While the number of babies born here last year fell to an eight-year low, thus posing more demographic challenges for an already ageing population, the figures need to be kept in historical perspective. The 39,039 births registered last year represented a 1.5 per cent drop from 2017. Singapore's total fertility rate (TFR) also dipped from 1.16 in 2017 to 1.14 last year, well below the replacement rate of 2.1. However, according to an official statement last year, Singapore's TFR had fallen below the replacement level for about 40 years, and this had stabilised at the current rate for the last 15 years. The same trends are observable in developed societies in East Asia, such as Japan and South Korea. Thus the phenomenon of more young people choosing to be single and of couples delaying marriage and parenthood is not new.
Nor are the effects on the choice of parenthood caused by digital disruption, global financial volatility and climate change. A wide array of factors, ranging from the personal to the national and the global, impacts on the desire to be parents. Singaporeans, like their counterparts in other countries, understand instinctively that the population must renew itself continuously to ensure a vibrant economy and to support an ageing population. The alternative is to depend on immigration to sustain the demographic basis of society, even though large-scale immigration can pose problems of economic adjustment and cultural integration, which can carry a political price. Ideally, immigration should be a deliberate and measured option, including when the demographic decline is so precipitous and calls for a substantial number of foreigners to replenish the ranks of those born locally. What Singapore needs is to balance the aspirational lives of its citizens - centred on the career progress of workers and the productivity and business needs of employers - with providing couples a helping hand as they move from dating to marriage and parenthood.