Singapore is, according to the CIA World Factbook, the most infertile country in the world. In 2017 the total fertility rate of the city state was 0.87. That is, each woman in Singapore will have in her lifetime less than one child. This has profound implications for the future growth of the country — how will the country support itself with fewer taxpayers and workers?
Will massive immigration be needed to keep the population growing or, at least, stable? Last year, Singapore became an aged society with more than 14 per cent of its population aged 65 years or older. How will the health costs and superannuation schemes over these elder people be paid for in the future?
So what can Singapore do to ameliorate the pains of this hyper-low fertility rate? There are a few suggestions made in this article in Today Online.
First, with a fertility rate that is nowhere near capable of reproducing the population from generation to generation, Singapore will have to rely heavily on immigration, or face rapid population decline. But, like so many countries in the world today, large-scale immigration is not a overly popular policy. The ruling party’s People’s Action Party (PAP) suffered in the 2011 general election due to its positive position on immigration. It suffered further political heat in 2013 due to its release of the White Paper on Population in 2013.
The government has targeted ‘indigenous sources’ (India and China) from which to attract migrants, in the belief that this would lessen any social and cultural dislocation. But this potentially creates tension with the economic imperatives: to attract skilled foreign workers of whatever nationality in order to grow (or stabilise) the Singaporean economy.
This could be done through new immigration procedures which are term limited (say a number of years but is then renewable) and are conditional on proven performance in the economy through employment and income data as well as good professional and personal references. This is one of the key clashes in migration debates: the economy is often said to require large numbers of workers and is not fussy as to where they are from; but society and the native people of a country are often happier and there is less likely to be social dislocation if migrants are picked to ensure that they fit in with their new country’s mores and culture.
The other idea which seems a practical one is to reduce the demands of compulsory national service. Perhaps the length of time that young men train for in compulsory service could be reduced or the whole concept dropped entirely and replaced by professional full-time armed forces. This would allow young men to join the workforce earlier and thus increase economic productivity. It would also reduce the pressures of building a career while at the same time meeting their obligations as reservists.
Would this be a better trade-off between the human capital opportunity costs and the imperative for a credible deterrent? Would an all-professional armed forces be a better deterrent anyway? If not, then this would be a clear example of demographic collapse leading to tangible reductions in Singaporean hard power.
Singapore has demographic headwinds to face in the years to come. Until its people start reproducing themselves, its government will be faced with unpalatable choices: social and cultural cohesion or economic dynamism? Productivity gains or an effective military?