Monitor
PUBLISHED : Friday, 01 February, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 01 February, 2013, 5:35am

More immigration has not seen Singapore surpass Hong Kong

While the Lion City's more open immigration policy may have boosted its overall GDP, Hong Kong is still better off on a per-head measure

BIO

As the writer of the South China Morning Post’s Monitor column, Tom Holland attempts each day to make sense of the latest developments in business, finance and economic affairs in Hong Kong and mainland China.
 

If you take your date out to the cinema "grooming is important", and don't try to entertain her with a running commentary on the movie. It's "not cool at all".

Those two nuggets of advice for would-be romantics were gleaned from a colourful booklet titled The Art of Dating, published by the Social Development Unit of the Singapore government.

Known to locals as the SDU, this Orwellian body was established in 1984 as a government-run dating agency for unmarried graduates, after then-prime minister Lee Kuan Yew decided that Singapore's highly educated middle classes were not procreating with enough enthusiasm.

He had a point. From an average of more than five babies per woman in the early 1960s, Singapore's fertility rate plunged after independence, falling below the minimum population replacement rate of 2.1 per woman in the late '70s.

Not surprisingly, given the quality of its dating advice, the government-run SDU failed to reverse the trend. By last year, according to the CIA World Factbook, Singapore's fertility rate had fallen to just 0.78 children per woman, the lowest of any country in the world.

Aware that its lavish package of incentives, which include heavily subsidised fertility treatments, fast-track housing for couples with children, generous tax rebates and cash "baby bonuses" of up to S$24,000 (HK$150,000) per child, were not encouraging Singaporeans to breed, the government long ago turned to immigration to boost the city's population and to maintain its economic growth rate.

From just 4.1 million 10 years ago, Singapore's population leapt to 5.3 million last year, thanks almost entirely to a massive influx of immigrants. Today, two million of the island republic's population are outsiders.

Despite a rising sense of grievance among native Singaporeans at this inflow, the government is undeterred. This week it published a policy white paper targeting an increase in population to 6.9 million by 2030, just 3.6 million of whom will be locals.

Predictably, the publication of Singapore's policy paper triggered a bout of breast-beating in Hong Kong.

On the front page of Wednesday's South China Morning Post, Paul Yip, a professor at the University of Hong Kong's Department of Social Work and Social Administration (which sounds almost as creepy as the SDU) protested that Hong Kong, with a fertility rate nearly as low as Singapore's, also needs a long-term population policy. "The problem is very urgent," he warned.

People like Yip worry that Hong Kong needs either a higher birthrate or faster immigration to support economic growth as Hong Kongers get older and the city's working-age population begins to decline.

At first, the comparison with Singapore would appear to confirm this view.

Over the past 10 years, Hong Kong's population has grown by just 6 per cent, while Singapore's has jumped by 29 per cent. Over the same period, Hong Kong's gross domestic product has grown at a 4.5 per cent average annual rate. That is lacklustre compared with Singapore's 6.1 per cent, especially considering we are right next door to a booming China.

But although it gladdens the hearts of bureaucrats, absolute size of GDP is not what matters. Far more important to most people is their standard of living.

And here, Hong Kong has done rather better. Over the past 10 years our GDP per capita has risen at an inflation-adjusted average annual rate of 3.9 per cent, while Singapore has only managed 3.6 per cent.

So before C. Y. Leung and Carrie Lam start dispensing dating advice, or throwing Hong Kong open to a wave of newcomers, perhaps they ought to reflect that quality of life is far more important to most people than the absolute size of the city's GDP.

tom.holland@scmp.com

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