Singapore sees its population fall for first time in 10 years

Retrenchments have hit foreign workers especially, causing many to leave as a result

Singapore's total population dipped by 0.3 per cent - the first time it has gone into negative territory in the last 10 years. PHOTO: ST FILE

As the Covid-19 pandemic closed off borders and shuttered businesses, Singapore saw its population dip for the first time in 10 years as many foreign workers left after losing their jobs.

There was movement in the other direction too, as many Singaporeans who had been living overseas, decided to head back home.

The number of Singaporeans abroad fell from 217,200 last year to 203,500 this year. The decline was more pronounced among those who are 20 to 24 years old.

Singapore's non-resident population - the foreigners who are here as students or on work passes, among others - shrank by nearly 35,800, on the other hand, to 1.64 million. This was a 2.1 per cent decline and the decrease outstripped the drop in overseas Singaporeans.

The result of this flux was that Singapore's total population dipped by around 17,800 over the past year to 5.69 million, the annual Population in Brief report said.

Foreign employment in the service sector was reduced, with work permit holders seeing the largest drop, the report added.

It noted that since the tightening of Singapore's immigration framework in late 2009, the country has accepted about 30,000 new permanent residents a year.

It said: "This keeps the PR population size stable, and provides a pool of candidates who may be suitable for citizenship. The majority of our PRs are aged between 25 and 59 years."

The pace of immigration will be kept measured and stable, said the report.

The number of citizens grew by 0.6 per cent to reach 3.52 million in June, while the PR population remained stable at 0.52 million.

Last year, 22,714 individuals were granted citizenship and 32,915 were granted permanent residency - numbers that have been largely stable for the last 10 years.

  • 5.69 million Singapore's total population, which dipped by around 17,800 over the past year, the annual Population in Brief report said.

    1.64 million Singapore's non-resident population. It shrank by nearly 35,800, a 2.1% decline and outstripped the drop in overseas Singaporeans.

Of the new citizens, 1,599, or 7 per cent, were children born overseas to Singaporean parents.

The population growth rate over the past five years was also slower compared with the previous five-year period.

With increasing life expectancy and lower fertility rates, the proportion of citizens aged 65 and above is rising, and at a faster pace compared with the last decade.

The proportion of citizens aged 65 and above increased from 10.1 per cent in 2010 to 16.8 per cent this year. This figure is projected to climb to about 23.7 per cent by 2030.

The median age of citizens also inched up from 42 years to 42.2 years over the past year.

Sociologists were struck by Singapore's ageing society and the reduction in the number of work permit holders.

National University of Singapore sociologist Tan Ern Ser observed that the decline in the non-resident population is largely due to work permit holders, who take up jobs which Singaporeans are not particularly keen on in the first place.

More importantly, he said, it signals that some sectors of the economy are not doing well. "The issue of foreigners in our midst cannot be addressed simply by cutting down their numbers, without negative consequences for our economy."

Singapore Management University dean of students and professor of sociology Paulin Straughan, told The Straits Times that in the long run, this could indicate that Singapore should be less dependent on manpower, and rely more on mechanisation and digitalisation.

"That may be a good thing because of our manpower constraints, greying population and sustained low fertility rate."

She added that more attention should be paid to unlocking the potential of older Singaporeans.

"This is a group of potential volunteers and drivers of community-based self-help initiatives," she said, adding that economic activities should be curated that will leverage their skills and life experiences.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 25, 2020, with the headline Singapore sees its population fall for first time in 10 years. Subscribe