SINGAPORE - Although Singapore's
population is on course to rise from around 5
million to almost 7 million by 2030, an influx of
foreign workers has spurred the government to prod
its brood-shy citizens into having more children.
Almost half the country's population could
be made up of foreigners in 2030 if Singaporeans
fail to boost their fertility rate, which by
certain rankings is currently among the world's
lowest at 0.7.
Singaporeans have not had
enough children to stave off population decline
since 1976, back when national founder and former
prime minister Lee Kuan Yew told citizens to "stop
at two". He feared that the country's one-time
world-record birthrates would overcrowd the
has since come full circle with Singaporeans among
the region's most reluctant
to start families. The week before a closely
watched January 26 by-election, the government
announced an upgrade to an existing baby-making
incentive program, posting new goodies on offer on
a policy-promoting website called "Hey Baby".
Though the government pledged to boost its
annual budget on marriage and parenthood to S$2
billion (US$1.6 billion) from S$1.6 billion - with
more money for state-sponsored dating games,
housing grants, subsidized childcare and cash
gifts for babies - Singaporeans seem to be of two
minds about the incentives.
outside the count center in the Punggol East
constituency on election day, 38-year-old mother
of two Joy Koh said that "the focus on the
one-time payments misses the point; raising a
child is a long-term thing."
People's Action Party (PAP) lost the recent
by-election, its second consecutive loss since
sweeping a 2011 general election. Three days
later, the government published a White Paper on
Singapore's demographic outlook through 2030,
predicting among other things that almost 7
million people could by then live in the 700
square kilometer archipelago. Singapore is already
the world's second-most densely populated country,
trailing only Monaco.
In response, the
government said on January 31 that it hopes to add
nearly 8% to the current land area of the
city-state by 2030, through land reclamation
projects and conversion of some of the island's 18
golf courses into residential areas. But
Singaporeans will need to get used to a more
cramped country, as the government says that
increased numbers are needed to drive hoped-for
economic growth of 3% to 4% up to 2020, and 2% to
3% the decade after.
"If we do too little
to address the demographic challenge, we risk
becoming a steadily graying society, losing
vitality and verve, with our young people leaving
for opportunities elsewhere," said the government
statement on the White Paper's release.
The government has other schemes in mind
to support a hoped-for population boom, including
plans to build 700,000 new homes and double the
national rail network to 360 kilometers of track
by 2030. Despite usually efficient and notably
modern infrastructure, Singaporeans are swift to
complain about waiting lists for public housing
and overcrowded public transport.
the government's baby-making incentives are not
expected to offset the falling birthrates any time
soon. Mahdavi Manicka, a clerical staffer at
Raffles Hospital and a mother of two boys, said
the government's "Hey Baby" package, though
useful, is incomplete. "They are thinking of money
costs but there are other things they don't think
of," she said.
Singaporean Joy Koh gave
birth to her second child ten months ago, five
years after her first. She said many young couples
- if they have more than one child - opt for a
similar lagged timeframe. "It is difficult to have
two children close together: it costs up to
S$8,000 for good private care, for example. A lot
of couples have a four- or five-year gap between
To keep the population from
shrinking, Singapore will need 15,000 to 25,000
new citizens each year, assuming the current total
fertility rate holds. Singapore's non-resident
population jumped from 797,900 in 2005 to
1,494,200 in 2012, as the country's economy grew
over 6% on average each year. Overall, the
population increased by 1.1 million in the last
decade, reaching 5.3 million in 2012.
the foreign influx has prompted resentment among
many Singaporeans, some of whom say the newcomers
depress wages while inflating the cost of living.
Singapore does not have a minimum wage standard,
which some fear could reduce competitiveness in
Southeast Asia, where Singapore ranks as a costly
place to live and work and where lower-cost
markets are close by.
Stung by two recent
by-election losses that some have interpreted as a
show of popular resentment over policies aimed at
attracting foreign workers, the PAP-led government
acknowledged as much in its new population paper.
It said that "We must rely less on foreign labor,
use our resources better, and redouble efforts to
came with the caveat that foreign workers must
"complement" the local workforce, particularly
since the government does not expect an
improvement in Singapore's birth rate anytime
In another dilemma, Singapore's
trade-oriented economy has been hit by slackening
global demand for electronics and been hampered by
the strong Singapore dollar and government
measures that have made it more difficult for
companies to hire low-wage foreign workers.
On January 31, the Singapore government
said local employment growth rose by 59,200
workers in 2012, up from a 37,900 increase in the
previous year. In contrast, the growth in foreign
employment dropped to 70,400 in 2012, down from
84,800 in 2011.
At a PAP party rally
before the January 26 by-election, Prime Minister
Lee Hsien Loong posed related questions to the
crowd, telling them that they cannot have it both
ways. "Do we want faster growth or fewer foreign
workers? Do we want more leisure or do we [want
to] work harder for more money?" he asked.
To some, the premier's jeremiads had a
ring of truth. One of those listening, Calvin Ang,
believes that Singaporeans are too materialistic -
another factor in why couples choose to have so
few children. Singaporeans are lampooned, often by
themselves, for an apparent fondness for the "Five
C's " - cash, car, credit card, condo and country
club membership - meaning that for many
Singaporeans, B (for baby) doesn't come before C.
"The scheme is generous but I am not sure
it will work, " said Ang. "A lot of people like to
live outside their means and spend on things they
staffer Manicka said decisions about having
children come down to lifestyle choices. "Nowadays
young parents seem to want to have their old
single life, not be burdened with kids. That's a
big reason why the birthrate is low."
an October survey conducted by OCBC Bank could
offer some hope yet for the government. Implying
that the "Five C's" are fast-becoming a C of
another sort - a cliche - the independent research
showed that many Singaporeans find solace in
family, travel and health - all of which were
deemed more important than owning a flash car or
hobnobbing in a country club.
Roughneen is a freelance journalist covering
Southeast Asia. He's on twitter @simonroughneen
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