Lee Kwan Yew, the founding father of Singapore, died this morning. On many counts he was a great man: he took a poor city with no natural resources, not even its own water supply, and turned it into one of the most prosperous and best-educated countries in the world. But the gleaming buildings and immaculate streets of Singapore distract visitors from a desperate problem: a lack of young people. The birth rate is possibly the lowest in the world. This could undo everything the great man dreamed of. The MercatorNet article below was published in 2012 but has lost none of its currency, as his Lee’s son Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, acknowledged last year. 

Lee Kuan Yew, the founding prime minister of Singapore, is one of the great statesmen of the 20th century. At 88 he is a bit unsteady on his feet and attends a lot of funerals, but his mind is as clear as ever. A man of steely resolve, he turned a tiny, defenceless, impoverished, racially and politically divided island with no natural resources into an economic powerhouse. 

Today Singapore is a leading financial centre, is the world’s easiest place to do business, is ranked number 8 in foreign exchange reserves, has the world’s top-ranked education system, and is the world’s least corrupt country. Economically Singapore is a miracle and Lee Kuan Yew is its wizard. Last weekend the Lion City celebrated the 47th anniversary of its independence with cheers and fireworks.

But there is a cloud over Singapore’s existence. Although it is situated in a volatile part of the world, the threat is not war or tsunami or cyclone. It is its own imploding birth rate. In finances, Singapore is at the top of the league table; in fertility, it is at the bottom. With a birth rate of 0.78 it has been ranked by the CIA World Factbook at 222 out of 222. To compensate for the falling number of babies, Singapore imports people. About 35 percent of Singapore’s workers are foreign-born and about 23 percent of all residents. 

In short, like the great man himself, Lee Kuan Yew’s Singapore is slowly dying. The government is trying desperately to boost the birth rate with generous benefits, dating services and louche advertisements. And still the birth rate falls. 

Lee is watching this tragedy with tears. Speaking at a National Day celebration dinner on Saturday, [11 Aug 2012] he sounded desolate: 

“If we go on like that, this place will fold up, because there’ll be no original citizens left to form the majority, and we cannot have new citizens, new PRs to settle our social ethos, our social spirit, our social norms. So my message is a simple one. The answer is very difficult but the problems, if we don’t find the answers, are enormous… 

“Our educated men and women must decide whether to replace themselves in the next generation. At the moment, 31 per cent of women and 44 per cent of men are opting out. Not leaving a next generation. 

“So, just ponder over it and you will know the solution is not simple. But we’ve got to persuade people to understand that getting married is important, having children is important. Do we want to replace ourselves or do we want to shrink and get older and be replaced by migrants and work permit holders? That’s the simple question.”

Perhaps it’s rude to ask this of a man mourning the mortal illness of a child whom he conceived, dandled on his knees and coached through adolescence, but who is responsible for this disaster? 

The answer is Lee Kuan Yew. Great men make great mistakes. In the 1960s and 70s he worried about the Population Bomb and enacted stern population control policies. He encouraged sterilisation, urged Singaporeans to “Stop At Two”, and imposed harsh financial penalties for those who didn’t. By the late 80s, the government had panicked and changed its tune to “Have Three or More (if you can afford it)”. A future prime minister was already warning Singaporeans that “passively watch[ing] ourselves going extinct” threatened national survival. 

It was too late. Singaporeans had acquired a taste for shopping and small families. Now their country’s future belongs to immigrants and workers from nearby China, Bangladesh, Malaysia and Indonesia. Singapore has to face the possibility of cashing in its chips. 

Singapore’s woes may be of its own making but there is a lesson here for the rest of us. In a small nation, the impact of an ageing population is felt more keenly and more swiftly than in larger countries. Singapore has to face the possibility of cashing in its chips. But demographic trends are inexorable everywhere. When birthrates fall below replacement level, as they have throughout the developed world, migrants with very different cultural values replace the native-born. 

Going extinct is no fun at all. Just ask Lee Kuan Yew. 

Michael Cook is editor of MercatorNet. 

Michael Cook

Michael Cook is the editor of MercatorNet.