Singapore Mirrors Australian Population Trends

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CAN Singaporeans debating population issues learn anything from Australia’s experience? At first glance, the answer seems to be “no”. One country is continent-sized and sparsely populated but blessed with huge natural resources, and with its people mostly having strong cultural ties to Europe. The other, an island city-state, has few natural resources and a distinctly Asian cultural heritage. Ask citizens in both countries about the sort of future they envisage for themselves and their children, however, and you will come across a strikingly similar debate.

Like Singapore, Australia has a low birth rate and an ageing population. And, like Singapore, these factors have prompted governments concerned about the prospects of long-term growth to formulate policies that not all citizens appear ready to accept.

Yet another similarity is that the two countries are debating population issues at a time when relative prosperity should make any policy changes easier to accept. Unlike other developed countries facing similarly ageing populations, Singapore and Australia have weathered the global economic downturn well.

The main difference is timing. Singapore’s national debate officially began late last month with the tabling in Parliament of the White Paper on Population. Australians, however, have been arguing over the issue since 2010, when the government of then-Prime Minister Kevin Rudd released a report outlining his vision of what became known as “Big Australia”.

Among other things, this report suggested that Australia’s population would increase from 22 million to 35 million by 2050. The resulting national uproar, together with the academic and political debates it engendered, makes interesting reading as Singapore contemplates future policy directions.

Indeed, in terms of population trends, Singapore and Australia are almost mirror images of each other. Coincidentally, the total fertility rate in the two countries fell below 2.1, the internationally recognised replacement level, in exactly the same year – 1976.

Policymakers also recognised similar causes: More people were staying single or getting married later, and married couples were having their first child later or having fewer children.

Yet, the populations of both countries continued to rise as a result of immigration. And while Singapore accepted Westerners, Asians began to form an increasing proportion of Australia’s annual migrant intake. As a result, both countries are now among the most culturally diverse in the world. In 2011, 23 per cent of Singapore citizens were foreign-born. In the same year, the comparative figure for Australia was 26 per cent.

And just like Singaporeans who worry about their cultural heritage being diluted, Australians have been expressing similar concerns for some time. Then Australian Federal Treasurer Peter Costello warned in 2006: “Increasing immigration to cover natural population decline will change the composition of our population and raise concerns about social dislocation.”

Since then, the concern about immigration has taken on a more strongly political dimension. Rise Up Australia, a newly formed political party, aims to protect the country from what it regards as the pervasive influence of foreign cultures.

Somewhat paradoxically, the party is run by Australian Danny Nalliah, who is of Sri Lankan descent. Speaking to the National Press Club in Canberra earlier this month, he said the party would be fielding candidates in the 2013 election in the hope of replacing the Greens as the party holding the balance of power.

The ratio of working-age citizens to retirees is also getting plenty of attention. Earlier this month, Minister for Mental Health and Ageing Mark Butler referred to his own experience to illustrate the country’s rapidly changing demographics. “When I was born in 1970, there were about 71/2 Australians of working age for every one over 65. Today, there are about five,” he told the media.

Singapore’s demographic profile is surprisingly similar. Speaking in Parliament on the Population White Paper, Deputy Prime Minister Teo Chee Hean revealed that there are 5.9 working-age citizens for each citizen aged 65 and above.

But while Singapore has been introducing legislation to encourage employers to hire older workers, Australia’s response to the problem has been a lot tougher. According to the 2004 Age Discrimination Act, it is illegal to treat, or propose to treat, any person less favourably than another on the grounds of age. This includes failure to employ or imposing special requirements.

Last August, Canberra also appointed its first full-time Age Discrimination Commissioner.

The consensus among Australian policymakers appears to be that, with older workers being more active and healthy than ever before, the real problem is not the ageing population, but the social attitudes that prevent senior citizens from remaining in the workforce.

Australian commentators have also been highlighting the plight of a sandwiched generation rarely discussed in Singapore. This refers to citizens approaching retirement while caring for living parents. There is certainly plenty in the Australian experience for Singaporeans to ponder.

(C) Singapore Press Holdings Limited 

Key Political Risks

Asia is the fastest growing region in the world, and is likely to remain so in 2013. However, a number of risks cloud the picture.

The good news is that domestic demand in the region remains strong and should continue to cushion the impact of weaker external demand on overall economic growth. The completion of national elections in Japan and South Korea in December 2012 should also help reduce political uncertainties. 

But Asian governments will need to guard against the adverse impact of prolonged easy financial conditions on inflation.

Rising inequality also continues to threaten social stability. Ethnic and religious rivalries remain just below the surface in many countries. When combined with government corruption and (in some countries) high youth unemployment, this could become a deadly mix. This seems particularly true of China.

Territorial disputes also require close monitoring. Much diplomatic activity in the new year is likely to be centered on finding ways to reduce tensions over resource-rich islands in the South China Sea, where Beijing's claims overlap with those of Japan, Vietnam and other Southeast Asian states. South Korea and Japan also have rival territorial claims.

North Korea remains the wild card. Inclined to believe its own propaganda, Pyongyang's new leadership could miscalculate, making belligerent moves that plunge the region into a military conflict that nobody wants.

About Me

My name is Dr Bruce Gale and I am a senior writer with the Singapore Straits Times. I studied at  LaTrobe University (BA Hons) in Melbourne and later at the Centre for Southeast Asian Studies at Monash University (MA). My PhD thesis, which focussed on Malaysian political economy, was completed at the Malaysian National University (Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia) in 1987.

From 1988 to 2003 I was Singapore Regional Manager for the Hong Kong based Political and Economic Risk Consultancy (PERC). 

I have written several books and articles on Southeast Asian affairs, including Political Risk and International Business: Case Studies in Southeast Asia (Pelanduk Publications, 2007). Books on language include Mastering Indonesian: a guide to reading Indonesian language newspapers (Pelanduk Publications, 2008)

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