Why Singapore Has a Low Birth Rate

Singapore’s low birth rate is often the subject of much debate. The island is a member of an exclusive club that includes the likes of Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan. Singapore has one of the lowest fertility rates in the world. Replacement levels are well below the necessary 2:1 ratio. Multiple attempts have been made to reverse this trend. So far, they have been unsuccessful. The causes of this issue have been thoroughly examined. However, different answers are given as to why this is happening. For starters, the country’s population trajectory is a matter of history and national policies. These provide clues as to the root of the problem.

In the aftermath of WW2, Singapore experienced a population boom. Between the 1940s to 1960s, fertility rates were high. The Singapore government was concerned that overpopulation would hinder the nation’s development. The increase in people would push her limited size, infrastructure, and capabilities to breaking point. The authorities feared that this would undermine the quality of life they hoped to achieve.

Measures taken to reduce Population

Owing to the above, anti-natalist programs were implemented by the government. Throughout the late 1960s, social campaigns were launched in order to curb the number of births. Contraception was also made available through family-planning programs and health clinics. These measures were geared towards reducing the sizes of families. They ultimately proved to be a success. From 1966 to 1969, Singapore’s birth rate declined.

This was not to last. From 1970 to 1972, the nation’s birth rate began to rise again. As baby boomers came of age and got married, they ended up producing more children. They also wanted large families with at least three children. In order to counter this, the government intensified its efforts. Directives such as the Stop At Two policy were aimed at realising this goal. Two children were deemed to be ideal. Print media was used to drive home this message. Eugenics influenced much of the government’s outreach efforts. People with lower educational qualifications and those who hailed from lower income groups were dissuaded from having more kids. Financial penalties were also implemented. These took the forms of the following:

  • increasingly-expensive childbirth fees
  • reduction of paid maternity leave
  • lower priority allocation when it came to HDB flats

The message was clear. The government intended to gradually increase the cost of having large families. The high expenses of childbearing served as a deterrent. The government believed that small family units would allow them to allocate resources and create jobs more efficiently. This would allow Singapore to grow economically. Other policies such as the Abortion Act and the Voluntary Sterilisation Act were enacted in 1974. These were meant to give women easier access to abortion and sterilization services. Monetary benefits were also offered to women who willingly underwent these procedures. The sum total of these actions seemed to work. From 1972 to 1986, Singapore’s birth rate dropped sharply. The government had been able to fulfil its population aspirations.

Low Birth Rate Becomes Alarming in Singapore

In the late 1980s, Singapore’s low fertility rate began to alarm the government. It realised that not enough babies were being born. As a result, policy reversals were made. Instead of “Stop At Two,” the message became “Have Three Or More (If you can afford it).” Financial penalties were lifted and couples were encouraged to have kids. More incentives were provided to compel people to procreate more.

However, the government’s previous attempts at social engineering irked Singaporeans. Many women were confused and annoyed at the sudden change in rhetoric. They had been mothers at a time when political and social pressures had forced them to have small families. As a result, they were left disillusioned by what they saw as a lack of foresight by national leaders. Despite the government’s best efforts, Singapore’s birth rate continued to be low for much of the 1990s and early 2000s. In order to rectify this, liberal immigration policies were adopted. More foreigners were encouraged to become citizens and add to the local pool. These decisions ended up causing widespread social tensions. The current debate on immigration and overpopulation can be traced back to the government’s previous attempts to reduce Singapore’s birth rate.

In science, correlation is not necessarily causation. This is certainly true when it comes to public policy analysis. The ills of Singapore’s infertility are often blamed on the government’s overtly successful policies. In response, proponents of these previous decisions have dismissed the notion that population control measures are to blame. Lee Kuan Yew himself said that these had nothing to do with Singapore’s low birth rates. Certain academics also mirror these opinions. They note that the other Asian tigers did not adopt aggressive population control measures. However, their fertility rates also fell. They posit that this is due to the paradox of economic progress and prosperity. These are inextricably linked to the choices men and women in developed countries make. What then is the answer?

The Answer

In short, Singapore’s low fertility rate is due to a confluence of factors. Initial policies to curb population growth were indeed the catalyst. However, the government cannot be made to bear all the blame. This discussion is more nuanced than that. The irony is that in less-developed countries, birth rates are high. This is due to variables such as a lack of access to birth control, sex education, and family planning services. More children may also be seen as an insurance policy in old age. As a nation develops, education levels also rise. This means that women are less likely to settle down if they have more control over their bodies and future. This has been observed in other First World countries.

Singapore is no different. She went from developing to developed in one generation. The city-state has enjoyed tremendous growth. This has improved living and educational standards for its people. These have changed the psychology of locals. In particular, Singaporean women have become more focused on pursing their careers. This often comes at the expense of marriage and childbearing.

Conversely, Singaporean men are also not keen on settling down early. As a result, more Singaporeans are getting married later. Even if they do tie the knot, many of them do not wish to have kids. This is exacerbated by Singapore’s high cost of living. It is expensive to raise kids. For many people, a child is an investment that requires money, time, and attention. Hence, they may choose to avoid the hassles of parenthood. Whilst young Singaporeans are getting married, they are content with not procreating.

These realities explain Singapore’s low birth rate. They also showcase why debates on population growth are complicated. As it turns out, the Singapore government did not need to stringently control its population. The number of births would have fallen anyway. This would have happened even without governmental intervention. Hence, the country’s low fertility rate is a result of past policies and natural developmental trends.

References:

https://www.csc.gov.sg/articles/phases-of-singapore’s-demographic-development-post-world-war-ii

https://eresources.nlb.gov.sg/infopedia/articles/SIP_2016-11-09_103740.html

https://www.singaporememory.sg/contents/SMA-94546fe9-f217-45a3-960f-706697962fad

https://www.imf.org/external/pubs/ft/fandd/2020/03/lessons-from-singapore-on-raising-fertility-rates-tan.htm

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