Thinking Aloud

Population woes? There's a happier story

With smaller families, more resources can be devoted to the full development of individuals


Are you an optimist or pessimist?

You probably know yourself better than anyone. But here is another test of whether you are a glass half-empty or half-full person from the latest report on Singapore's population.

There were no surprises in it. In other words, plenty of statistics to make you feel downbeat about the county's future.

For starters, the population did not change much from last year - 5.6 million, including Singaporeans, permanent residents and foreigners living here. A friend of mine on hearing this instantly remarked: "That's why the domestic economy is so depressed. More businesses are being started but there is no growing demand." He is right, but it's one way of looking at it.

The stagnating population number isn't surprising because there was no increase in the number of Singaporean newborns. In fact, it dipped slightly in 2016 - 33,167 compared with 33,725 in 2015. Neither was there much change to a number closely watched by those who monitor these trends, called the total fertility rate (TFR), down from 1.24 in 2015 to 1.2 last year. It represents the number of children Singaporean women will have during their child-bearing years, well short of the 2.1 needed for the population to reproduce itself.

Despite all the efforts made over the years to encourage married couples to have more children, the TFR has not budged. Can it get any more worrying?


It can: The baby drought and longer life spans have resulted in Singapore's population ageing faster than at any time in its history. There are now many more people over 65, making up 14.4 per cent of the citizen population compared with 10 years ago when the proportion was 9.4. For those above 80 years old, the number almost doubled from 55,000 to 98,000.

The worriers have an even better way to describe this, calling it the dependency ratio. It is the number of working Singaporeans (age 20-64) for every person over 65, and it went down from 6.8 in 2007 to 4.4. According to the report, this is projected to fall to 2.4 in 2030.

It means fewer and fewer Singapore workers are supporting their elders, increasing the strain on healthcare, nursing and other services.

None of these are new as these demographic trends were highlighted many years ago. What's new perhaps is the realisation that nothing much can be done to reverse them. Married couples will not change their calculations despite ever larger baby bonuses and other benefits. In the meantime, life spans will increase even more with improved healthcare and new medical technology, accelerating the ageing trend further

For the glass half-empty brigade, they all add up to a future Singapore that is shrinking and ageing and so will be increasingly reliant on new citizens, permanent residents and foreigners to make up the shortfall.

This sobering view is the dominant narrative whenever Singapore's population numbers are discussed.

So, what's the glass half-full version of the story?

Interestingly, it also borrows from economic theory.

Experts say there is a demographic dividend which countries reap when they bring down their birth and death rates. With smaller families and fewer young children to feed, more resources can be deployed to each individual, resulting in better educated and more productive workers. Smaller families also mean greater opportunities for women to work.

The result? High economic growth, provided, of course, the right social and economic polices are implemented. In fact, the theory is that after this round of benefits from smaller families, there is a second round to be enjoyed when significant numbers retire with savings and assets that can be invested to produce more growth.

Stop talking about the dire consequences of a shrinking and ageing society and celebrate the prospect of what it can mean for every person - the promise of developing and taking care of every citizen fully. It is a much happier story to tell, and founded on sound economics.

These retirees and those approaching retirement have a powerful incentive to save because they know they will need it in their later years.

A United Nations study of the years 1970 to 2000 estimated that in the industrialised countries, the first round of dividends contributed 0.34 per cent to their GDP growth and the second, 0.69 per cent. For East and South-east Asia, the equivalent numbers were 0.59 and 1.31, respectively.

In both cases, the second round of benefits boosted growth by a higher margin than the first round.

That's good news for Singapore, which is in this sweet spot. In fact, you do not need an economist to tell you the profound changes that have taken place in households and workplaces.

With smaller families, parents now have more time and resources to devote to their children's upbringing. They also receive higher-quality education in schools, polytechnics and universities than in the past. This double booster from home and school has made a huge difference to the younger generation, and who will drive Singapore's future progress.

Not only will economic growth be boosted by better educated and more productive workers, every citizen will have a better chance of being better provided for and taken care of because their numbers are no longer growing by leaps and bounds.

There is one caveat: Every study on this has stressed that the demographic dividend is not guaranteed but depends on the country's economic and social policies. These include education, skills training, and, of course, good governance.

To be fair to the Government, it is moving in the right direction in many of these areas, including helping those who might not be academically inclined but who possess other skills.

I believe what is of upmost importance is not any specific policy but an attitude and mindset that values the individual citizen for who he or she is, sparing no effort to develop the person at every stage of his life.

It's a no-brainer that in little red dot Singapore, every one is precious, including those who might not have done well in school or the workplace and who will need extra help and support.

Has Singapore done enough? Ultimately, the test lies in how individual Singaporeans themselves feel about whether this is a society which is concerned about the development and welfare of every citizen, no matter who they are.

If a survey was done today, would enough Singaporeans feel this to be so?

This shift in mindset that is required to reap the full benefits of the demographic dividend should start with changing the population narrative. Stop talking about the dire consequences of a shrinking and ageing society and celebrate the prospect of what it can mean for every person - the promise of developing and taking care of every citizen fully.

It is a much happier story to tell, and founded on sound economics.

In this glass half-full scenario, people will feel less angst about new citizens or foreigners, and more families will want to have more children because they feel more secure and included.

That might be the third round of dividends, and the best yet.

•The writer is also a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technological University.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on October 15, 2017, with the headline 'Population woes? There's a happier story'. Print Edition | Subscribe