SINGAPORE, Oct 22 – Foreigners living in Singapore make up 30 percent of the city-state’s population, up from 14 percent in 1990, following a decade-long policy of attracting people to boost economic growth, according to government figures released on Monday.
Minister for Home Affairs Wong Kan Seng said Singaporeans accounted for 3.2 million or 70 percent of the city-state’s 4.5 million population as of mid-2006, in a response to queries from opposition Member of Parliament Sylvia Lim.
Foreigners with permanent residency status accounted for 10.3 percent of the population, while people from overseas on work passes or study visas and their dependents made up 19.5 percent.
The government in recent years has not given figures for the breakdown of its population into Singaporeans and permanent residents.
Singaporeans accounted for 86 percent and 74 percent of the total population in 1990 and 2000 respectively, Wong added.
Singapore – one of the most densely populated countries with a land area of about 704 square kilometres – said earlier this year it wanted to boost its population to 6.5 million in coming decades to further broaden its economy.
Singapore has one of the lowest birth rates in the world.
For some time now, the island state’s Statistics Department has stopped classifying population the way other countries do, i.e. between citizens and foreigners.
IN THE face of a foreigner influx, a question that government officials are not rushing to answer is: “Who is a Singaporean?”
Strictly speaking, the Singaporean doesn’t exist in many official references, and has been displaced by ”the Singaporean resident.”
The Singapore resident has become a special category that officials generally use when talking about population and manpower.
Lumped together in this category are Singaporeans born and naturalised and foreigners who have been offered permanent residence (PR) before they apply for or are granted citizenship.
For some time now, the Statistics Department – in line with Manpower and other Ministries – has stopped classifying population the way other countries do, i.e. between citizens and foreigners.
Instead they are either ‘‘Singaporean residents’’ or ‘‘foreigners’’ (those on work passes as professionals, workers and students plus family members).
The word ‘‘Singaporean’’ to refer to true-blue citizens is rarely, if at all, used – especially when talking about jobs.
So when the government announces that that the majority of new jobs had gone to locals, it is referring to Singaporean residents, which, of course, include foreign-born PRs.
Many people have been surprised to learn that there is no longer any separate listing for Singaporean citizens.
It is not clear when the unannounced classification came into effect, but reference to it apparently became widespread in the 90s when immigration gathered steam.
The new distinction officially appeared for the first time in the 1980 Census, which listed Singapore’s population at 2.41mil and “Singaporean residents” at 2.28mil.
That Census Report said that only 9% of the total population was foreigners, 3.6% of them being Permanent Residents (PRs) and 5.5% foreign workers. Singaporean citizens totalled 2.19mil or 91%.
Since then, a historical demographic shift has taken place. Last week, the government announced that the population had topped 4.68 million, almost double that 27 years ago.
This is believed to be one of the fastest growth rates in the world.
More importantly, the number of citizens is believed to have dropped below three million, or roughly 63% of total population – a far cry from the 91% in 1980.
This was, of course, due to low birth rates and a high flow of locals abroad.
For the first time, the number of foreigners who are working or studying in Singapore has exceeded a million, evidence of a stronger economy.
The programme to attract foreign PRs has gone into high gear. During the last 10 years, a total of 360,000 PR were offered mostly to people from Malaysia, China, India and a dozen other countries.
In the past two years alone, there were more than 110,000. The total number has never been announced but is believed to number more than 700,000.
More will be admitted. Over the next five years, Singapore hopes to add about 40,000 citizens and 200,000 PRs that could push the population towards the five million mark by 2011.
As the figures rose so did public emotions about it. Feelings are running high among Singaporeans who feel bitter about being eased out of jobs and other opportunities.
But it’s not entirely one sided. The increase has been good for businesses because it has fuelled a surge of consumerism, contributing to higher sales and job creation.
The large foreign influx has helped push up property prices, and the Sing dollar to a 10-year high, but has also propelled inflation to a 12-year record.
But above all, it has arrested a serious population decline and rejuvenated an ageing society.
But for a small city-state that is already one of the densest in the world, the downside, too, has been formidable for the masses.
It has helped to widen the wealth gap in Singapore and stirred a desperate sense of being crowded out of jobs and space.
The first complaint is that the government has been too aggressive in opening its doors to foreigners, a concept that is generally accepted as a necessity.
The feeling is that the numbers and the speed could be slower.
“The hot economy actually pushed up manpower needs,” said one economist, “but these could be met by having more foreign workers, not PRs.”
The second complaint is that in bending backward to attract foreigners, the government is giving too much to them at the expense of locals. For example, they are exempted from the two-year national service that Singaporeans have to undergo.
Eventually, as the city heads towards a six million or seven million population, tensions are likely to increase – not to mention pollution and over-crowdedness.
When the day arrives, the foreigners will outnumber Singaporeans. That could upset Singapore’s racial and community harmony which has been so carefully crafted for over 40 years.
A visit to online forums will sometimes reveal how bitter some Singaporeans feel about the foreign challenge. “No one can dismiss the danger of trouble breaking out one day,” a blogger warned.