Singapore’s Struggle to Grow its Population
If you want to watch the video first, you can watch it below
Author’s note (behind the scenes commentary?): You kind of wonder, how do you make a video about demography and birth rates without just posting a bunch of random pictures of couples? And since I don’t live in Singapore I can’t go out and get new material. And also since you need to take pictures of babies, then you want to avoid YouTube flagging you as an perv. Alas, the challenges of making videos.
I had also felt a lot of hesitation about eventually touching on the idea of Singaporean immigration. I frequent the r/Singapore subreddit and know that it is a sensitive subject for a lot of people. I don’t want to wade into an idea and end up making a fool of myself by making some terrible proclamations. I did my best to stay even-handed on the treatment.
Singapore has been doing a whole lot on population policy. They saw the issue of having too few working age citizens perhaps earlier than anyone else. It might be a result of their smaller population. Their policies are quite generous. Critics who say that it is not enough, I can see what they are trying to say. But like I wrote below, at some point you have to make a trade-off with immigration. Native-born Singaporeans are preferable, but an immigrant option should be available.
Something interesting to me that popped up in the research but I could not put into this video was the rising trend of singlehood in Asian countries. The proportion of single males (and to a lesser extent females) is up from the 1980s to 2001. I think that’s pretty interesting and I wonder if it has to do with rising house prices, the inability to find the job, or a cultural preference for being single over coupled. That’s something worth studying, perhaps in a future video.
I’ve gotten a request to do a similar analysis for Taiwan. I’ll get started on it and hopefully have something soon for the Patreons (who get to see it first) and YouTube subscribers.
Singapore is struggling with a major problem. Its native population cannot sustain itself naturally.
The country's fertility rate has been amongst the lowest in Asia. For the past few years, it has hovered at about 1.2 births per woman. The rate necessary for a sustainable population is 2.1.
In this video, I want to talk about the rise and fall of a demographic number, the government's struggle to control it, and the far-reaching repercussions of it not being able to do so.
The Demographic Dividend
I took a course in economic demography in college. It was one of the most interesting courses I ever took. In there, you learn about the general progression of economies over multiple stages. I will attempt to summarize 13 weeks of classes into 2 minutes.
In the beginning, you have a society with high birth and death rates. Women had many children but they died early on due to disease, famine, the like. Population growth is generally stable. Most people are younger. Older people are rare.
Then, a developing country starts to develop. Crop yields go up due to better agriculture technologies. You get better public health measures such as clean water, sewage and hygiene (very critical). Birth rates remain high, but the death rate dramatically falls. This results in a boom of population.
This second stage is nice because it results in a lot of highly productive young and middle aged workers entering society. They generate lots of taxes and the like. The economy grows from their productivity - assuming they can all find jobs.
The third stage comes as the economy develops. Family planning and education means that women's birth rates begin to fall. Population growth is no longer booming. Instead, it stabilizes. This happens as women are better educated and see better opportunities in the economy.
Last is the stage we are at now. Low birth and death rates. The population is stagnant or is in decline. Soon, the majority of the population are middle aged or older. This describes much of Europe and developed Asia.
Here, the young struggle to pay for the costs of taking care of the elders. Countries in this stage tend to replenish their supply of working-age humans mostly through immigration rather than natural population growth.
The Fall of Fertility Rate
Singapore is a tiny country with a dense population. For the first couple decades of its existence, the country grew from immigration. Lots of Chinese immigrants coming over from the Guangdong province. It took many years but enough women soon came over from China in order for natural population growth via births to overtake population growth via immigration.
Author’s note: If you want to see how Singapore gotten to be so Chinese, you can check out the video below
After World War II, Singapore experienced a baby boom - much like the rest of the world. The peak Total Fertility Rate happened in 1957 and was over six children per woman.
But over time this fertility rate has seen nothing but decline. At first, this was intentional and something to be celebrated. 1970 saw the implementation of Singapore's "Stop at Two" policy.
Stop at Two was the culmination of a series of policies implemented for check population growth. It encouraged individuals to marry late and delay having a second or third child.
A variety of incentives and disincentives were created to discourage families from having over two children. This includes:
1) No maternity leave for women on their fourth child or higher
2) An additional fee attached to hospitals for a third child or higher
3) Removal of income tax breaks for the fourth child or higher
4) Lower priority in education for fourth children or higher
Stop at Two was more of a publicity campaign more than anything. The policies had already been implemented. But the resulting message (and its posters) have had a lasting legacy in Singapore society. And one could perhaps say that it - like China's One Child Policy - was a bit too successful.
Author’s note: There’s a video scheduled to release next month about China’s One Child Policy. If you want to check it out early, it’s on the Patreon already.
In 1984, Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew said at the 1983 National Day Rally:
We must amend our policies, and try to reshape our demographic configuration so that our better-educated women will have more children to be adequately represented in the next generation
This is the first hint of changes to the population control policies of the 70s.
These government policies at first did not flip the directly 180 degrees. Instead, they focused on incentivizing childbirth by women who were educated and could afford larger families.
This took shape in the form of policies like a “graduate mother scheme”. This gave priority in primary school registration to mothers with university degrees or approved professional qualifications.
Restrictions on lower income families having their third or fourth children remained or were strengthened.
But fertility rates remained on the downtrend and the government needed to make a bigger change. In March 1, 1987 the “Have three, or more if you can afford it” policy was announced. Bit more of a mouthful than the “Stop at Two” campaign, it relaxed old policies and created new ones to help encourage childbearing.
This new policy would give tax rebates and tax relief to families who have their third child. It also granted up to four years unpaid leave (or made part time work options available) for mothers in the civil service to look after their children.
In terms of housing and subsidies, the government provided childcare subsidies of up to $150 per child monthly. It also made it easier for families with three children to sell their flats.
For a few years it worked. In 1987, TFR was 1.6 and it rose to nearly 2.0 in 1988. Pop a cork, good times are here again!
But in 2000 it became clear that many more couples were either childless or had just one kid.
August 2000, Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong expressed his concern about how the low childbirth rates would affect Singapore’s population. If TFR remained at 1.48 (which was optimistic - as it would go even lower in further years) then the population of Singapore would shrink from 3.2 million in 2000 to 2.7 million in 2050.
Singapore had heard from couples that it cost too much and was too stressful to have a child. So they tried to implement policies to remove that burden.
April 2001, they input the Baby Bonus Scheme. It had two tiers: $500 SGD a year for six years for your second child. Another $1000 SGD a year for your third child.
BUT WAIT, there’s more! If you set up a Child Development Account (kind of like a 401K for children), then the government will match whatever you contribute dollar for dollar up to $1,000 / $2,000 SGD for your second or third child. In total, a family can receive a maximum of $9,000 SGD for their second child, and a maximum additional $18,000 SGD for their third. This is real money.
But again, these policies have largely fallen short of their goals. And there is really only so much that you as a government can afford to do. Singaporean natives remain unable to create enough Singaporeans on their own.
The Immigration Controversy
For countries with aging populations, there’s going to be a situation coming up in the future where the government can’t afford to pay for all the social welfare policies promised to elders in the future. Every time you read about a pension crisis in some country in Europe or America, that’s the result of the inverted age population in action.
To help solve this, you need more productive younger workers. To get them you either birth them or import them. If you can’t birth them then you must import them.
Singapore’s immigration policies are rather liberal. The government believes in a philosophy of global talents - highly skilled people with technical expertise. They can live wherever they want and contribute to their chosen homeland.
Singapore’s policies are very welcoming to such skilled talents. Their economic strategy has been geared towards making it easier for those people to achieve permanent residency and eventually citizenship.
The problem with immigration though is that it almost always creates tension with the native-born. Singapore’s immigration policies have been controversial. Despite widespread acknowledgement that having these foreign talents help contribute to Singapore’s overall development, it is hard to avoid resentment.
There are no official statistics on this. But recruiter data finds that much of the professional and managerial elite in Singapore’s various industries tend to be foreign born. Robert Walters Singapore (a recruiting firm) estimates that foreigners and permanent residents occupy 30% of mid-level finance jobs. And 60-70% of senior level finance jobs.
The truth as always lies somewhere in between. Imported foreign talent helps Singapore perform better on a global basis. But too much causes resentment and spurs the “Singapore for Singaporeans” nativist talk.
I do want to be clear. This is a problem that is happening for every developed country around the world. South Korea's birth rate in 2017 was a stunning 1.1. Macau, Hong Kong, Singapore, and Taiwan have rates similar to that and every so often they trade places for bottom place.
In fact, it is happening for developing countries too. Sub-Saharan Africa has seen birth rates fall from 6.8 in 1974 to 4.9 in 2015.
And it is a problem that almost every country in Asia has tried to address in some form or fashion. Singapore has just taken more steps to do so than many other countries. But the problem resists simple solutions.
Certain parts of the population are more fertile than the rest. It tends to be correlated with higher religiosity or lower income. But in general the richer, more educated people - the ones the government wants having more kids - aren’t. And despite complaints that countries aren’t doing things or doing things enough to address it, they are. It’s just not working.
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