Is population change as serious a threat as climate change?

Why has the issue of population change been superseded by climate change, which has become a “household word for perhaps the biggest existential crisis of our time?”, asked Mr Ho Kwon Ping.

Posing this question at the inaugural conference of the Population Association of Singapore organised by the National University of Singapore’s (NUS) Centre for Family and Population Research (CFPR) and PAS, he believes that population issues should be accorded the same high priority as national defence and climate change.

Calling for a “mental paradigm shift” in his keynote address, Mr Ho, the Institute of Policy Studies’ first S R Nathan Fellow, noted that population change “remains a largely technical term” that does not reflect the intensity of the problem.

Instead, it should be “a holistic concept describing a host of complex, integrated and even global trends that also may potentially threaten, if not the existence of humanity, at least its sustainability,” added Mr Ho, who is also the Founder and Executive Chairman of hospitality chain Banyan Tree Holdings.

The importance of population issues was also raised by Professor Wei-Jun Jean Yeung, Provost-Chair Professor at the Department of Sociology and Anthropology at the NUS Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences and President of PAS, at the opening event of the two-day population conference on 11 May.

Launched in 2021, the non-profit PAS, whose set up was driven largely by members of the CFPR academe, aims to promote policy-relevant research in the area. The conference was a milestone in this regard, drawing 150 scholars and participants from about a dozen countries to shape perspectives and policymaking on population matters.

Currently, maintaining sustainable population development is a high national priority for many countries, including Singapore,” noted Prof Yeung, who is also founding director of CFPR.

Building for the future 

Associate Professor Bussarawan Teerawichitchainan, Co-Director of CFPR, likewise emphasised the urgency of demographic issues. 

“As we gather here today, we are reminded of the critical importance of population research in shaping policy, improving social welfare, and enhancing our understanding of the complex challenges facing our society and our region,” she said in her welcome speech. 

Guest-of-Honour, Ms Indranee Rajah, who oversees Singapore’s National Population and Talent Division as Minister in the Prime Minister’s Office, outlined in her address the challenges of declining fertility rates, an ageing demographic, and the goal of having a “happy and fulfilled” population. 

Strategies to achieve this range from caregiving support to flexible work arrangements, she noted, in line with the conference’s theme of “Building Singapore’s Population Towards a Better Future”. 

The theme “captures the very relevant issues of how to grow our population to ensure future generations of Singaporeans, how to ensure the wellbeing of the current population, and how to ensure that tomorrow is better than today for both generations”, she added. 

The issues raised also struck a chord with Dr Liu Houlian, Associate Researcher from the China Center for Population and Development Research. “Low fertility and ageing are common trends in population development faced by countries around the world, and building a better population future is something we need to work together on,” he said. 

COVID’s multidimensional impact on the Singapore population 

The trends across various demographic groups were further explored during the conference’s 23 breakout sessions, where more than 100 research papers were presented across two days. Among the sessions on Singapore was one on the impact of COVID-19 on the city-state, which saw academics such as Ms Melisa Tan share their findings. 

Inclusivity and equity in the government’s pandemic response was crucial as it affected everyone differently, said Ms Tan, Research Associate at the NUS Saw Swee Hock School of Public Health, who presented her paper, “The Role of Contextual Factors, Actors, and Governance in the Policy Responses to COVID-19 in Singapore”. 

“It’s not just about the numbers,” she said of the costs and benefits of policies. “Policymakers should incorporate softer components to ensure inclusive national responses.” This includes principles such as equity, trust, and leadership as the pandemic has demanded greater attention on governance and multisectoral action like working with the community. 

Such cooperation across stakeholders is critical to ensure all groups are cared for. In her paper “COVID-19 Learning Gap Effect on Young Children in Singapore”, Prof Yeung found that the disparity in learning outcomes between children from higher- and lower-income families widened during the pandemic. 

This led the participants to reflect on what actions should be taken to address this gap, whether they were public subsidies or flexible work options that could alleviate emotional stress at home. 

These discussions during the conference were examples of how academia met practice, a goal of the conference stated by Prof Yeung. It also allowed participants such as Professor Aris Ananta from the Faculty of Economics and Business at Universitas Indonesia to reconnect with peers and advance his domain knowledge. 

“The meeting was an excellent platform for sharing demographic research on Singapore and beyond. I had the opportunity to connect with both familiar faces and new colleagues,” said Prof Ananta, who is also visiting Professor at the Centre for Advanced Research, Universiti Brunei Darussalam. 

“I learnt a lot from all the presentations and informal discussions outside the rooms. It was wonderful to see scholars from various generations, ranging from beginners to established scholars.”