Moving from fast growth to good growth

PHOTO: Moving from fast growth to good growth

SINGAPORE - Much has been made of the pros and cons of an economic slowdown in Singapore.

To some, a dogged pursuit of gross domestic product growth over the decades has placed severe strains on infrastructure and society, and widened the income gap between the richest and the poorest.

This view, widely held in various quarters, has been met with a strong chorus of retort of late warning of the dire consequences of low growth for a small, maturing economy.

Speaking at the 2012 People's Action Party (PAP) conference early this month, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said Singapore is no longer aiming for any "ridiculous high" growth.

While it "used to make 7-8 per cent, some years 10 per cent or even more", slowing to 5 per cent a year over the last decade, "now if you can do 3-4 per cent, I think that's good", he said.

"And as our workforce grows more slowly in future, even 2-3 per cent growth will be considered good growth."

But "don't believe that growth does not matter at all, and that less growth is better", he made clear, citing the downsides: "smaller increments, smaller bonuses, fewer jobs created; harder to do business".

And woe betide us if Singapore sees a prolonged period of low growth - like the projected pace of about 1.5 per cent in 2012, or slower.

Business and consumer confidence would be hit, the economy would lose its dynamism, and the country could well become an "old folks home" with the young leaving for opportunities elsewhere.

So while the government has taken pains to emphasise that Singapore cannot afford to "relax harder" and not continue to "work hard" for economic growth, it has now also signalled that the official long-term sustainable growth target has been lowered to 2-3 per cent a year, from perhaps 3-5 or 4-6 per cent previously. 

To be sure, domestic resource constraints and the external climate - more so than policy intents - dictate how fast the Singapore economy can grow.

Yet, for the Republic, might 2-3 per cent be a tad conservative as a baseline estimate, even at its current mature phase of growth, some may ask. Singapore has seen distinct shifts in its trend growth over the past 4-5 decades as the economy evolved and rode on business cycles and surges in global trade, and more recently, as a result of policy - notably, liberal immigration for a while during the mid-2000s.

In terms of five-year moving averages, annual GDP growth ranged from about 7 to just over 13 per cent in the early years, until the 1985 recession brought a little breather.

Growth through most of the 1990s hovered around 9 per cent, the momentum disrupted only by the regional downturn towards the end of the decade.

Since 1998, the five-year average has ranged between 3 and almost 8 per cent a year.

The pattern is neater in terms of 10-year averages: over the last 30 years, the economy had grown 7-9 per cent a year, dipping below 6.5 per cent only in the last decade.

These actual growth averages way overshoot the official estimates of the economy's sustainable trend potential - which, unsurprisingly, have always been conservative.

From the late 1980s to the early 1990s, Singapore's medium-term sustainable growth was seen at 5-7 per cent.

This was later pared to 4-6 per cent as the economy matured, and subsequently to 3-5 per cent.

Private sector estimates tended to be several percentage points higher. In mid-2007, following a review, the Ministry of Trade and Industry (MTI) did raise the economy's growth potential back up to 4-6 per cent.

It counted on the labour force growing 1.5-2.5 per cent a year, with more women, older workers and expatriate talent on board.

Productivity growth was also projected at a higher 2.5-3.5 per cent as the economy had moved into higher-value sectors and attracted new capital investments.

MTI believed then that the diversified economy could grow 4-6 per cent "over the next 5-10 years" if external conditions remained favourable.

What ensued, however, were three off-trend years as Singapore's growth crashed in 2008 and 2009 with the global downturn, followed by an exceptional 14.8 per cent rebound in 2010.

Still, even with those three off-trend years, the five-year annual growth average in 2012 - even with a plunge to 1.5 per cent - would be 4.4 per cent.

And the 10-year average? 6.1 per cent. For now, at least, the economy's long-term growth hasn't shifted down from 4-6 per cent to a new lower normal.

It will take a few more years of sub-par growth - and if labour productivity continues to languish in the doldrums.

Which it likely will when the GDP figures are weak, even assuming slow labour growth, given the simple arithmetic link among the three variables, at least in their numerical calculations.

In any case, as a measure of economic performance, the GDP number shows at a glance only the quantity, not "quality", of growth.

Nor do GDP growth figures over 30 years, for instance, tell how the economy has transformed over the period.

Economic expansion can be powered by sheer increases in labour - as seen in Singapore's sharp influx of foreign workers not so long ago - or driven by efficiency gains in highly productive, knowledge- intensive industries, which Singapore is still seeking to achieve.

The latter would probably, by its very nature, spell lower growth - as low as 2-3 per cent perhaps.

In which case, that may then be a new normal that would be well and truly good growth.