That 6.5 million population figure

Rachel Lin
The Straits Times

Population projection for planning purposes is an upper limit, not a target

In 2007, National Development Minister Mah Bow Tan announced that the Government had increased its long-term population estimate. For planning purposes, he said, the Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA) would be using a projected population of 6.5 million, up from the 2001 projection of 5.5 million.

With Singapore’s total fertility rate far below replacement levels, the obvious conclusion was that much of the increase would come from foreigners.

Mr Mah’s words were greeted with sound and fury. Singaporeans were worried that it would make them feel like strangers in a strange land. Would the newcomers be able to integrate into Singapore society?

Singapore was already one of the most densely populated countries in the world. Would it get even more crowded? In 2007, Singapore’s total population had already reached 4.6 million.

In October 2007, the distinguished demographer Saw Swee Hock predicted that for the population to hit 6.5 million by 2050, we would need such a heavy influx of migrants that newcomers arriving after 2015 would make up 40.5 per cent of the total population in 2050.

A report in February last year predicted that if the population were to hit 6.5 million by 2020, ground and underground travel demand in Singapore would rise to about 14.3 million journeys a day, with four peak-hour passengers per square metre on the trains.

Three years after it first surfaced, the 6.5 million figure still sparks controversy. Singapore Democratic Party leader Chee Soon Juan gave it prime mention in his response to the Prime Minister’s National Day Rally speech, saying that ‘Mr Lee intends to increase our population to 6.5 million’, with foreigners outnumbering Singaporeans.

This assertion, however, has to be put in perspective. Mr Mah had stressed that the 6.5 million number is not a target that the Government feels Singapore’s population should reach. Instead, he characterised it as a ‘planning parameter’ – to guide future development blueprints in the URA’s Concept Plan.

In fact, 6.5 million was the ‘upper bound’ for Singapore’s population over the long term, Mr Mah said in June 2007. For URA’s purposes, the ‘long term’ is about 40 to 50 years.

Even Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew has expressed reservations about the 6.5 million figure. On two separate occasions, he cited a somewhat more modest population target: five million to 5.5 million.

‘I have not quite been sold on the idea that we should have 6.5 million,’ he said in February 2008.

‘I think there’s an optimum size for the land that we have, to preserve the open spaces and the sense of comfort.’

It is therefore not accurate to say that the Government has a firm policy to increase Singapore’s population to 6.5 million come what may.

Nevertheless, a look back at the 6.5 million figure and its genesis uncovers some hard facts about the Government’s population projections. These have had to be revised upwards several times, to play catch-up with immigration.

In the 1991 Concept Plan produced by the URA, the planning parameter used was a population of four million, projected to be reached after 2010. It seemed like a reasonable estimate then, given that the 1990 Census showed that Singapore’s total population was three million.

As it turned out, the estimate was overtaken by events. Singapore’s total population crossed the four million mark in 2000. More crucially, the original four million estimate had failed to take into account the burgeoning number of non-residents, those who are neither citizens nor permanent residents. This saw an average annual growth of 9.3 per cent from 1990 to 2000.

The URA had included only the resident population in its estimates for the 1991 Concept Plan, Mr Mah told reporters in September 2000. Significantly, the latest 2010 Census shows that the resident population is still below four million, at 3.8 million.

But this leads to the question: Why weren’t non-residents factored in from the start?

Only in the 2001 Concept Plan were they included, when URA used as its planning parameter a total population of 5.5 million over the long term. But even then, the 2001 estimates were moot within years.

By 2007, Singapore’s total population had hit 4.6 million. A mid-term review of the 2001 Concept Plan was commissioned to factor in economic and social changes. That was when the figure of 6.5 million was proposed – and greeted with much consternation.

There was a 15 per cent jump in the non-resident population in 2007 over 2006, and an 8 per cent increase in the number of permanent residents.

Were these happening faster than the URA and other agencies had planned for? Senior Minister Goh Chok Tong admitted on Monday that the surge in the number of immigrants had caught the Government by surprise. The National Development Ministry had not provided for the sudden surge in its housing plans, he said.

The non-resident population grew by 19 per cent in 2008. According to the 2010 Census, Singapore’s total population has already crossed the five million mark, with 1.3 million non-residents.

In April 2008, Mr Mah reassured Singaporeans that ‘if we do need to increase our population to 6.5 million in the future… it is comforting to note that our physical resources, especially land, are able to support this’.

The population figures that planners base their blueprints on have far-reaching implications for transport, housing and land use.

And as the Government would have learnt by now, they are also a political hot potato. Handling instructions: Revise with care.

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