This article is from The Star Online (http://thestar.com.my)
TWO eye-catching headlines this past week read: “One million residents – or one in three – are single” and “Fertility rate sank to lowest in history”.
They may sound alarming but are just an update of Singapore’s long-term demographic plight, which appears to be deteriorating sharply despite a strong economic surge.
In recent years, serious discussion of this subject has been buried by a strong emotional backlash against the mass intake of foreigners.
Whenever it crops up, critics would consider it government propaganda to justify bringing in massive “cheap” manpower.
Yet, low procreation is a very real threat in Singapore – and the universe. Just how bad is it?
Latest official figures show fertility falling to a record low of 1.16 babies per woman in 2010 from 1.22 a year ago – even as the economy rose by 14.7%.
This makes Singapore the third least fertile of 225 countries in the world, with its citizens producing one baby for every two needed to replace themselves.
Only two other places are less fertile than Singapore – Hong Kong (1.04) and Macau (0.91).
At this rate, Singapore would become extinct without outsiders replenishing the population.
The hot controversy here is not whether migrants are needed – they are – but how many of them and how gradual.
A solution to import two million foreigners, as happened here between 1990 and 2010, has come under severe criticism.
Singapore, today, is like a “poor little rich kid”.
The nation is cash rich but poor in natural resources.
Now, even its most precious asset – people – is depleting.
A study three years ago found more than 70 countries had a fertility rate of below two, less than the 2.1 minimum needed to prevent population decline.
Europe is a long-time victim.
Many are forced to import people.
Even China’s rate is dropping from its 1.75.
“The dramatic fact is there is no European country where the population has enough children to replace their parents when they die,” an analyst said several years ago.
For 10 years, the Singapore government has thrown money and perks to tempt its people to produce more babies, apparently to little avail.
Its latest effort, embarked in 2008, was giving away cash incentives and tax rebates and more paid leave for parents and protection for pregnant mothers.
With a 1.16 fertility rate, the republic is faring worse compared with the rest of the world, having fallen behind nations like America (2.06), France (1.97), Britain (1.92) and Australia (1.78).
Declining birth rates are aggravated by news that the young generation is becoming more reluctant to get married.
The latest census showed singlehood rising from 30% a decade ago to 32% currently.
The marriage rate dropped from 7.8 per 1,000 residents in 1999 to 6.6 in 2009.
Footloose and fancy-free, more of today’s youths are reluctant to tie the knot, reported The Straits Times.
“To be exact, one in three residents – or one million of those who call Singapore home – is single.”
The revelation prompted elder statesman Lee Kuan Yew to restate Singapore’s need for young immigrants to save its economy from long-term decline.
In special comments released to the press, Lee said: “At these low birth rates, we will rapidly age and shrink.”
As affluence and education spread, more young Singaporeans – men and women – are opting for a “freer” lifestyle, to travel and socialise without any matrimonial obligation.
“They are reluctant to sacrifice their comfortable way of life and leisure time to bring up the next generation,” said a concerned sociologist.
Middle-class critics have their pet explanations why Singaporeans are reluctant to raise children, ranging from high living costs to a stressful life and perceived pessimism for the future.
“We don’t find Singapore a conducive place to raise children,” declared 30% of people polled in a survey two years ago, a local newspaper reported.
Only half of the 1,256 people polled thought the city was a good place for kids, despite Singapore’s reputation as “a safe place with a world class education system”, it said.
Ironically, as more foreigners were brought in to close the people gap, they also brought overcrowdedness and strong competition for jobs and public housing.
In a published letter headlined, “Why romance in Singapore has fallen flat”, a Singapore lady blamed it on the shortage, and rising cost, of public flats.
Without one, few working couples from a middle-class home could consider matrimony.
“We cannot blame the average guy for not being romantic when he puts the importance of a flat application above popping the question,” said Tey Siew Wee.
“For the young couple, buying a flat can be financially daunting.
“So, why do Singaporeans marry older and older? It doesn’t take a genius to figure out why.”
Increased public outbursts against the foreign influx have produced results, at least temporarily.
The issue threatens to become the hottest in coming elections expected within the next few months.
It could erode the government’s two-thirds support among Singaporeans.
The government last week announced it had slashed by half the number of new permanent residents to 29,265 last year from 59,460 in 2009.
There are cynics, however, who believe the cut-back is only temporary and will be restored after the elections – if the ruling PAP is re-elected.
A strong hint of this came from Deputy Prime Minister Wong Kan Seng.
Singapore must accept that boosting fertility would take time, and immigration is still needed for the foreseeable future, he said.