, Singapore

Reversing our demographic decline

By Aaron Wee

Singapore has the second lowest birth rate in the developed world. (The lowest is held by our perennial city rival, Hong Kong.) And in a rare note of agreement with the nation’s youth, former Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew has warned that our demographic decline – perhaps more so than the potential rise of new regional trading powerhouses – will cause Singapore to “fold up”.

Gone are the bogeymen of communism or the danger of foreign invasion (nostalgia-inclined male citizens will no doubt remember the northerly “Red Nation” from NS exercises). No, Singapore will be undone – after a century and a half of progress – by our inability to get it on.

This is no laughing matter. This threat is just as singularly existential as nuclear annihilation… just more drawn out and less dramatic.

But what can be done?

Perhaps we should look at what the “gahmen” has already put in place. It is the avowed stance of both the government and the current ruling party that the basic building block of society is the family; all subsequent policy has flowed from that basic premise. The most well-known family-oriented policy has been the preference the Housing Development Board has shown towards married couples. The seeming logic flows: Incentivize marriage, shack them up, lie back and think of Singapore.

Even if these policies worked in the past, they’re evidently and critically failing today. Our birthrate has dropped precipitously. Some of it can be expected – there is a general demographic trend that correlates higher incomes with declining fertility. Italy and Japan provide prime examples of this. But our drop has been sharper and more pronounced.

The question is why?

In a phrase: Our society is messed up. To a young couple, this is a difficult society to raise children.

Firstly, the average Singaporean works far longer than their peers in the OECD – about 44 hours a week. Income, while decent, is barely competitive, certainly nowhere near enough to purchase a private residence. They might decide to get married; the sooner one throws their hat into the HDB ring, the sooner down the line – at some hazy, far-off date – that a flat would eventually open up. It is, after all, about time they also moved out of their parents’ apartments. Even so, what HDB sells flats for is – to put it charitably – onerous.

Perhaps they could rent? At current median wages, that might not be entirely feasible either. Not unless you’re willing to commute an hour a day.

But let’s assume that, come the appropriate hour, their name is drawn from the HDB sorting hat and that by happy coincidence, finances are no longer an issue. Our young couple moves into their brand-new flat and get frisky.

Should they? When it comes to supporting the young family, it seems that governmental incentives cut out nearly as soon as the baby is born. Parental leave is scarce at best. This young father spends a week (or two, if he’s lucky) before he’s back to the grindstone. The mother is back to the office before her post-natal glow subsides. The baby, meanwhile, is tended to by doting grandparents (relics of the extended family/kampong-style family arrangement) or, where possible, by imported domestic help. What little time to bond and to, you know, actually enjoy having a family is squandered in an office.

From then on, the child is subject to a barrage of tuition classes, extra-curriculars, and a whole bunch of “supplementary” courses. The expenses – and attendant stresses – of child-rearing in Singapore are inexhaustible. Once you couple this with our rather dour livability, why would one subject an innocent life to this rat race?

Situations may vary – this scenario is a hazily-sketched out median – but to a young couple doing the financial and social calculus, they might very well put-off starting a family. And that’s if a couple gets together at all.

The absolutely wrong way to encourage a higher birthrate is through monetarily-compensated natalist policies. Paying families to have children might raise the birthrate in the immediate term but would cause social headaches and underfunded services nearly just as quickly. No, far better to address the root anxieties that plague potential young families.

Family planning is a long-term household strategy fraught with anxiety, doubt, and uncertainties. For society to counteract the declining birthrate, the government has to address how it can best alleviate these anxieties and make the future just that little bit more predictable.

If the market continues to demand unwavering diligence from its workers, provide early childhood crèches. Or, perhaps, intervene so that incomes rise quickly enough to allow flexible working arrangements and the greater possibility of single-income households. If future housing conditions seem scarce, create better access to viable homes for the young. If families are low-priorities for traditional family units, expand the definition of the family unit to include unmarried and same-sex couples.

Perhaps something radical, then? If our declining birthrate is that much of an existential threat, why not defund our defense – that deals with theoretically existential threats – and release some of their deliciously prime land?

A larger point is that we just don’t know what exactly is going on. There have been no comprehensive surveys, no high-level studies or research on this. It’s just been errant speculation and grasping-in-the-dark essays by writers like me. It could be as simple as, “No sex, please. We’re Singaporean” – but where’s the fun in that?

There are, of course, dozens of potential policy options but this is, without a doubt, one of the greatest social challenges to Singapore’s survival. Whether or not we pick the right one will determine whether or not a Singapore (that we can recognize) exists in the future.

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