BY ROBIN CHAN ASSISTANT POLITICAL EDITOR, Straits Times
WHEN discussions here turn to Singapore's potential population size, numbers such as six million and 10 million have been bandied around.
But yesterday, Social and Family Development Minister Chan Chun Sing offered another possible figure: a population size of below four million.
"Strangely, when we talk about any number, there is another scenario – a number below four million… It is not inconceivable that we have a scenario where the transient workers or others may not find us so attractive," he said at the annual dinner of the Economic Society of Singapore (ESS).
He noted that Singapore's current resident population is just about three million, while the rest who make up the total population of 5.3 million are foreigners who come and go.
Immigration and integration remain key challenges going forward and Singapore's ability to attract the right kind of immigrants is not a given, he pointed out.
Mr Chan, recalling the Asian Financial Crisis in 1997, said that before it hit, there had been about 100,000 people in the queue for Housing Board flats.
But when the crisis hit, there was then a surplus of flats, in places such as Sengkang town. "My sister got a unit in Sengkang. She had no neighbours for five years."
His point was that the Government had to not only plan for when there is an increase in the population size, but also for the possibility of a decline.
"I don't think people will say there is a number and we will go towards it. A lot depends on how attractive people find us as a place to work and live," he said.
He was asked by moderator Yeoh Lam Keong, vice-president of the ESS, at the dinner at the Mandarin Orchard Hotel, about what population size he thought would suit Singapore.
Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said last year at the end of the debate on the Population White Paper that he expected the population in 2030 to be "significantly below 6.9 million", while former chief planner Liu Thai Ker said Singapore should plan for a population of 10 million possibly by the year 2100, Mr Yeoh noted.
Mr Chan said "nobody knows" what Singapore's future population size would be.
With technological changes, the type and quality of housing would also change and the living environment we can build is open to possibilities, he said.
"Will it be 10 million? Will it be less or more? Nobody knows."
Asked by Nanyang Technological University economics professor Ng Yew-Kwang whether the Government could resist anti-immigration pressures, because immigration had "enormous advantages for Singaporeans", Mr Chan said there were economic, social and political considerations, and much depended on how well immigrants could be integrated.
"What we hope to do is, first and foremost, not focus on numbers, but ask ourselves what are the opportunities we need to create for our younger generation to fulfil their dreams and aspirations."
He added that even as Singapore was slowing down the inflow of foreign labour, "we are clear in our mind, we can never compete on numbers".
"I keep on applying to jobs, aiming for bigger companies but there isn't a lot I qualify for although I think I have a decent portfolio and amount of experience."