With Hong Kong in the midst of its worst civil unrest since 1967, many of the world’s corporates have turned their eyes to Singapore, the stable island city-state which could benefit from the trouble of its economic rival.
But when Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong spoke to the Forbes Global CEO Conference on October 16 on his home turf, he had a very different message. Singapore was having economic troubles of its own, and it had a problem that not even Asia’s best technocrats could solve — the procreation, or rather the lack of procreation, of its next generation of citizens.
To quote Mr Lee: “To secure our future, we must make our own babies, enough of them. Because if all of the next generation are not our own, then where do they come from and what is the point of this?”
If you examine Singapore’s demographics, which are by the way, some of Asia’s best documented, thanks to a very professional civil service, Lee is partially correct. Singapore’s future generations will mostly not come from its current citizens. Its foreign population is on the road to replacing natives in the coming decades — with the exception of one segment of its citizenry. These are facts that are not obvious in Singapore’s statistics.
The Prime Minister’s father, Lee Kuan Yew (LKY), was one of the world’s most respected statesman. He transformed an island city with few resources into one of the world’s most developed economies. LKY managed to establish Asia’s best civil service and Singapore has been hailed as the world’s best example of government by technocrats.
But to achieve all this, LKY demanded sacrifices from Singapore’s citizens. And it is the sacrifice of their reproductive freedoms that may doom the Chinese-majority state, decades after LKY’s policies came into place.
Upon independence in 1965, Singapore had a booming population. Its fertile people had a Total Fertility Rate of 4.66. Singapore’s maternity wards were some of the world’s busiest. Lee Sr, however, viewed that as a problem. A bourgeoning population was a burden, he believed, and contributed to overcrowding. As a fervent believer in efficiency, order and public hygiene, LKY also regarded the high birth rate as a sign of lack of self-restraint. Soon enough, a five-year plan (ironically similar to Communist five-year plans) for mass family planning was created by Lee’s government.
The birth rate did not fall fast enough for Lee. As a fan of eugenics, he ordered most citizens to “Stop at Two” in 1970.
But by the 1980s, worried that the city’s best-educated elites were not breeding, he decided to promote marriage and procreation amongst the highly educated. For those without a high school diploma or bachelor’s degree, sterilisations and abortions continued to be the order of the day.
This is actually one of the best examples of Lee’s ignorance of demography. The more educated a woman is, the less likely it is that she will have children. Even if she does, she will reduce the size of her brood. This is a worldwide phenomenon almost without exception. Despite LKY’s sleepless nights about intelligent folks embracing voluntary extinction, nothing can stop demographic momentum.
His eugenics theories also helped permanently establish the culture of discriminatory elitism and superstition in a hyper-competitive meritocracy. The poor and uneducated can never produce brilliant progeny of their own, he wrongfully believed — and so did the rest of Singaporeans.
They apparently forgot that most of their ancestors were peasants, jungle villagers and manual labourers from southern China, the Malay peninsula and the Indian subcontinent. Many of them were illiterate and yet their grandsons and granddaughters built the most modern city in Southeast Asia.
Lee’s eugenic thinking even influenced Chinese officials and reinforced their enthusiasm for China’s one-child policy. In the 1980s and 1990s, Deng Xiaoping, China’s paramount leader, often referenced Singapore’s socioeconomic policies and viewed Lee’s benevolent authoritarianism as a model. Countless Communist mandarins visited to learn magic tricks for enforcing complete social control whilst achieving explosive economic growth.
In 2019, Singapore’s overly successful family planning policies have long been reversed and the country has desperately implemented some of the world’s most pro-natalist policies.
There has been some success. However, as of 2018, the island state has the extremely low TFR of 1.14. Chinese Singaporeans make up 75-76 percent of the citizen population, a percentage which has been carefully preserved by the government. Since independence, its aim has been to preserve the Chinese identity of Singapore, which maintains a precarious existence between Malaysia and Indonesia, whose populations are largely Malay and Muslim.
But the fact is that Chinese no longer constitute a majority of the people living in Singapore.
Let’s look at the details of the statistics.
According to the latest figures (from 2018), Singapore’s “resident” population, which is made of its citizens and its permanent residents, came to around 4.03 million.
But the country’s total population is actually 5.7 million, as many migrants from the Indian subcontinent and Southeast Asia live there and contribute to the labour force. Because of their status as migrants, they are counted, confusingly, as “non-residents”. But they make up more than 30 percent of the country’s total population and they are growing fast.
A sizeable amount of migrants come from Mainland China, but Singaporean Chinese citizens and Mainlanders are very different people, both linguistically and culturally. Many Mainlanders only stay temporarily as foreign students.
South and Southeast Asians still make up a larger share of the migrant population, and they often intend to stay. Combine this with a substantial number of permanent residents in Singapore of non-Chinese ancestry, and we see that the non-citizen percentage is rising to more than 40 percent of the total population.
The upshot is that Singaporean citizens who are ethnically Chinese have become a minority in their own country. Therefore, the notion that Singapore has a 75 percent Chinese population majority is no longer accurate.
This is coupled with the low fertility rates of the native Chinese and Indian populations. This deserves a detailed breakdown instead of only looking at the national TFR figure of 1.14.
In 2018, Chinese Singaporean citizens had exactly the same TFR as the world’s least fertile nation: South Korea. At 0.98, Chinese Singaporeans are on their way to demographic collapse, and they are reproducing even lower than their country’s paltry average.
Their ethnic Indian brethren aren’t that far off either, with their TFR standing at exactly 1.00 for 2018. Population contraction for both groups in the coming years is inevitable. This spells trouble for Singapore’s military, which relies on conscription for its troops.
On the other hand, Singapore’s Malays, who are indigenous to the region, are enjoying a rebound in their fertility rates. Thanks to a resurgence in Muslim religiosity and benefitting from generous pro-natalist laws, ethnic Malays have seen their TFR bounce back from a low of 1.65 in 2010 to 1.85 in 2018.
This is nearly double that of the Chinese and Indians. The birth rate rise has been consistent year-on-year since 2013. In fact, Malays only hit sub-replacement fertility in the mid-2000s, a feat Singapore as a nation reached back in 1975. It is inevitable that this fertility advantage of nearly 100 percent above the other ethnicities will bring dramatic changes in the ethnic composition of Singapore. The Malay influence on the island nation is bound to grow. It will prove to be a tricky balancing act for the government, as the scales begin to tip favour of Malays and foreigners.
Lee Kuan Yew left a great legacy of development and prosperity. But the people who benefit will be very different to the Chinese-majority country he created in the 1960s. Perhaps this will be his paradoxical legacy: a rich and successful nation was created by infertile Chinese and inherited by fertile Malays.
William Huang is an avid researcher into China and East Asia’s looming demographic crisis. He also aims to raise his voice for the sanctity of life wherever and whenever he can.