the most passionate seen in Parliament with MPs from both the ruling and opposition parties raising concerns over issues such as over-crowding, the Singapore identity and quality of life.
All nine Workers' Party MPs had opposed the Population Paper and Land Use Plan.
They were among the 13 who opposed the motion with one abstention. 77 MPs voted Yes.
In coming up with its own 38-page proposal, Workers' Party Secretary-General Low Thia Khiang said the party believes it is important to encourage further debate so that Singaporeans can make informed judgements on the population issue.
"In view of the important and complexity of the subject, as well as the fundamental differences between WP and the government on the approach to tackle the population challenges ahead, we have decided to publish our Population Policy Paper," Mr Low added.
At the heart of the paper are improving Singapore's Total Fertility Rate (TFR) and Labour Force Participation Rate, instead of what the party describes as "immigration-driven growth" as a long-term solution to the country's demographic challenges.
Like the government, the Workers' Party also believes in a strong Singaporean core, but disagrees on how to sustain and nurture this core.
Workers' Party's Treasurer and Non-Constituency Member of Parliament, Yee Jenn Jong, said: "By Singapore core, we also want to look at what is the solution behind this? So why do we emphasise on one per cent local workforce growth? It is that we want to look internally to see whether we can achieve that target. And only in circumstances where we believe that it cannot be reached, then that is where we do factor in population top ups with foreign workers."
The report fleshes out three scenarios to explain how its total population projection of between 5.6 and 5.8 million is arrived at.
The projection is based on the following assumptions:
- That 10,000 new citizens are taken in every year as opposed to taking in 15,000 to 25,000 new citizens a year under the government's white paper.
- The non-resident population is capped at current numbers - that is 1.5 million.
- The resident workforce growth is one per cent annually.
In scenario one, the TFR recovers to 1.75 by 2030 and the Labour Force Participation Rate improves to 78.7 per cent. This will give a total population of about 5.7 million by 2030.
In the second scenario, the TFR is stagnant at 1.3 but the Labour Force Participation Rate improves to 78.7 per cent. This gives a total population of about 5.6 million.
And in the least ideal scenario three, both the TFR and Labour Force Participation Rate remain stagnant at 1.3 and 72.2 per cent respectively.
The total population will be about 5.8 million, with more foreign workers taken in to make up for the shortfall, because the one per cent growth in resident workforce is not met.
Under scenario three, about 400,000 foreign workers are needed by 2030 as opposed to about 200,000 in scenario two.
The proposal to cap the foreign worker numbers here at current levels have met with swift rebuttals from some business groups already struggling with labour costs.
The party maintains though that its proposals do not turn off the foreign worker tap because for "every foreign worker that leaves Singapore, another foreign worker could be brought in".
Mr Yee explained: "If you look closely at the population numbers, you will find that actually the next few years, there is already a natural increase in local workforce entering the market because we have more young people entering the workforce than there are older people retiring. The problem only comes a few years down the road when we have more people retiring."
The party proposes help for businesses such as lower rentals, utilities and capital costs to offset the higher labour costs of restructuring.
Mr Yee said: "Of course we do acknowledge that the businesses do need to adjust and as in any economic restructuring there will be certain pains and there will be certain businesses that can restructure to meet this new environment. There will be certain businesses that are very dependent on cheap foreign manpower and they cannot survive.
"I think this is an adjustment that Singapore will sooner or later go through and we are asking for an alternative - to look at the scenario, what happens under this proposal, what is the eventual population target and then we have to look at what we have to do to help these companies make that bridge if we believe that it is important for us to have a sustainable Singapore. Then we will all have to work together to look at how to help the companies, who can adapt to this environment over a period of time. It can also be through policies, it may not be only through manpower numbers, because there are a lot of things hurting companies."
To grow the resident labour force, the Workers' Party proposes measures to get more women and elderly into the workforce.
The party also proposes what it calls "structural reforms" to improve the TFR.
These include making it mandatory for companies to offer work-life balance initiatives and incentivising them to do so.
The party has also proposed that 10 per cent of land be set aside as reserves for future generations instead of the four per cent outlined in the government's white paper.
Assistant Professor Eugene Tan, who is also a Nominated MP, said: "They are confident that based on their own projections, we can still achieve a reasonable growth rate. For example to 2020 as well as 2030, they are looking about 0.5 to one per cent off from the government's own white paper growth target or estimates. My question really is would the Workers Party's be able to elaborate on how different the quality of life, how Singaporeans wealth would be affected even for the bottom 20 per cent, if we have a slower economic growth rate.
"We need that clarity because in order for Singaporeans to say maybe we can go for slower growth, I think it is important for proponents of slower growth to actually be able to spell out exactly what are the differences, so that Singaporeans can make an informed decision. If that is what Singaporeans want, then the government of the day will have to somehow accommodate that or be able to persuade Singaporeans that that level of growth rate is not going to work in the long run.
"When you look at the Workers' Party position as articulated in their population paper, it is clear that they have taken on board the concerns of Singaporeans and so I think in that sense it will certainly go down well with Singaporeans. But as I have mentioned earlier, the key question is are the plans really viable? Will they actually enable Singapore to continue to be a very attractive place? Not just for talented people who may want to become citizens but also for Singaporeans."
Because of its long term implications, the government has said that the conversation continues even though the Population Paper and Land Use Plan have been endorsed.
In fact, the Our Singapore Conversation Committee tasked with getting Singaporeans to come to a consensus about the kind of future they want for the country, is expected to roll out a series of dialogues to discuss this very topic.