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Do we need a population projection?

Population projections in simple terms

We all love holidays and want them to go smoothly. Planning for weekend getaways are the simplest – just book your flight, throw a few things into an overnight bag, and off you go. There may be minor hiccups, such as forgetting to pack toothpaste, but these do little to dampen one’s spirits, since they can be easily resolved. But if you are travelling for a longer period to a faraway country, you might want to make more thorough preparations. Aside from the basics of drawing up a budget and booking a hotel, you might even need to come up with Plans B and C, to make sure that you can still have an enjoyable holiday, even if things don’t go as planned.

Coming up with the perfect holiday plan is not too different from planning for the future needs of a population. This is because population size and makeup results from the interplay between factors such as fertility rates, life expectancies, and immigration numbers, which are not fully within our control. However, we can make some informed guesses on how these factors will play out, and put together different future scenarios that guide preparations for a nation’s journey ahead.

How do population projections prepare us for the future?

Being prepared

As with many countries around the world, population projections are used in Singapore to anticipate future needs, so that the necessary services and infrastructure are put in place. Being able to look ahead is important– it takes time to train or source for kindergarten teachers and healthcare professions; and years to build houses, train networks, hospitals, schools and other amenities. There is no ‘quick fix’, and we want to be prepared when the needs eventually arise.

For instance, the Committee on Aging Issues (CAI) has proposed to start creating convenient, barrier-free living environments in anticipation of our aging population of baby boomers. And in building new BTO projects, the constellation of shops, services and transport networks would need to be anticipated and phased out in advance, so that the neighbourhood is ready by the time families start moving in. Therefore, a population projection needs to look at least that far into the future.

Numbers and possibilities 

How do we come up with a population projection that is useful?

Usually the first step is to look at known trends and data. For example, from the birth rate thus far, how many children are Singaporeans likely to have in the next decade? But the further ahead you plan, the wider the range of uncertainties and possibilities. 

Hence, the second step is to consider how the picture could change if factors behaved differently. For instance, what if younger cohorts of parents had different aspirations for family size, and birth rates turn out higher or lower than historical trend? There is usually more than one future scenario, or a range within the scenario, to account for this uncertainty.

Especially with infrastructure plans, the higher population projection is more relevant, so that whatever the actual population size, we have already built in some headroom just in case. We can look at the projected population numbers in the Population White Paper from this standpoint. Based on how things have been shaping up, the population could be between 6.5 to 6.9M in 2030 (though no one can pinpoint the exact figure for sure). But to be comfortable and to avoid under-preparing, the 6.9M upper end of the range is used to plan land use and infrastructure for 2030 Singapore. It’s like how most travelers pack extra clothing – you don’t want to end up with nothing to wear due to an accidental spill.

Keeping dreams within reach

Making preparations for an ideal future is well and good, but there is another factor to take into consideration. Apart from packing for your dream trip, you will also chart out potential expenses such as the cost of plane tickets, food, and even toiletries like sunscreen. During the journey, you might keep close track of your spending, and make sure you have more than enough cash on hand.

This analogy gives the second and equally important reason for population projections: they help in keeping the national accounts healthy to meet society’s needs. The government takes a good, hard look at our ‘bankbook’ together with population projections, to determine how much we need to save or spend, by when, and for what purpose. For instance, investing in facilities and programmes for our seniors to remain active and enjoy their golden years, or quality childcare for working mums and dads; or to fund various support schemes for those who may fall behind, and ensure that everyone has an equal shot at doing well and moving up together.

We can only afford these and more, if the economy grows at a certain pace, and there is the right size and mix of skillsets in our workforce. Hence, the population projections can be derived from a picture of the future workforce and economy needed to ultimately achieve our future aspirations for Singapore. This is how population projections tie in with both economic and social well-being.

All things considered, Singapore’s population projections take into account the social, infrastructural and economic impact of changes in our societal make-up. All these have a part to play in a delicate balancing act — one which concerns every Singaporean’s future.

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