Fewer babies born, more deaths last year, as population ageing trend continues

Coupled with the ageing population, there are just fewer people of working age to support a growing pool of elderly, which may increase the strain on families, among other woes. PHOTO: ST FILE

SINGAPORE - In rapidly ageing Singapore, the demographics are worrying.

Last year (2017), the number of babies born fell to a seven-year low, while the number of deaths was the highest in at least two decades.

A total of 39,615 births were registered, four per cent fewer than the 41,251 in 2016. Last year's number was also the lowest since 2010, when 37,967 babies were born.

On the other hand, the number of deaths rose by 4 per cent from 20,017 in 2016 to 20,905 last year, the Report on Registration of Births and Deaths 2017 showed. The report was released by the Immigration and Checkpoints Authority of Singapore on Wednesday (July 11).

The number of deaths has been on an upward trajectory since at least 1998, as the number of people aged 65 and older has more than doubled in that time frame, academics say. There were 15,657 deaths in 1998, the furthest back that the ICA report goes.

The most common causes of death were cancer and heart and hypertensive diseases, which accounted for slightly over half of all deaths last year. More than 80 per cent of those who died were aged 60 and over.

Sociologists said the four per cent decline in births is significant, given Singapore's declining total fertility rate, which stood at 1.16 last year - far lower than the 2.1 needed for the population to replace itself.

Sociologist Tan Ern Ser said fewer babies are being born as a result of more Singaporeans remaining single or marrying later, trends that are unlikely to change.

Uncertainty over jobs because of economic restructuring and cost of living may also factor into baby making plans, he said.

He said: "Couples may be less willing to reproduce if they are worried about the future."

Among some Chinese, there is a tendency to plan families around the Chinese zodiac, so they may have children in auspicious years but avoid doing so in unlucky years. But last year was the year of the Rooster and is not one that couples avoid, said geomancer Adelina Pang.

Hence, the fewer births last year were probably due to practical reasons and demographic changes, feng shui experts told The Straits Times, and not zodiac influences.

Of the babies born last year (2017), 59 per cent were Chinese, 19 per cent Malay, 11 per cent Indian and 11 per cent from other races.

With fewer births and more deaths, this creates challenges for society, experts said.

Dr Tan Poh Lin, assistant professor at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, said fewer babies born will result in a smaller work force, which affects the attractiveness of Singapore as a place to invest in. Coupled with the ageing population, there are just fewer people of working age to support a growing pool of elderly, which may increase the strain on families, among other woes.

But there are some bright spots. For example, there are significantly fewer teenage mothers and there is a growing number of couples who buck the trend of having small families. A total of 2,118 babies born last year (2017) were the fourth or more child in their families - the largest such number in the past five years. In 2013, the figure stood at 1,853.

Sociologists say these couples may be influenced by their religious faith to have large families as they see children as a gift from God. Others may have remarried, with children from past marriages andare adding to the family in their current marriage.

One such couple are interior design firm boss Abigael Tay, 38, and Mr Bryan van der Beek, 41, who runs a photography business. Ms Tay gave birth to her fourth child, a son, in November last year (2017). She has one daughter, 18, from her first marriage and two other daughters with Mr van der Beek who are aged 3 and 6.

The couple consider their large brood a blessing. Said Ms Tay: "I've always wanted to have four kids. I grew up in a family of four kids and there was always good company around so it was just really fun."

The births and deaths data come a day after the annual marriage and divorces statistics were released on Tuesday by the Department of Statistics. In the latter set of data, the number of marriages grew marginally while the number of divorces and annulments fell slightly. There is also a growing trend of inter-ethnic marriages.

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