What is the issue about?
Babies, or the lack of them.
Singapore has one of the lowest fertility rates in the world, with a total fertility rate of just 1.2, far below the replacement rate of 2.1.
But this was not always the case. In fact, just a generation ago, the issue was of having too many.
In 1960, Singapore had a TFR of about six children, which meant that on average for every childbearing woman, there were six children born.
There are many reasons for the slide in fertility.
Many have pointed to the Government's early moves to slow population growth, or specifically the "Stop at Two" campaign, as a major factor for the slide.
The drive to control the population was successful; by 1970, TFR fell by half to about 3, by 1980 it dropped to 1.82 and stayed at that level till 1990.
But on hindisght, maybe the policies were too effective. By 2000, the TFR had dropped to 1.6 and just ten years later, it had fallen off the cliff – to 1.15 in 2010.
In 2008, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong admitted that the campaign to get couples not to have many children was too successful.
Referring to the “Two Is Enough” policy, he admitted it had been “fabulously successful, in fact over-successful”, during his National Day Rally speech.
But even as government policies probably did play a role, other factors were also equally, if not more, important.
As Singapore moved into the higher echelons of wealthy countries and Singaporeans moved up the income levels, more people started to put off having a family. When they did decide to have children, many kept their families small. Men and women began to delay marriage as well. The link between incomes and family sizes is well documented and is seen across many countries.
Why it matters
The population issue cuts to the heart of the most basic attribute of being a part of a nation – the survival of the idea of a Singaporean.
According to an Institute of Policy Studies report published in May, Singapore's population could start to shrink in as early as 20 years, even if Singapore continues to import foreigners to bump up the numbers.
If Singapore’s total fertility rate continues at its current pace and if no new citizens or permanent residents (PRs) are added, the country’s population will become “extremely aged” by 2050, the study also showed.
“The median age of (Singapore’s resident) population will also rise from 39 two years ago, to 49 in 2030, and 55 in 2050,” the report said.
In addition, if Singapore’s fertility rate remains at its current low of 1.2, the number of younger Singaporeans and PRs (aged between 15 and 64) for every older resident (aged 65 and above) will plunge.
The slowdown in population growth not only affects the future but also has wide-ranging implications on both Singapore’s economy and society in the present.
1) The workforce is rapidly shrinking as the population ages. Without enough young people to replace those who are retiring in increasing numbers every year, the economy may not be able to function at its optimal level if key jobs go unfilled.
2) The burden of taxation on future generations will also likewise multiple. From about 7.7 younger residents supporting every elderly resident in 2010, the IPS study projected an eventual decline to fewer than two younger Singaporeans and PRs supporting every elderly resident in 2050.
3) This need to continually inject new blood into the workforce to prop up the economy has also led to an influx of foreign workers, which in turn has had led to unhappiness over issues such as overcrowding and preferential policies towards citizens versus foreigners.
There has been a renewed drive to get Singaporeans to procreate in recent years, especially under the leadership of PM Lee.
In 2004, after he became Prime Minister, PM Lee made it one of his biggest priorities to raise the TFR, implementing major revisions to policies encouraging couples to have babies.
The most significant of these was the Baby Bonus, which is a cash gift to couples who have children to help them cope with the increased financial burdens, as well as much higher tax rebates for parents. Other changes, that were also made in 2008, built on this set of policies, including raising the number of days for maternity leave for mothers and implementing guidelines for employers on fair treatment of pregnant mothers.
The Government also set up a dedicated unit, the National Population and Talent Division, to look specifically at population issues. One of the key documents that the Government will launch in the coming months is a White Paper on population, which will outline the challenges as well as proposed solutions ahead.
While population policies of the past have tended to focus on financial incentives to get more couples to have children, it is getting increasingly clear that financial rewards are not enough.
Undoubtedly it is an issue that has to be tackled on many fronts.
1) Changing mindsets
One of the biggest calls made by the labour union as well as the Association of Women's Action and Research has been for employers themselves to change the way they view women at work.
For instance, in the past, it was not uncommon for bosses to discriminate against women who were pregnant. Policies were amended to ensure that employers did not fire women during and after pregnancy without a valid reason.
Another area of focus has been to encourage more flexi-work hours to help mothers juggle between family and work.
Aware has also wants the state to do more to help single mothers, noting that single mothers do not have many benefits that a married mother would have access to.
2) Links between costs of living and family size
Academics have also started to tackle the issue from a broader perspective. Some such as NUS economics professor Tilak Abeysinghe believe that there is a strong link between housing prices and fertility rates.
He found a correlation between the affordability of housing and Singapore's fertility rate. When affordability drops, fertility also falls.
3) It's personal
Even as a national discussion takes place over what to do to arrest falling birthrates, there is also a growing recognition that regardless of national policies, having children is ultimately a personal decision.
In his New Year message earlier this year, PM Lee acknowledged that national policies could only go so far.
"We should ... look at more fundamental factors to encourage Singaporeans to have more children. This is critical to preserve a Singapore core in our society. We do not want to rely more and more heavily on immigration, nor do we want to see our population shrinking year by year," he said, adding that having children is a personal choice.
The Government will release a White Paper on the population issue later this year and the importand document is expected to address many of these issues. The taskforce headed by Deputy Prime Minister Teo Chee Hean will focus on the options available and what the Government can do to help encourage more births.
Interested citizens can offer their thoughts on the population issue at the NPTD's population website.