Sunday, February 17, 2013

Why 6.9m was too much information

Feb 16, 2013


Major policy shifts eclipsed by uproar over population projection

By Rachel Chang

IN THE wake of the parliamentary debate on the Population White Paper, People's Action Party (PAP) politicians probably feel like they have been hit by a truck.

Some think that they had actually anticipated the national furore and therefore scheduled the White Paper for the Monday after the Punggol East by-election.

But the chain of events was so unfortunate that it is unlikely that it unfolded by design.

It is hard to imagine any senior politician wanting to be caught on the backfoot, clarifying that the paper contained a "worst-case scenario" and beseeching the people to trust them.

It is hard to imagine any government wanting to contain backbench backlash by accepting an amendment to a parliamentary motion, or, before a vote on the most important document in recent years, having to apologise for a footnote.

It was all topped off with the Prime Minister, after being praised for not leaving the controversial issue to his successor, effectively leaving it to his successor by promising that the Government will not decide on a population size beyond 2020.

What happened over the last two weeks is a real pity, because the bulk of the document is worthy of praise. For starters, it is a policy roadmap that directly responds to, and embeds the lessons of, the difficulties of recent years.

The two key criticisms of the Government's population policy have been that the pace of economic growth - and consequently, the influx of foreigners - has been too intense, and that the infrastructure was not readied for the surge. This resulted in a myriad of problems, from high housing prices to wage stagnation, all of which took a toll on Singaporeans' lives and convinced them that high economic growth is not in their interests.

The White Paper marks policy shifts on both those fronts:

First, the pace of growth and intake of foreigners will be substantially less - only a third - than that of the previous three decades. Second, the Government will now build infrastructure ahead of demand.

The latter, especially, is a major political shift. For years, PAP ministers have been pointing to the costs of "white elephant" infrastructure, and invoking the "ghost towns" of the late 1990s, when blocks of flats stood empty after demand disappeared overnight due to an economic crisis.

Finally, the Government is acknowledging that the holding costs of empty flats and deserted train stations are more than compensated for by the benefits of slack in the infrastructure.
Whatever is lost when blocks of flats stand empty is more than earned back in the flexibility to respond to population surges - and in the goodwill that accrues when Singaporeans feel peace of mind.

All of these should have been welcomed by critics and supporters alike - the former for being vindicated, the latter for the evidence that the ruling party is not hopelessly wedded to dogma. But instead, they were all but drowned out by the uproar over the 6.9 million figure.

In the interests of better and more fruitful political discourse, let us engage in a thought experiment. What would the Population White Paper experience have been like if the population projections of 5.8 million to 6 million by 2020, and 6.5 million to 6.9 million by 2030, had not been included in the document?

For those who have actually read the White Paper, that would mean taking out the three pages that comprise Chapter 4: Population Trajectories.

I would argue that the document would have been essentially the same, minus the sound and fury over a number that succeeded in defining the debate without being real or particularly significant.

Hear me out.

One of the points National Development Minister Khaw Boon Wan made during the past two weeks was that for the average person going about her day, there is little sense of the total population of which she is a part.

One does not interact with 6.9 million people in one day, one interacts with at most 200 or 300.

But when one cannot get into a crowded train, for example, it begins to feel like whatever the number, it's too many.

Importantly, this can arise in small populations or in big ones. This is a truism of urban planning and a key message that the Ministry of National Development tried to get across: Dense cities are not the same as unliveable ones.

Government planners are confident that they can, through innovative urban solutions and more efficient use of land, cater comfortably to a population much larger than Singapore's current size.

They may or may not succeed. The point is that in the grand scheme of things, the overall population size is actually a tangential piece of information: 5.3 million could seem like too many, and 6.9 million could actually seem like a comfortable fit.

But to give people a number millions more than what the population now is - at a moment of unanimity that it is currently "too many" - smacks of misjudgement.

I am not arguing for duplicity. It is imperative that the White Paper reveal the targets which the Government can control, and is working with.

The growth of the foreign workforce, productivity and gross domestic product targets are all essential pieces of information.

If these figures had been front-and-centre, then there could have been the same rigorous national and parliamentary debate over whether they are the right ones to aim for, minus the note of hysteria and anger.

These components do add up to an estimated population size, but with so many assumptions and variables along the way that the final figure should not be allowed to eclipse everything else.

For example, the White Paper's calculations were based on the current total fertility rate of 1.2. But what if it goes up? What if it goes down? What if technological breakthroughs bring about a leap forward in productivity? What if labour force participation rates spike? What if life expectancy climbs, or drops?

As any of these unforeseen and uncontrollable factors move, so lurches the population size.

This could have better illustrated if the White Paper had presented scenarios of a TFR of 1.2, a TFR of 1.5 (the Government's near-term goal), and a TFR of 2.1, which is the replacement rate.

While the National Population and Talent Division did put out an occasional paper last April charting how the citizen population would change under various TFRs, the Population White Paper could have expanded on this by pairing these scenarios with a variety of productivity growth rates.

The most optimistic of these scenarios would allow us to drastically tamp down on the growth of the foreign workforce.

The various scenarios not only would have illustrated just how contingent the population projections are, but also how important it is to get cracking on the twin national goals of economic restructuring and baby-making.

The key message from the Government should then have been that whatever the scenario, it is readying the infrastructure for many millions more than what we currently have - so that Singaporeans will never feel so under siege again.

Perhaps this seems like a call to be dishonest with the people, or disingenuous with the figures.

A long-standing criticism of the Government is that it is tight-fisted and non-transparent with information, so shouldn't we welcome the fact that it was open about that 6.9 million figure, rather than squirrelling it away, or labelling it a scenario for "year X"?

But I think that's a simplistic interpretation of how a mature electorate deals with its elected government.

I am a proponent of more information - but the numbers we should desire are real ones, such as the number of employment passes we give out, how many prisoners we send to the gallows, or how much we have in the national reserves. The 6.9 million is simply not in the same category.

The Government should also refrain from telling itself that what happened with the White Paper was the necessary fallout from doing the "right" thing. The PAP likes to believe that it would rather go down in flames having governed well, than "pander" to populist pressures. Like martyrs, it will take the political hit for the long-term benefit of the country.

Ironically, the Government actually was doing the popular thing in making those strategic planning shifts that many have been calling for for years.

Yet, not only did it earn no extra goodwill, but also the political rancour actually grew. This was not inevitable and it's important to examine why it happened and how it could have been avoided.

On voters' part, they should appraise the Government not on its means - working estimates and projections - but whether it succeeds in achieving its ends. In this case, that is to deliver on the high quality of life that the PAP says it can achieve. In 2030, that should be the only yardstick by which the Population White Paper is judged.

It's a shame that that "6.9 million" seems likely to be its legacy instead.

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