Monday, September 28, 2009

Singapore's Population

I was not planning to blog about anything until I complete my Phd thesis ... but this just stunned me ...

S'pore population hits 5m (By Melissa Pang, Straits Times, Sep 28, 2009).

Two (well, three) things struck me:

1. Households

The number of resident households has also gone up at the same rate - by 1.7 per cent to an estimated 1,093,100 in 2008.

That's around 18,000 households. So, I have so many questions now ... how the hell are we housing everyone if the HDB is constructing only 8,000 homes per year? Is there a large enough surplus of flats? Is there a large enough supply of private housing? Are families now being forced to rent rooms just to have a roof over their heads? The Americans over-extended by trying to have more people to own homes but are we headed the other direction by trying to have fewer people owning their own homes?

2. Percentage growth in population

The latest figures indicate a 3.1 per cent growth over the previous year, with the resident population registering a 2.5 per cent jump.

Ok ... is it me, or is our population growing at a similar or faster rate than our GDP growth? Naively, this should mean our per-capita GDP should be stagnant. Given a huge chunk of our GDP goes into company profits, does this mean we are going to continue to see wages frozen for the foreseeable future while costs go up?

3. The spin ... oh, the spin ...

Soon after I read the article and refreshed the page to acquire the reference links to blog about it, I came across what must be the most blatant spin-article to "reassure" Singaporeans nothing is wrong (in the most un-reassuring way):

Population rises, slowly (By Zakir Hussain, Political Correspondent, Straits Times, Sep 29, 2009)

Just look at the language used ... speculative or stuffed with weasel words ...

The others are permanent residents (PRs) and foreigners. In this foreign pool of 1.8 million, the number of PRs grew faster - by 12 per cent.

It shot up by 55,000 to 533,200, partly because of many foreigners rushing to be PRs to avoid having to pack up and leave Singapore should they lose their jobs during the downturn.

... sooo, you are telling us that our Immigration policies have become so liberal that a foreigner can suka suka become a PR by saying "because I don't want to leave if I lose my job during the downturn"? Come to think of it, that only makes sense if these people want a shot at another job in Singapore if they lose one. Otherwise, why would they even want to stay in expensive Singapore? I wonder how many foreigners actually feel this way ... did Zakir Hussain actually research this "fact" or did he conjure it out of nowhere?

In contrast, the number of foreigners - which includes family members of foreign workers - rose less sharply to 1.25 million.

This is a rise of 5 per cent, which is much smaller than last year's 19 per cent increase amid a booming economy.

More than half of these foreigners are transient workers, many of whom do jobs or take shifts that locals avoid.

To be fair, I am reading what might be a non-existent sub-text with a classic spin ... "not as bad as last year's terrible numbers = 'please be grateful, you sorry peons'". Seriously though, I'm a little pissed-off by the last sentence. It reads to me rather like "many of whom are sitting around unpaid for non-existent jobs because the economy is so damn bad".

Finally, this takes the cake:

The bigger foreign pool is cause for cheer, said National University of Singapore sociologist Paulin Straughan.

'That we managed to grow the population in spite of a downturn and sustained low fertility rate is quite an achievement.

'This means Singapore remains an attractive destination for those seeking work,' said Associate Professor Straughan, who is also a Nominated MP.

Yay. I'm so very happy we can have more people to suffer through a downturn and have all those extra people to soak up all the jobs that become available when the economy recovers.

Being a foreign graduate student in the US who might seek a job here, I'm normally very supportive of foreign workers in Singapore complementing our workforce. However, all I can see in the future given how the government and employers in Singapore behave is that the majority of new jobs created when the Singapore economy recovers will go to this huge extra surplus of foreign workers because, let's face it, they are way cheaper than Singaporeans. At the very best, wages will remain depressed for a long time to come. Of course, that's what the establishment wants ...


Fievel said...

Chee Wai,
Good catch on that GDP growth = population growth, hence GDP per capita is stagnant or worse off with rising costs.

As for Zakir Hussain's suggestion that many foreigners applied to be PRs in order to stay on should they lose their jobs, I actually think it makes common sense...during this global downturn, jobs are scarce everywhere. Having residency and hence the visa to work in any additional markets or countries can only be a good thing for an individual. As such, becoming a Singapore PR is a no brainer and a win-win for them during this downturn.

We have become a migration-slut of a country...we are so so easy to get.

hcpen said...

Hey there,
came over from yawning bread..i didn't know Sg had so many foreigners! Well,should've guessed since the population growth has been phenomenal given sg's low birthrate..1.8 million out of 5 million, like 2/5 of the entire Sg population is foreign! but then again, i think many pr have been in sg for years and so prob act and think singaporean already..

Chee Wai Lee said...

Hi and welcome, hcpen!

Please feel free to comment, share your views and criticize!

For PRs acting and thinking like Singaporeans, I think it depends on the individual. For example, in the US, foreign populations from all over the world tended to form enclaves and live a life somewhat different from the typical American.

Personally, I now appreciate cultural diversity. The US has opened my eyes where diversity is concerned. Back in Singapore, not only was I blinded by the CMIO categorization, I realized I had not even been active trying to understand Malay, Tamil and Sikh cultures. I certainly have not tried to understand and appreciate the various Chinese cultures in Singapore.

hcpen said...

I actually believe the CMIO system is good in a way as it assists in retaining the individual cultures of the main groups and especially helps protect the minority cultures from being swamped by the dominant (chinese) culture in singapore..also with singapore being one of the most westernised nation in Asia, it is good for the govt' to keep the native culture alive through the system.

Chee Wai Lee said...


I think part of the problem with CMIO is that it actually suppresses individual culture rather than celebrating diversity.

For example, "C" makes an assumption that we are all mandarin-speaking ethnic Han people. That in itself is not a bad thing for the purposes of communication. However, PAP policies based on "C" has over the years actively suppressed the dialects that really should have enhanced our culture and granted us an intimate understanding of one another's history as descendants of the various Southern Han peoples.

This issue really came to light for me when I read a Forum article on the Straits Times years ago when some guy suggested a "Speak Tamil" campaign similar to the "Speak Mandarin" campaign with the reason that we could then do better trade with India. I would have been blissfully nodding my head had I not known (since coming to the US) that the main language in India ("main", not "majority" at 41%) is Hindi. Tamil speakers represent only 5.9% of India's population.

I believe in Singapore, we have been conditioned over the years to cast the world as a collection of monolithic entities. CMIO, unfortunately reinforces that. Our perceptions of "I" narrows us to the two most obvious groups, the Sikhs and the Tamils. I believe only recently did the Jains take a small spotlight on our state media. India is incredibly diverse and the Indians themselves know it and some celebrate this diversity. Many northern Indians I know do not even know what Thaipusam is :). Roti Prata is also alien to all Indians, even southern Indians ... it was invented in Singapore/Malaysia.

I think cultures evolve over time and should be allowed to. I think cultures will not be swamped as long as we give them room to express themselves and celebrate their uniqueness. The Indians gave to the British their love of tea, the British gave to the Indians their love of Cricket. I do not think anyone can reasonably argue that these new (18th century) features "destroyed" their original cultures.

To me, CMIO is useful as an administrative tool (similar to the way we would typically identify ourselves as "asians" in the USA), but I think it is terrible as a policy mechanism (the Americans make it a point to avoid requiring ethnicity information unless it made sense).

Fox said...

Chee Wai,

Actually, Thaipusam is of Tamil origins. However, even in Tamil Nadu, according to my friend who is a true blue Tamil from Chennai, it has largely died out and is only practised in the more rural areas. In fact, he didn't even know what Thaipusam was and had to look it up on Wikipedia!

Chee Wai Lee said...

Hey Fox,

Thanks for the clarification. I hope I did not give the impression that Thaipusam was invented in our region.

One of my Tamil friends (from India) here knows about it too. He was actually fairly surprised it is a big festival over in South East Asia.

hcpen said...

Chee Wai,
I respectfully disagree. I think without the CMIO policy, the minority cultures and not to mention malay and tamil will have been reduced greatly by the dominant numerically vast and economically superior chinese population of singapore.

Furthermore, the CMIO policy does NOT assume that chinese in singapore are mandarin-speaking hans, in fact quite the opposite, everyone knew back in the 30s,40s,and 50s that because chinese dialects formed a barrier to communication between the various dialect groups, a common 'Mandarin language' had to be imposed. Of cos, dialect was lost in that process which is very sad and dialect should now be promoted but i believe this was a necessary policy given the history/times of that period of sg's development.
Furthermore, i find all the well-educated elite singp's i have come in touch with have appalling mandarin levels even with the 'Speak Mandarin' campaign and CMIO policy, god knows what've happened without it. Promoting dialect would have been disastrous in the past given how singaporean's place english on such a high pedastal and showed such a lack of interest in learning mandarin (until the recent 10 yrs with China's rise) that i believe it'd end up with everyone just speaking english and no dialect and mandarin.

Furthermore, i think in America they don't record racial records due to their specific historical and cultural circumstances. It is a common mistake, in my opinion, to copy everything from the West as being 'better' than Asia when many things done the Asian way is just different, not worse.

For instance, I find many Singaporeans particularly from a well-to-do English speaking background or elite background tend to have an overly critical view of their own homeland, Singapore, and blindly praise everything in the West as good or better. It often just means a different perspective and how you want to see things. For instance, with the example of America, I could be critical too and say they have ghettos of different races but no real mixing in private life. Furthermore, one could again say the perception of race is extremely narrow in America, with broad categories like Asian (incl. Japan to India) Hispanic (incl. brown skinned to white skinned) and even white (what's that? washing over the different migrant cultures such as germanic-american and irish-american). See?
I happen to be a very proud Taiwanese-Malaysian of pure ethnic Chinese descent and thus I never fall into the trap of many English-speaking well-educated Malaysian and Singaporean Chinese whom i find have a tendency to 'worship' whiteness and white culture (without consciously knowing it) and suffer from an acute superiority-elitism complex, never being proud of their country or what they've achieved, looking down on their 'poorer' cousins from PRC whilst looking up to the Western world.

Thanks for having this intelligent discussion with me.:-)

Chee Wai Lee said...


Thank you too, for a lively discussion on the matter! I guess we'll have to agree to disagree on the issue of the impact of CMIO on Singapore :).

I would like to point out a common misconception that, in argument if one rejects an issue, the converse is necessarily supported. For example, when I said the government should not have actively repressed the dialects, it did not mean I felt they should have actively promoted them :).

I hope you understand there is no single "western" philosophy on society and life. I will defer any discussion on this until after I have time, as it is (to me) complex and nuanced.

I will not shy away from saying that I am one of those people who are critical of life in Singapore. However, I would like to claim that I criticize because I love, not because I hate (well, for the most part, hehe, there are some things that do get my blood boiling).

I'll be interested to see how the Singapore government will choose to integrate the large numbers of new citizens and PRs.

hcpen said...

chee wai: How long have you been in the States? Which part? I'd agree with you on one thing though. I think the govt policy (if i read correctly somewhere) was to increase the population to like 6.5 million, which is too many ppl! As if Singapore is not a small enough island already!

This would put a great strain on resources,housing,jobs,healthcare,etc and given the proposal is to do it mainly by immigration, it'd prob even cause huge social problems.

Chee Wai Lee said...


I've been here way too long for my Phd (10+ years). Am currently at Urbana-Champaign.

I'll need to work out what I want to do with my life after I defend my thesis.

Kevin Jang said...

Hi Chee Wai, while following your blog, I noticed this entry about population growth in SG. It's actually cause for alarm and will be used as a cause for debate and argument during elections, no doubt, although many are still in denial about whether one should even talk about it here. My problem with this phenomenon is similar to yours, in that I think that the competition for jobs is seriously going to be even stiffer, and what with the addition of cheaper labour which means that employers here will opt for the cheaper foreign workers. The fact that the rejection of a minimum wage bill has been in action here does not make it better, since in a way, I believe it is in motion for employers to make use of the foreign labour available (to charge them way below average Singaporean rates).

As for the GDP growth rate, I am still iffy about where the growth occurs from. It is not so much that I do not believe there is growth, just that I am really not sure if that equates more jobs for Singaporeans especially with the sudden influx of foreigners which has not made things easier for locals.

Chee Wai Lee said...

Kevin, from what I understand, the GDP growth is mostly in the form of corporate income. I cannot remember, but I read somewhere that Singapore's corporate income percentage of GDP is actually higher than the US (which is already considered very bad).