Last Friday a Straits Times article said Singapore’s total fertility rate plunged to a seven-year low of 1.16 last year. It is well below the replacement rate of 2.1.
Do you know that Singapore has the lowest fertility rate in the world?
According to the 2017 World Factbook published by the Central Intelligence Agency, the four countries with the lowest total fertility rate in the world are namely Singapore (0.83), Macau (0.95), Taiwan (1.13) and Hong Kong (1.19).
Our neighbour Malaysia obviously has much higher “productivity”. It occupies the 80th position in a list of 224 countries from high to low fertility.
6.9 million by 2030 is just a dream
There is another Straits Times article on the same day with the title “Total population 5.64m, with number of citizens up 1% to 3.47m”.
Singapore’s total population has increased 0.5 percent to reach 5.64 million in June this year. This is already a big improvement compared with 0.1 percent rise last year.
The number of citizen births in 2017 is 32,356, a 2.4 per cent drop from 2016.
The PR population has remained stable over the last five years, hovering between 0.52 and 0.53 million. Non-resident population has fallen from 1.67 million in 2016 to 1.64 million today.
Even if our population inches 0.5 percent for the next two years, Singapore will at most have 5.7 million people by June 2020.
As I have said in my blog post “Singapore’s latest demographics: what it means for housing”, unless the government starts importing 150,000 foreigners a year from tomorrow, we will be far from the Population White Paper’s original target to hit 6 million by 2020.
The population trends of low birth rate, stagnant growth and aging population are here to stay.
Yet many in the real estate industry are still indulging in relentless building and marketing of new homes in the Little Red Dot, as if there was a real need to house 6.9 million by 2030.
Our government’s approach on low birth rate
Whenever data shows Singapore has miserable birth rate, the local media will react by advocating the importance of marriage, children and family.
The last time was in July when The Straits Times featured a series of stories about how young parents enjoy family life with their big family.
Readers were brainwashed with articles titled “Supersized families: More couples in Singapore are not stopping at two”; More families having four or more children”; “Married for 18 years, with 10 children - and counting”; “Family joy from 7 kids, four of whom have special needs”; “When three kids are still not enough” ...
We don’t have to run a census to know that large young families in Singapore are exceptional cases these days.
We don't need a crystal ball to see that late marriages, more singles and less children per couple will be here to stay.
We don't need a Sociology degree to understand that Singapore’s low fertility and aging population are the inevitable results of a developed country.
According to the World Factbook, out of the top twenty countries with high total fertility rate, almost all of them are in Africa.
But our ministers responsible for family planning don’t seem to see this. Our government and local media continue to deal with a modern problem with a dated approach.
Embracing traditional values is commendable. But we also need the wisdom to tell the differences between an ideal world and a practical world.
“Do not cling to anything that will eventually cease to exist. No matter how much time or energy or money you invest in it, once something is gone, it is gone forever.”
- Jim Rogers, A Gift To My Children
How effective are the goodies?
Have we done enough to encourage Singaporeans to have more babies? How effective are these measures?
Mothers who are citizens are entitled to 16 weeks’ of government-paid maternity leave while fathers are given two weeks’ of paternity leave.
In Taiwan and Hong Kong, mothers are only entitled to 8 and 10 weeks’ of maternity leave respectively. Fathers take just a 3-day paternity leave.
The Singapore government is also most generous in giving out baby bonuses and topping up Child Development Accounts.
Besides, Singapore is the best country in the world for children to grow up in. According to the study, Singapore performs well in all the eight judging criteria: under-five mortality rate, child stunting, out-of-school children and youth, child labour, child marriage, adolescent birth rate, population displaced by conflict, and child homicide rate.
Isn’t it ironic that our fertility rate is still the lowest in the world?
Our older generations saw marriage and raising children a stage of life and a personal responsibility. They never received any incentive from the government or assistance from their workplace.
If the government believes that the more the goodies, the more motivated the people to have babies, it is fighting a losing battle.
Because no amount of bonus can lessen the pain of a mother during childbirth. No amount of top-up can compensate the time and efforts of a parent to raise a child.
We want to have our cake and eat it too
Singapore strives to be number one in everything. We aspire to be the hub of all major industries and future technologies.
So we train and require our children, workers, employees and SMEs to be competitive, efficient and productive. Our country is highly focused on results and achievements. Our society measures success according to wealth and social status.
Yet when it comes to fertility, we ask our young generation to take it easy on their work, spend time dating, start a family early and go for more children.
Can’t anyone see that we are asking the same small group of citizens to commit to two self-conflicting and equally time-consuming activities simultaneously in a short time span?
Every year when the population brief shows a falling birth rate and lower population growth, news articles will conveniently put the blame on late marriages and singles.
The Straits Times article said the biggest proportion of women staying single is in the prime childbearing years of 25 to 29.
Is this “prime childbearing years” relevant to Singapore?
I remember years ago my confinement lady told me that, in her twenty years’ of confinement assignments in Singapore, she never had any client under the age of 30, except one who had a shotgun marriage in her early twenties.
When starting a family becomes a matter of choice
If you are single, you only have one problem: Being asked why you are single and you may be lonely.
If you are married, you will still be lonely. The difference is you have no time to deal with your loneliness.
From the moment you say yes, you are busy with wedding, house hunting, renovation, mortgage, having babies, childcare, tuitions, PSLE …
If you are a woman, you are given additional responsibilities of conceiving, pregnancy, delivery, confinement, breastfeeding, raising children, in-laws, house chores, domestic helpers, another pregnancy - while trying to balance your life as a working mother.
You learn to excel in every responsibility as an employee, a wife, a mother, a daughter and a daughter-in-law. For all the time, efforts, sweat, tears, blood, compromise and sacrifice over two decades, you can almost build a business empire.
Other women are also doing the same. You are doing your “national service” as a woman in this “infertile” land.
Your job has no promotion, no CPF, no annual leave, no reimbursement, no fringe benefit, no package, no bonus, no dividend, no pay, no nothing. You are required to work 24x7 with no day off. Yet you won’t be allowed to quit, resign or change job.
The fact is: You must really love this job to apply for it and carry on till the very end.
The reality is: The new generation knows that they have the choice to decide whether and when they marry and have babies. This is unlike last time when people think they should do it because everybody else is doing it.
If more people choose not to have babies, do you still want to have children?
If the majority are singles, do you still want to get married?
Even if some choose to be single or childless, there will always be others who go for it.
If Singapore has chosen the path of elitism, why can’t we accept the resulting population trend and learn to live with it?
Just as an economist from the Singapore University of Social Sciences said,
"If you have zero or negative population growth, we would have to radically restructure the way we deal with major policies. For example, some things we take for granted, like new Housing Board flats, may no longer be built because there is not enough people to live in them."
It's time we stopped dreaming about a 6.9 million population and planned our housing for a stagnant and aging population.