Monday, February 11, 2013

PAP Government's mediocre intellect revealed in its Population White Paper

Dubious Footnotes in the Population White Paper

The Online Citizen

By Gordon Lee

Last week, the Deputy Prime Minister Teo Chee Hean (who heads the National Population and Talent Division) apologised for the error in footnote 12 in the population white paper which misrepresented nursing as being low-skilled.

Yet, the misrepresentation is not limited to just footnote 12. Here is a selection of other misleading footnotes in the contentious White Paper.

Footnote 2 states that “A comparison of advanced countries shows that incomes grow faster when economic growth is good. Poor growth may also affect employment prospects, especially for lower-educated workers.”

Yet, this in no way supports the erroneous point that the white paper was trying to make – that without economic growth, unemployment would rise. What the white paper should have instead claimed is: Without economic growth, and with a growth in the labour force, unemployment would rise. This simple omission is an important one. If there is no growth in the labour force, unemployment levels would be less susceptible to a lack of economic growth.

Footnote 3 claims that “Economic growth has allowed the Government to introduce various transfer schemes to help lower-income Singaporeans, such as the Goods and Services Tax (GST) Voucher scheme.”

GST was introduced at 3% in 1994, and raised over time to 7% in 2007.

What the footnote should have said was “Taxing consumption via GST has allowed the Government to introduce the GST Voucher Scheme, i.e. take with one hand, and give back with another.”

Footnote 5, that “The World Bank has ranked Singapore top for ease of doing business”, was used to support that point that “Our well-educated and skilled workforce, good connectivity, reliable public services, stable government, and rule of law make us an attractive place to do business and give us a competitive edge globally.”

Yet, reading the World Bank report revealed that Singapore was ranked highly for legal and procedural effectiveness, and NOT for some of the reasons claimed by the white paper (i.e. educated and skilled workforce, stable government, etc.) Nor does the cited PWC report support the points made. The White Paper should not have misrepresented the World Bank and PWC.

Footnote 7 is plainly ridiculous. It states that the labour productivity forecast for 2010-2020 of 2-3% is simply the target of the Economic Strategies Committee. The ESC report says “We can achieve productivity growth of 2 to 3 percent per year over the next 10 years, more than double the 1 percent rate achieved over the last decade. This is a challenging target.”

It is good and ambitious to have a “challenging target”, but surely Government report and policies should be based on a more reasonable target.

Footnote 7 goes on to claim that their forecast for 2020-2030 “is assessed to be 1% to 2% per year, similar to the experience of OECD countries over the last decade (i.e. 2000-2010).” How NPTD assessed the accuracy of this statement is not elaborated upon.


It is deeply regrettable that the NPTD would go public with such a poorly-substantiated documented. Doing so only encourages speculation that the White Paper is little more than an attempt to create an illusion of robust support, by quoting evidence out of context.

Sadly, the lack of public support is still evident. Donald Low, a senior fellow at the LKY School of Public Policy and a former top civil servant, has criticised the white paper (see Experts Weigh in on Population Projections, below) saying that there “wasn’t even a References section to show what research the writers of the paper had done, what social science theories they relied on, what competing heories/frameworks they looked at… There was also a surprising lack of rigorous comparison with other countries that have gone through, or are going through, a similar demographic transition.

The poverty of intelligent thinking in Government policies makes us all the poorer.

Expert Weigh in on Population Projections

Today, 4 Feb 2013 (source)

SINGAPORE — As Parliament sits today to debate the White Paper on population, some experts have questioned the soundness and accuracy of the projected population figures, given the difficulty in forecasting population growth.

Citing the Government’s track record of underestimating population growth, they noted that external factors, such as the global economy and the demand for labour, would likely throw such forecasts off the mark.

Nevertheless, others felt that policymakers would have gleaned lessons from past instances and factored in a buffer in their latest projections.

In particular, demographer Gavin Jones from the Asia Research Institute at the National University of Singapore (NUS) pointed out that the population projections for 2030 factored in more than two million non-residents. This would give policymakers some “flexibility”, he noted.

The White Paper projects that by 2020, there could be between 5.8 million and 6 million people in Singapore. By 2030, the range is projected to increase to between 6.5 million and 6.9 million.

But Economic Society of Singapore Vice-President Yeoh Lam Keong reiterated that population growth “always tends to exceed projected forecast”.

“Because, firstly, there is very strong demand for labour from existing labour-intensive industries, and industry has a strong influence on immigration policy,” he said.

“Secondly, given economic uncertainty, during the times when we have growth, the Government tends to err on the side of caution and go for more growth. Given these two tendencies, we tend to systematically overshoot population growth, not intentionally, but because of circumstance and current institutional practice.”

While SIM University economics professor Randolph Tan noted that such forecasts are “always notoriously inaccurate”, he felt that publishing the White Paper was a “responsible” move by the Government, as it allows Singaporeans to air their concerns and hear “both sides of the debate”.

But he said that policymakers could have come up with a less definitive forecast. Instead, Singaporeans could be informed about the probability of reaching a population of 6.9 million by 2030, he suggested.

“The question therefore … is, what is the precision of the projections? What is the potential error range? How far can we afford to be wrong?”

The Government’s past population projections have been below the mark. For example, the Urban Redevelopment Authority’s Concept Plan in 1991 projected a population of four million to be reached after 2010.

By 2000, however, the Republic’s total population had already crossed that mark.

In 2001, the population was estimated to hit 5.5 million in the long term. When it reached 4.6 million in 2007, the projection for planning purposes was adjusted to 6.5 million. The Government had acknowledged that it was caught off guard by the surge in the number of immigrants.

NUS sociologist Tan Ern Ser felt that the Government, in learning from its past experience, “would have built in some buffers and not cut (the projection) too close”.

Agreeing with Dr Tan, NUS Department of Real Estate professor Tay Kah Poh added: “In other words, the plan assumes some degree of over-shooting, which is a huge change in thinking from before.”

National Development Minister Khaw Boon Wan noted last week that the projection was “aggressive” so that the Government “will not be caught under-providing, as we are experiencing currently” — a stance that Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said on Facebook that he fully agreed with.

Still, Mr Yeoh proposed capping the total population to 6 million in 2030 and 6.5 million by 2050.

He said: “A population of 6.5 million will be very cosmopolitan, (there will be) a lot of foreigners but it will still have significant indigenous components. And it will be relatively wealthy so it might resemble … Switzerland, with significant social cohesion and national identity.”

He added that, should Singapore ever reach a population of 8 million to 9 million, “it would look more like Dubai”. There could be “extreme income inequality, extreme dependence on foreigners and would be extremely crowded and unpleasant”, said Mr Yeoh.

Meanwhile, Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy Senior Fellow Donald Low criticised the lack of scholarship and academic rigour in the White Paper.

Writing on Facebook, Mr Low, a former high-flying civil servant, noted that there “wasn’t even a References section to show what research the writers of the paper had done, what social science theories they relied on, what competing theories/frameworks they looked at”.

Citing Australia’s recent White Paper on Australia in the Asian Century or reports by the British government, which he said are “always complete with references to the social science literature”, Mr Low added: “There was also a surprising lack of rigorous comparison with other countries that have gone through, or are going through, a similar demographic transition.”


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