Addressing falling birth rate not just a social imperative

Singapore's total fertility rate also dipped from 1.16 in 2017 to 1.14 in 2018, well below the replacement rate of 2.1.
Singapore's total fertility rate also dipped from 1.16 in 2017 to 1.14 in 2018, well below the replacement rate of 2.1.PHOTO: ST FILE

Singapore faces a pressing population problem (Number of babies born here drops to 8-year low, July 22).

However, ageing demographics and low birth rates are not unique to our country; in fact, this same problem affects most other developed nations around the world. While many countries have seen declining birth rates over the past decades due to a confluence of factors, some have managed to do better than others.

According to the World Bank, the fertility rate for high income countries - which Singapore falls under - stood at 1.6 in 2017. This compares to the 1.1 which Singapore registered last year.

Countries like the United States, United Kingdom and Germany registered a fertility rate between 1.6 and 1.8. Sweden and France had a rate of 1.9, while Israel registered 3.1.

While it may be unrealistic to expect birth rates in Singapore to attain the replacement level of 2.1 in the near term, a concerted effort must be made to increase our nation's birth rate to a more sustainable level.

We can no longer rely on unrestrained immigration, which we have seen caused immense social strain on jobs, infrastructure and culture in many countries including Singapore over the past decade.

The Straits Times report cited social trends such as rising singlehood, couples delaying marriage and parenthood, economic uncertainty and work-life harmony as some factors. A whole-of-nation, surgical but coordinated approach must be taken to address each of these impediments. Doing so is not just a social imperative, but will provide the impetus to drive economic transformation.

While it may be unrealistic to expect birth rates in Singapore to attain the replacement level of 2.1 in the near term, a concerted effort must be made to increase our nation's birth rate to a more sustainable level.

Without a strong core of Singaporeans rooted to Singapore and who have the long-term interests of the nation at heart, Singapore will simply become an "economic trampoline" to be used by transient workers as a springboard to greener pastures.

A more sustainable birth rate, supplemented with a focused immigration policy, will give Singapore the best chance of success to be an oasis in a volatile and unpredictable world.

Ivan Teo

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 30, 2019, with the headline 'Addressing falling birth rate not just a social imperative'. Print Edition | Subscribe