What does a 0.97 fertility rate mean for Singapore? 


In typical kiasu fashion, Singapore has joined the <1.0 Total Fertility Rate (TFR) club for the very first time. Alongside countries such as Taiwan (0.87) and South Korea (0.72), the downward trajectory of our falling birth rates is now at a critical level. With a TFR of 0.97, it means that the average number of children each woman would have during her lifetime is less than what is needed to replace the dead and the dying. In short, even a pre-schooler can work out the math – Singaporeans are heading towards extinction if such a trend continues.  

At this point, some might wonder what would be so catastrophic about having fewer children making a nuisance of themselves in public spaces (i.e. void decks). The thing here is, while the impact of a dwindling population is not immediately apparent to all, it will rear its ugly head. Already, we are seeing a vanishing trade – one of hawkers retiring without anyone to take over their legacy. Without a dynamic workforce that can renew itself, the lost heritage of famous hawkers is just a microcosm of what’s to come.  

“With fewer births, we will face a shrinking workforce. It will be increasingly challenging to maintain our dynamism, attract global businesses, and create opportunities for the next generation,” said Minister Indranee Rajah during the Committee of Supply debate on Wednesday (28 Feb).  

Addressing the white elephant, let’s talk about population

By 2026, Singapore will become a super-aged society where one in four Singaporeans will be > 65 years old. Now, longevity is not the problem here. But paired with a declining fertility rate, it becomes a recipe for disaster. Who will take care of our ageing population? How will Singapore run efficiently with a labour shortage across industries? Where are we going to find the people to staff the hospitals, army, police, customs, schools, public transport, banks, fire stations, and yes, children to look after their elderly? Worse, it becomes a vicious circle – the population attrition will weaken our economic dynamism which will in turn lead to more outflow of emigrants from here, further diminishing our attractiveness as an economic destination. At this point, the future is grey, literally and metaphorically, if Singapore fails to address its falling fertility.  

But this is where things get tricky. As much as the Opposition likes to politicise the falling fertility rate as a consequence of the cost of living, the situation is much more complex. And instead of blaming housing policies or costing of living for our low birth rate, maybe we ought to accept (and respect) that some of us simply do not want children. 

“Our low fertility reflects a global phenomenon where individual priorities and societal norms have shifted… Young people around the world are increasingly finding meaning in other pursuits. They may not even see marriage or parenthood as important life goals,” said Ms Indranee. Across East Asia, China, South Korea, Japan, Taiwan and Hong Kong are struggling with the same existential issue of declining population. Therefore, let’s us not be too quick to blame Mr Lee Kuan Yew and his two-child policy

Moreover, the argument that the high costs of raising a child are preventing couples from starting a family is somewhat moot. Across the world, countries with the highest birth rates are also among the poorest. Post-independence Singapore was one such example. With a TFR of 3.1 in 1970, the government had to implement a two-child policy as a population control measure. Was it a popular move? Definitely not. In fact, the message encouraging couples from lower-income groups to have fewer children continues to haunt the PAP, perpetuating an image of elitism. If we could do it when we were less educated and poorer in the 60s and 70s and achieved what we have today, surely, we can do better with what we have today. 

It was clear that overpopulation was an existential threat to Singapore back then. Perhaps a victim of our success, underpopulation is now the new menace we face. As we approach another demographic timebomb, the time is now for the government (and Singaporeans) to confront some uncomfortable truths and tackle the issue. 

For a start, there is nothing we can do to stop the population from ageing. That is why so much of the debate is centred around making babies. And short of making it mandatory for all married couples to have children in a dystopian universe, the government can only continue to use a carrot-and-stick approach to nudge Singaporeans towards marriage and parenthood. 

Walking the talk, the PAP government has made significant moves to support families since Budget 2023. Doubling Government-Paid Paternity Leave, providing eligible couples with subsidies to rent an HDB flat in the open market, lowering childcare fee caps and encouraging flexible work arrangements. These are just some of the myriads of help to ensure that those who want to start a family are given the maximum support. 

Finally, we come to the trickiest part of the equation – immigration. It is a topic that has become so weaponised by the Opposition that it prevents us from looking at the issue pragmatically. And yet, it is a topic we must get to grips with without descending into a tirade laden with xenophobic undertones. “Our immigration policy helps us to meet our future population needs,” said Ms Indranee. And as much as the Opposition would like us to believe, that does not mean opening the floodgates and letting in migrants indiscriminately. Ironically, when we were less educated and poorer in the 60s with high unemployment, none of our pioneer generation parents or grandparents were threatened by other immigrants coming in to compete. They just asked what they could do, worked hard, and got on with it. And built this country.  

“We grant PR or citizenship to those who can integrate well, contribute to Singapore, and are committed to making Singapore their home…(Because) Singaporeans and their well-being are at the heart of our population strategies,” concluded Ms Indranee.  

For now, a TFR of 0.97 will continue to be a dark cloud that looms large over Singapore. We still have a small window to reverse a population trend that will inevitably stagnate the nation. But if all else fails, one can hope for a future occupied by artificial intelligence. Who needs humans when there are humanoid robots? Until that happens, it may be wiser to start having that serious conversation on how we are going to have a consensus to shape our policies, agree on some hard decisions to attain an economically sustainable population.  

Photo Source: Indranee Rajah via Facebook