Population planning in Singapore and how it contributed to the country’s persistently low fertility rate

In 2018 during a committee of supply debate on population, Minister of Manpower Josephine Teo said that Singapore would have to continue attracting new citizens as a way to counter the low fertility rate of the country.

She said: “While managing foreign workforce flows to complement the local workforce, it is also important that we carefully manage immigration flows. Without immigration, not only will our working age population shrink rapidly, the total number of citizens will eventually decline.”

The issue of Singapore’s low fertility rate is a decades-old concern and one that has been addressed via various policies and initiatives by the government since the 80s. Still, Singapore’s fertility rate remains below the recommended replacement level of 2.1.

A screenshot of birth rates from various countries from the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) was shared on the Singapore reddit page on 10 October shows Singapore’s birth rate at a meagre 0.87 as of 2020.

Source: reddit

The image shows Singapore as being 228 on the list with the lowest birth rates in the world, even below Hong Kong, South Korea, and Taiwan. The number, 0.87, essential means that there is 0.87 births for every woman in Singapore.

A quick check on the CIA website shows that this information is listed in the Agency’s World Factbook.

However, according to SingStat, Singapore’s Total Fertility Rate (TFR) is at 1.14 per one female.

Based on the SingStat website, the TFR refers to the average number of live-births each female would have during the reproductive years if she were subject to the prevailing Age Specific Fertility Rate (ASFR) in the population in the given year. This works out to five times the sum of the ASFRs by 5-yearly age groups, over the female reproductive ages for the reference period.

Conversely, the CIA website notes that their TFR “compares figures for the average number of children that would be born per woman if all women lived to the end of their childbearing years and bore children according to a given fertility rate at each age.”

To my untrained eyes, that sounds to be about the same method of calculation as SingStat. So why are the figures different?

Last year, TOC noted that the number of babies born in Singapore in 2018 dropped to an eight-year low of 39,039 births. That’s about 1.5% lower than in 2017 according to the Immigration and Checkpoints Authority (ICA)’s Report on Registration of Births and Deaths in 2018.

In the same year, the number of deaths increased by 1.8% from 2017 to 21,282 in 2018. The number of deaths have, conversely to the birth rate, been gradually increasing since 1998. Coupled with the country’s falling TFR—which has stayed below the replacement level of 2.1—raises concerns over Singapore’s overall population.

We have yet to receive a response from the government on the CIA’s reported total fertility rate of Singapore.

The baby boom in Singapore

Back in the late 60s, the global post-World War II baby boom affected Singapore as much as any other nation, with national fertility rates increasing to an alarmingly high level. In 1966, there were over 61,000 babies born in Singapore.

A expert from The History of Obstetrics & Gynaecology in Singapore (2003) in the National Archives noted that Kandang Kerbau Hospital recoded 39,835 deliveries that year, earning a spot in the Guinness Book of Records for the largest number of births in a single maternity facility. That record stood for 10 years.

“The number of deliveries in KKH was at its peak, with an average of 100 deliveries per day,” according to the excerpt.

Naturally, the Singapore government was concerned about eventual overpopulation in this small island-state. This was a cause of concern, as mentioned, in other nations as well. In Asia, both India and China elected to enforce radical population control strategies.

Drastic population control measures in India and China

China started to promote birth control and enacted the infamous ‘One Child Policy’ while India resorted to sterilisation. In both countries there were reports of forces sterilisation of woman and men alike.

In India, Sanjay Gandhi – son of former Prime Minister Indira Gandhi – launched a compulsory sterilisation programme in the mid-1970s in efforts to control population growth. Reports say that the campaign focused on performing vasectomies on men, targeting specific villages in India and with many unwilling participants. Between 1976-1977, an estimated 8.3 million Indian men were sterilised under this programme with over 2,000 men having died from botched operations.

Science journalist Mara Hvistendahl told the BBC in 2014 that India’s state-sponsored population control measures often came with eugenic aims, evident in the targeting of poor and underprivileged Indians.

Matters have not really changed much since the programme was launched. Between 2013-2014, India reportedly carried out nearly 4 million sterilisations, this time focused on women instead with less than 100,000 of those surgeries were performed on men. Needless to say, hundreds died due to botched operations as conditions were not much improved from the 70s.

In China, the situation was not all that different though arguable a little more brutal and cloaked in subterfuge. Starting off by simply promoting family planning in 1969, by 1976, population growth had plateaued. To lower birth rates even further, they enforced a one-child policy on the ethnic Han majority. Apparently, the law largely exempted minorities.

Couples who were found to have had more than one child without a permit were slapped with massive fines. Forced abortions and sterilisation were also common.

In 1990s under the two-child policy, women were required to be sterilised after the birth of their second child and the gap between births had to be a minimum of five years. If a woman refused sterilisation on the grounds that she didn’t want any more children anyway, they were also punished with fines that were ‘five to 10 times their annual disposable income’. According to a report by Times, China sterilised over 20 million people in 1983.

In 2010, a mass sterilisation campaign saw close to 10,000 people in Puning City, Guangdong being sterilised. Amnesty International reported that almost 1,400 relatives of couples who were targeted for sterilisation were detained in order to coerce those couples to consent to the procedure.

How did Singapore handle its rapidly growing population?

The administration in Singapore at the time, led by one of the country’s prominent founding figure Lee Kuan Yew, also decided to launch and population planning campaign to encourage Singaporeans to have smaller families. Though not as aggressive as campaigns in China or India, Singapore’s The ‘Stop-At-Two’ campaign was more than just posters and public service announcements.

Government policies were introduced to de-incentivise women from having more than two children. The Singapore Family Planning and Population Board (SFPPB) Act was introduced in 1966 which targeted low-socioeconomic individuals, females in particular, encouraging them to use contraceptives and promoted sterilisation after their second child.

Some of these policies involved not providing paid maternity leave for civil workers after their second child, higher hospital fees for third births and beyond, and giving priority to single-child families for entrance into top schools. Women who opted for sterilisation were also given seven days of paid leave.

Additionally, income tax deductions were only given for the first two children, larger families were penalised in housing assignments, and priority in top schools was afforded to children whose parents had been sterilised before the age of 40.

In 1969, the Prime Minister LKY even said in his speech in Parliament about the abortion bill, “We must encourage those who earn less than $200 p.m. and cannot afford to nurture and educate many children never to have more than two.”

He wanted to make sure that only the best and brightest of Singapore would have babies, that they would be able to afford to properly educate their children so as to prevent a society filled with ‘the physically, intellectually, and culturally anaemic’.

The Eugenics Board

One of the key difference in Singapore’s population control measure is the establishment of the Eugenics Board. In 1969, the Voluntary Sterilisation Act (VSA) was introduced in an attempt to limit population growth. The law came into effect in march 1970.

In the book The Population of Singapore, author Saw See Hock notes that a five-member Eugenics Board was constituted under this Act to provide the necessary authority for sterilisation to be carried out by medical professionals on medical, social and eugenics grounds.

The board is empowered by the Act to authorise the administration of sexual sterilisation on male and female applicants under certain conditions:

Under Section 5(a) of the Act, the Board may authorise treatment of sexual sterilisation on any applicant of 21 years of age and over, if he or she has had at least three children and has the consent of the spouse. Sterilisation on persons under 21 years of age may only be done if they are afflicted with any hereditary form of recurrent illness, mental deficiency, or epilepsy.

The Eugenics Board is made up of one district judge, two physicians, one social worker and one ‘other’ person.

Along with the Eugenics Board, the governments radical population strategies proved to be immensely successful – more so than they expected, perhaps. By 1977, birth rates fell to 1.89 per female person and remained under 2, fluctuating only slightly, until now. Around 2001, the rate fell to below 1.5 and has been declining ever since. In 2018, the birth rate was recorded to be at 1.14 per female person.

Remember, the Eugenics Board was formed to authorise sterilisation on medical, social and eugenics grounds. While at the time the Board served to discredit claims of racism in terms of enforcing/encouraging sterilisation, remember that Lee Kuan Yew was vocal about the type of people he felt ought to be reproducing and those he felt should not.

The falling birth rate quickly became a cause of concern

By the start of the 80s, the Singapore government started to really feel the consequences of their wildly successful population control measures. Instead of overpopulation, the government was now concerned that Singaporeans were not making enough babies to replace the ageing population.

By 1975, the country’s TFR fell to replacement level, before slipping further to below replacement level in 1977. It’s stayed under that line ever since. A study published in 2003 by Dr Muy Teng Yap from the Institute of Policy Studies in the Journal of Population and Social Security (Population) titled Fertility and Population Policy: the Singapore Experience noted that the TFR fell to an ‘unprecedented low’—at the time—of 1.4 children per woman in 1986.

An article in History SG also noted, “By 1975, the anti-natalist programme had proven to be a success with the birth rate reduced to 17.7 per 1,000 population, which was below the targeted 18.0 births. The population control efforts were such a resounding success that by the late 1980s, Singapore’s falling birth rate had become a cause for concern.”

In another study titled ‘Fertility and the Family: An Overview of Pro-natalist Population Policies in Singapore’ by Theresa Wong and Brenda S.A. Yeoh published in the Asian Metacentre Research Paper Series, also published in 2003 highlighted: “The decades following the start of the anti-natalist policies – notably the 1970s and 80s, saw a dramatic dip in fertility rates. In 1975, replacement-level fertility was reached.”

Although, the authors added that the states anti-natalist policies weren’t the only contributing factor to the quickly declining TFR.

Citing Kuo and Wong (1979), the authors noted that it is a ‘natural’ consequence of new economic order and focus on industrialisation that also contributed to the decline, on top of the the rise in the female labour-force participation rate and changes in family structures which became more nuclear-focused.

The same point about how developed countries tend to have lower fertility rates is echoed by many other scientists such as G. Nargund in a paper titled Declining birth rate in Developed Countries: A radical policy re-think is required, published in 2009 in which the author noted:

Developed countries tend to have a lower fertility rate due to lifestyle choices associated with economic affluence where mortality rates are low, birth control is easily accessible and children often can become an economic drain caused by housing, education cost and other cost involved in bringing up children. Higher education and professional careers often mean that women have children late in life. This can result in a demographic economic paradox.

A change: From anti- to pro-natalist

To combat this, the government led by Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong eventually adopted a pro-natalist stance and announced a slew of new policies including: ‘Have-Three-or-More (if you can afford it)’.

This time, the population policy was aimed at encouraging Singaporean parents to have three or more children if they could afford it, specifically in families of higher socio-economic status. Because even as the government was looking to increase population growth, they were very particular about the kind of people that would be repopulating the country – wanting highly educated people of high economic status to have more babies thinking that would in turn increase the overall calibre of Singaporean citizens.

In 1974, now that they were working to encourage people to have more children, the Eugenics board was disbanded. Since then, all authority for sterilisation was vested in individual doctors.

So in one fell swoop, the Singapore government went from aggressively trying to limit the rate of population increase to aggressively trying to increase the fertility rate.

Unsurprisingly, the government never apologised or accepted responsibility for the part they played in engineering this problem in the first place. They simply switched tunes and hoped no one would notice.

In 2012, an amendment was made to the VSA to make it a crime to coerce or intimidate a person to undergo sexual sterilisation.

The law states:

“Any person who, by means of coercion or intimidation, compels or induces another person against that person’s will to undergo treatment for sexual sterilization shall be guilty of an offence and shall be liable on conviction to a fine not exceeding $10,000 or to imprisonment for a term not exceeding 5 years or to both.”

Isn’t that curious? It’s now illegal for anyone to compel or intimidate any person into undergoing sterilisation but it was ok back in the 70s, when the law as first introduced, for the government to do so.


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