Debrief

Population decline raises issues around Singapore society, identity

The total population as at June fell for the second straight year, to 5.45 million, the largest year-on-year decline since 1950.
The total population as at June fell for the second straight year, to 5.45 million, the largest year-on-year decline since 1950.ST PHOTO: KUA CHEE SIONG

SINGAPORE - Fewer citizens, permanent residents, foreign workers, marriages and births: Singapore recorded a dip on these fronts last year.

The annual Population in Brief report showed the total population as at June fell for the second straight year, to 5.45 million - a 4.1 per cent drop and the largest year-on-year decline since 1950. The non-resident population fell by 10.7 per cent to 1.47 million.

And for the first time since 1970, citizen and resident numbers registered a year-on-year decrease. The number of citizen marriages last year - 19,430 - was the lowest since 1986, and the proportion of transnational unions fell to 30 per cent, the lowest since 1997.

Where there was an increase, and at a faster pace than before, was the share of citizens aged 65 and above. This rose to 17.6 per cent as at June, from 16.8 per cent last year and 10.4 per cent in 2011. The proportion of aged is expected to reach 23.8 per cent in 2030.

Why it matters

The National Population and Talent Division attributed the falling numbers to the impact of Covid-19 and its associated restrictions and uncertainties. Travel curbs drove down foreign employment, and economic or health fears could have postponed parenthood plans.

But to view the declining figures as a blip on the graph, with normal service to resume after, is to ignore the fact that there is no defined end in sight to the pandemic - and that Singapore had been grappling with structural demographic challenges since the preceding years.

Resident total fertility rate - the number of babies each woman would have over her reproductive years - has been declining and hit a record low of 1.1 last year. The proportion of working-age citizens - between 20 and 64 years old - fell from 65.1 per cent in 2011 to the current 61.9 per cent, and is expected to hit 56 per cent in 2030.

By then, there will be a projected 2.7 working residents for every person aged 65 and above, compared with 4 this year and 7.2 in 2011.

A population that is ageing and not reproducing itself sets up gaps in the labour market, which Singapore has traditionally plugged with immigration policy levers and the import of migrant workers.

This year, the large decline in the non-resident segment was driven mainly by work permit holders in the construction, marine shipyard and process sectors, who make up 20 per cent of foreigners here.

They do the work Singaporeans shun, so it will be of interest whether the Government takes a more liberal or conservative approach to managing their numbers.

What lies ahead

The conversation on reducing Singapore's dependence on foreign workers is a longstanding one. Ideas and initiatives that have been bandied about range from investments in automation and technology for the lower-wage sectors, to upskilling and education amidst competition for professional, managerial and executive roles.

These now have to be addressed alongside social considerations made more pronounced by the pandemic, with observers pointing to inequality in access to resources and time, cultural assumptions around face-time and flexible work arrangements, the increased need for care in families, and mental health and overwork as issues of concern.

There also needs to be a fundamental shift in expectations and definitions of a "good job", said Associate Professor Leong Chan-Hoong of the Singapore University of Social Sciences. This could mean doing away with perceptions of the working world being cleaved into two distinct groups: white-collar high-fliers earning big salaries on one hand, and blue-collar service workers on the other.

Real estate analyst Ku Swee Yong, chief executive of International Property Advisor, said the demographic changes are an opportunity to supplant a mindset of economic growth "at all costs", with a greater emphasis on planning for a better living environment. Frictions and anxieties brought about by high-density housing and crowded infrastructure can then be managed and alleviated, he said.

For sociologist Shannon Ang of Nanyang Technological University, an overhaul of the state's approach to incentivising parenthood is due. "We need to stop throwing money at the problem," he said. "It doesn't typically address larger issues such as the messages society sends about a life worth living: You must be economically successful, your kids must attend a prestigious school, you must have individual responsibility because society will not look after you."

The assistant professor called for better appreciation of the ways in which Singapore is changing.

"When many of our births are from inter-ethnic or transnational couples, we need to think more carefully about what being Singaporean is, especially since such a big part of our interactions with social policy is our race," he said.

"The key is to embrace this diversity without eroding the core of the Singaporean identity. To do this we need to come to a consensus on what we want as a society."