Whither the new voters?

Posted by Seah Chiang Nee under Election Watch on 28 February 2006

THE newly released registration of voters, in advance of the coming general election, shows the number of new registered voters in the past five years has increased by a paltry 45,000 or just 9000 a year!

THE newly released registration of voters, in advance of the coming general election, has revealed the significant extent of Singapore's demographic shift.

It shows the number of new registered voters in the past five years has increased by a paltry 45,000 or just 9000 a year despite a rising population.

The new voters are people who had reached 21 years old as well as foreigners who got citizenship during the period.

This is surprisingly low considering Singapore's birthrate two decades ago when this cohort of voters was born was around 45,000 to 50,000 a year.

By extension all else being equal the increase in new voters should have been around 220,000 (subtracting deaths) not just 45,000 over the past five years, so where are the missing Singaporeans?

At the peak, the number of new voters rose from 1.192 million in the 1976 election to 1.424 million in 1980, a four-year increase of 231,900. This was a rise of 58,000 a year six times more than at present.

Since then, the statistics had been mixed, some years better than others, but generally the trend had been downward.

The current rise of 9000 new voters a year is about the lowest in modern history.

Since 1998, the number of new voters had been growing by less than 10,000 a year, a pale comparison of the past pre-global years. The table (official statistics) shows the general decline between elections since 1968, when independent Singapore held its first election.

This figure is not new but it merely reflects a trend that dates back about 10 years, especially since Asia's financial crisis in 1997.

It also means the growth in new voters has been dropping even as the population is rising.

The reasons? Broadly speaking, it is due to more Singaporeans migrating or moving overseas to work, study or do business, some bringing along their families. With the exception of some 800 people, they are non-voters. (Voting is compulsory, and anyone who doesn't do so has to re-register by proving they were out of the country. The lower figure could also include some people who have failed to re-register.)

At the same time, some 30,000 foreigners are taking up PR permanent residency a year, inflating the population but who are not eligible to vote.

The real reason, however, lies in economic globalisation and China's opening up. They eliminate jobs in some countries, while creating new opportunities in others.

This has resulted in a great trans-national movement of business and talent worldwide as skilled workers move freely in search of opportunities. It has affected Singapore more because of its small size.

The exact number of Singaporeans who are living abroad is not known, but various official sources have put it at between 100,000 and 150,000.

A head count is hard to do. The future intention of many overseas Singaporeans remains uncertain.

An increasing number of better-educated citizens take up PR, but not citizenship, in their host countries. This indicates they still keep one foot at home for a possible return.

Those who emigrated in the past decade generally found Singapore too small or restrictive and have opted for a more relaxed lifestyle in larger countries like Australia, the United States, Canada and Britain.

Some may decide to settle down in their new homes, while others will eventually return when opportunities improve.

Numbering thousands every year, the exodus has long caused heartache to Singaporean leaders who have worked for decades building up the republic from a Third to a First World state.

Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew once shed tears over the exodus of professionals, and Goh Chok Tong, the Senior Minister, called the emigrants "quitters".

The current Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong also emotionally recalled the tough qualities of older Singaporeans, who stood in the heavy rains to celebrate National Day in 1968.

Since then, however, the leadership has accepted the inevitable. As more tertiary-trained youths leave to work abroad, it encourages them to explore opportunities overseas but maintain their links with home. Singapore is likened to a capital without a country, so the current strategy is to regard the world as its hinterland. It has been investing in strategic businesses throughout the region, requiring more citizens to work overseas.

As a result, the country is undergoing vast demographic changes, as shown by the declining number of new voters.

Its own birth rates are in sharp decline. Last year only 37,600 babies were born, one of the world's lowest. The future lies in inward immigration.

This has been stepped up drastically in the past decade, steadily pushing up the population. In fact, the influx of foreign PRs has outweighed the outflow of citizens by several times.

They are believed to be more than the number of babies born, which would lead to a long-term dilution of the local content of the population.

The population rose from 4.24 million in 2004 to 4.35 million last year, an increase of about 111,000, some 80% of which were said to be foreign immigrants. Only some 30% of PRs eventually take up citizenship.

The blueprint is for a population of six to seven million by 2020. Many locals are angry about losing jobs to foreigners but officials say the end result will be a more vibrant global city.

Sources and Relevant Links:

The Star Whither the new voters? 26 February 2006

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