Why It Matters

Rapid ageing a pressing issue

Population numbers are usually a source of existential angst for Singapore, and some of that angst resurfaced online after the latest figures were released on Monday.

The population here hit 5.6 million this June, a rise of 1.3 per cent or 72,300 people from a year ago.

The fact that the population is growing tends to trigger unease among some that conditions will get more difficult - with overcrowding and a stretched infrastructure. But the more worrying trend is that Singapore is ageing rapidly. As of end-June, 13.7 per cent of citizens were aged 65 and above, compared with 9.2 per cent 10 years ago.

And despite the bumper 33,725 citizen births last year, Singaporeans are not having enough babies to replace themselves. The resident total fertility rate was 1.24 last year and has hovered around there for the past 10 years, well below the 2.1 figure needed for a population to replace itself. These two trends mean there will be fewer workers to support a growing number of seniors. There are now 4.7 working-age citizens for every citizen aged 65 and older, compared with 6.9 in 2006. If birth and immigration rates stay the same, the number will halve to 2.3 in 2030.

To mitigate this, the Government has a strategy of encouraging more citizen births and topping up the shortfall with carefully controlled immigration.For now, the foreigner population is growing at a fairly stable pace. The foreign employment growth number was 27,000 for 2015-2016. The Government will also keep the annual number of new citizens and permanent residents (PRs) stable. There were 20,815 new citizens and 29,955 new PRs last year.

Whether this immigration strategy is enough to mitigate the ageing trend is a question Singapore will have to take a hard look at. The shortfall is going to grow. Will the number of new citizens, or even foreigners, have to go up?

Topline numbers like the 5.6 million total population figure are one thing. But questions of an ageing population, a smaller workforce, and the likely need to augment from outside are the larger and more pressing concerns Singapore has to address head-on.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 29, 2016, with the headline 'Rapid ageing a pressing issue'. Print Edition | Subscribe