You may have read Michael Cook’s article about the concern in Singapore about the Island Nation’s future. Why is there this concern? Because the country’s fertility rate is officially the lowest in the world at 0.78 babies for every woman [UPDATE: the Singaporean government’s own figures are significantly higher than this figure from the CIA factbook for 2012. The 2011 figure from the Singapore Government was 1.2. H/T David Munro].  Singapore is slowly (or not so slowly) dying out and is relying on immigration to keep its population afloat.

With this background in mind, it is perhaps not surprising that a seminar was recently held by Singapore’s Institute of Policy Studies entitled “Vision 2050: Life and Family in Singapore”. You may be thinking that the title of the seminar was wishful thinking since perhaps you’d be hard pressed to find either by the year 2050. However, two speakers at the seminar would disagree with you.  According to Donald Low, a former Director of Fiscal policy at the Ministry of Finance and currently a Senior Fellow at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy:

“‘There really isn’t much need for the kind of pessimism, alarmism and, in general, hand-wringing that surrounds much of our discourse on population issues both publicly and among policymakers,’ said Mr Low, who was formerly Director of Fiscal Policy at the Ministry of Finance.”

Low and John Elliot, an Associate Professor at the National University of Singapore, made the case that “the tone of the national discussion is unnecessarily pessimistic given that the old of tomorrow will be very different from the old today. They will be healthier, will work for longer, and have more savings, for instance.”   

Low argued that a smaller family size will encourage more women to enter into the workforce (because they won’t be raising children at home). Furthermore, with advances in medical care and health, Singaporeans can expect to work longer:

“Given the better healthcare and living conditions, ‘you should be anticipating that by the time you arrive at the age of 70, you are really functioning pretty well’, Assoc Prof Elliott said.

According to Government estimates, the support ratio will drop to 2.1 working age citizen per elderly citizen in 2030. 

Assoc Prof Elliott suggested that the formula be tweaked to reflect the changing times: According to his calculations, if those between 25 and 74 years old are considered to be economically active, the ratio will be 8.4 working age citizens supporting each citizen aged 75 and over in 2030.”

Assuming that these arguments are true, Singapore only therefore has a problem once the current generation starts to hit 75, not 65. Because with smaller family sizes, the country isn’t replacing itself!

This sanguine view is not shared by the Singaporean government.  During the same seminar there was a question and answer session with the Minister in Prime Minister’s Office, Grace Fu.  This session was attended by about 200 tertiary students.  Ms Fu made a couple of interesting remarks:

“Ms Fu pointed out that while the Government’s words and deeds have an effect on societal values, there are other factors at play. 

‘Sometimes I wish we are so influential – so if just by saying, ‘focus on marriage and parenthood’, will you then change your life goals and heed our calls?’”

The government can put in policies and recommend all it wants, but it cannot force people to have more children if they do not want to. 

“‘What will be the population size be … 20, 30 years later? I hope that we have this same discussion 20, 30 years later which means that we are still a place (where) people want to be. What I really don’t wish upon my children … is to have a discussion on how do we attract people when there are not enough.’ 

Ms Fu stressed that the Republic will not become like Dubai, where only about 20 per cent of the population are native citizens.”

However, it seems that if Singapore wants to avoid this fate, then it will need to start having some more babies! (They should totally do so, having a baby is awesome!)

Marcus Roberts was two years out of law school when he decided that practising law was no longer for him. He therefore went back to university and did his LLM while tutoring. He now teaches contract and...