Monday, November 12, 2007

Talent, not numbers

Talent, not numbers

Ngiam questions need to boost S'pore's population

Loh Chee Kong

IF former Permanent Secretary Ngiam Tong Dow had his way, Singapore would think twice before beefing up its population to 6.5 million people.

In a candid interview in the People's Action Party's latest Petir newsletter, Mr Ngiam — while stressing that "my role is to give an alternative, not an opposing view, to government policies" — questions the rationale behind the new target. Singapore doesn't need numbers, it needs talent, he said.

Pointing out that managing the population is the main challenge facing Singapore, the 70-year-old said: "If we do it wrongly, it will change our economic and social system."

Some 40 years ago, while serving on the Economic Development Board (EDB), he and others had studied the question of an "optimum size" for an industrial country.

Said Mr Ngiam: "We looked at successful small countries such as Sweden, Norway and Israel. They each had a population of six million. So we said Singapore needed to have six million people."

But given the technological advances and rising educational levels, Singapore "no longer needs numbers now but more quality", he added.

Mr Ngiam said he was told that the number "was based on Gross Domestic Product growth of six per cent a year".

"A back-of-the-envelope calculation would show this comprises a 2-per-cent increase in population and 4-per-cent growth in productivity. But if we can increase our productivity by more than 4 per cent, we can still have 6-per-cent growth, but with fewer people who are highly productive."

He stressed the need to appeal to people's hearts. "Otherwise ... Singapore will become just a six-star hotel where guests stay in good times and flee when times are bad. We will never become a nation," he said.

His vision: Set up a think tank to "think strategically" on top of tactics such as dual-citizenship and a more broadly-defined concept of National Service. "For instance, a foreign Singaporean living overseas should have no voting rights and less national service obligations."

The Government could even invite former citizens for "a month-long holiday" to advise policymakers on areas in which they have specialist knowledge. Said Mr Ngiam: "Do you know Chinese Nobel Prize winners are invited to China to teach for three months?"

"Our population policy should be more emotional ... You don't say to Singaporeans who are no longer citizens, 'You come back, we have a job for you'. You say, 'What about contributing your knowledge to Singapore? Better still, you want a job, we give you a job'."


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