26 February 2013

Singapore: Population under pressure

February, 2013: A trip to Singapore by IIASA Population Program Leader Wolfgang Lutz has stirred up debate and discussion in the tiny island country, which faces rising immigration and falling fertility rates.

Group of children walking in singapore © Danilo Mongiello | Dreamstime.com

Group of children walking in singapore © Danilo Mongiello | Dreamstime.com

In this Q&A, Lutz discusses his experiences over the past few weeks and notes how population research can contribute to public discussion. For more details on Lutz's trip and events in Singapore, please read "IIASA Population Researchers in Singapore"

Q: Why is there so much interest in Singapore right now for demography? 

A: Since Singapore is such a small city state, the issue of managing population trends has always been an important issue in public discussion. As recently as the 1960's, the fertility rate in Singapore was very high: the Total Fertility Rate was over 6. But since then, fertility in the country has declined precipitously to an extremely low level of only 1.25. In addition migration of temporary workers is very strong. 

When I arrived here three weeks ago, the government had just issued a report on "Sustainable Population," which assumes that the population of Singapore will increase from currently 5.3 million to between 6.5 and 6.9 million by 2030, mostly through massive immigration. Many people in Singapore were unhappy about this report, because they think that Singapore is already overcrowded. There was even a “demographic demonstration" in the street with people carrying signs with the number 6.9 million crossed out.

Q: What insights does IIASA population research provide for Singapore? 

A: IIASA population projections show a population of 6.1 in 2030 mostly due to somewhat lower migration assumptions than the government scenarios. But mostly what was new is that we provided these projections not only by age and sex (as is conventionally done) but also by level of education. In a country that has become almost obsessed with education this was received very well. We also showed that because of the rapid expansion of education since the 1970s the elderly of the future will be better educated than those today and therefore also likely be healthier at any given age.   

Singapore crowd at election in january 2013© Haotian | Dreamstime.com

A crowd gathers for a January 2013 by-election in Singapore.

Q: What has surprised you in your trip to Singapore?

A: People in Singapore generally have a very high regard for scientists. This is not only reflected in government spending for science and basic research which is about three times as  high per person than in Austria, but it is also shown by the will to carefully listen to what scientists have to say. When high-level politicians read about my speeches in the newspaper and did not yet fully understand why I reached different conclusions than they had reached themselves, they wanted to learn more about it and invited me for lunch. During several such luncheons I was very impressed by the state of technical information and the speed of perceptions of these high civil servants.

Even in the demonstrations I mentioned, I was surprised about how intelligent and organized the discussion was. As compared to other speeches at other demonstrations that I had heard over the years this one was very civilized and orderly. People of different ages and from different groups of society expressed their views.

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Last edited: 28 February 2013


Wolfgang Lutz

Acting Research Group Leader and Principal Research Scholar Social Cohesion, Health, and Wellbeing Research Group - Population and Just Societies Program

Principal Research Scholar and Senior Program Advisor Population and Just Societies Program

T +43(0) 2236 807 294

International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis (IIASA)
Schlossplatz 1, A-2361 Laxenburg, Austria
Phone: (+43 2236) 807 0 Fax:(+43 2236) 71 313