Reversing Declining Population in Singapore

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Beginning in the 20th and continuing into the 21st century, many of the world’s nations have displayed diverse changes in age structures and demographic compositions. Many of these changes were initiated by influxes in fertility, such as baby booms, and others by rapid declines in mortality. For the Singaporean demographic, there has been a wave of changes, a 222% increase in the last half century as reported by Statistics Singapore, to a current plateauing, aging population which is further amplified by decreasing mortality rates and low migration between nations. In the past, demography has focused on numbers, specifically, the importance of increasing and developing populations. However, in recent centuries, the focus has dramatically shifted to the pressures associated with the waves of structural changes of population, especially declined fertility and an aging population. This essay focuses on the challenges that a modern Singapore faces in managing the dissension between women’s ambitions and the nations fertility concerns. I will examine how factors such as rapid economic growth, lack of immigration, high cost of living and workforce competition all act against the demand for growing families. In particular, how the social role of women has changed intergenerationally, and how these changes in behaviours, attitudes and aspirations are among the main driving forces behind the low total fertility rates.

Problem statement:

Over the preceding decades, fertility rates have become a progressively central focus of the Singapore government. Total fertility rate below the population replacement level of 2.1 has somewhat become the norm for many of the world’s most advanced economies, however, exceptionally low rates are being observed in Singapore. Immigration to Singapore is traditionally the main impetus for population growth and as a result of its absence, this region is set to experience the most rapid population aging and decline. Despite political efforts to counteract this decline (Yap, 2003). the fertility rate deteriorated from 1.60 in 2000 to a very low 1.14 in 2019. From a comparative perspective, Singapore’s total fertility rate is currently the lowest in the region relative to that of Thailand of 1.53 births per women, Malaysia of 2.02, Indonesia 2.30 and the Philippines of 2.64 (World Bank, 2020) When comparing Asian countries with a similar standard of living, Singapore’s TFR is also at the lower end of the spectrum. Hong Kong, Japan, North Korea and Taiwan have national total fertility rates of 1.36, 1.36, 1.93, 8.14 respectively.

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The societal structures, economic affluence, religious beliefs and urbanisation within countries are likely the most influential factors when it comes to fertility rates (Jones, 2007). Developed countries tend to have a lower fertility rate due to lifestyle choices associated with economic prosperity which further compounds declining population sizes by low mortality rates due to advances and investment in health care. Women in advanced economies have higher focus on education and career prospects (Yun, 2004). Education is known to lower birth rates, and thus is enhancing the demographic decline. Women are spending more time in the work force, the cost of living in Singapore is quite prohibitive, so women spend more time focusing on economic progress compared to marital or maternal outcomes (Amato, 2007)

Context/Background (Geographic and demographic)

Singapore has been experiencing a below-replacement total fertility rate of 2.10 since the mid-1970s. As a country, Singapore has been extensively urbanised in the last century. Most of the land was acquired through reclamation of land from surrounding waters, to expand the city-state Historically immigration been the main impetus for the reduced population growth in the country since the founding of modern Singapore in the early 1800’s (Zhang, et al 2012). In 1965 when Singapore was declared as an independent nation, it signalled the end of the free movement of people from Malaysia. This in conjunction with high job prosperity in Malaysia resulted in a previously high level of immigration to fall dramatically.

Many locals blame Singapore’s immigration rates for the rising expenses associated with property and living. Singapore is now Asia’s third most expensive city, after Hong Kong and Tokyo. This inflation and demand for real estate has caused many of the Singaporean residents to invest a lot of time into working and generating enough income to support themselves in an expensive city-state. For many women, this means more time working and less time focusing on traditional family outcomes (Jones, 2012). According to a study at the National University of Singapore, the gender pay gap between men and women in Singapore was 6% in 2018. In Singapore, along with many other developed countries, men continue to be over-represented in the occupations that have higher increases in incomes whereas women tended to be in lower paying occupations (Call, et al 2008). This again compounds the gender inequalities when women fall pregnant and are forced into care giving roles within a family context.

Five countries are considered to be the major players in the Asian economy; Hong Kong, Japan, Korea, Singapore and Taiwan. They are often referred to as the ‘Tigers’ behind Asia’s growth in the late 1900s. Rapid industrialisation and urbanisation of the once rainforecst covered landscape launched Singapore from third world to first. The Gross Domestic Product (GDP) grew from $5 billion to $55 billion between 1960 and 1990 (Selvanathan, 2003), increasing prospects for all citizens, especially women. In the shift from developing to developed, education, gender equality and women representation in the work force all dramatically improved.


Singapore is an extremely multiracial and subsequently multicultural country, with a large majority of the population being Chinese, approximately 76.2% (World Bank 2020). All growing countries face adverse challenges associated with building their human capabilities, increasing job opportunities, creating industries, institutions and infrastructure. All factors that are extremely dependant on the flow and influx of people into fundamental age groups. Working and labour forced age people are important, however if there is no influx in fertility, eventually this population becomes unable to produce enough labour to sustain itself economically (Yun, 2004).

Figure 1: Singapore population pyramid 2020. Source: Singapore Department of Statistics

Straughan (2012) highlights how the limitations of Singaporean’s poor work-life balance as well as over-demands on parenting effect TFR. Currently, Singapore’s population stands at 5.84 million, with their population pyramid skewed to show an increasingly ageing demographic as seen in figure 1. There are many projections in regard to the Singaporean population, however from the United Nations database, it is believed that the rate of annual growth is currently at its peak and beginning a plateau phase. This is problematic for long-term economic growth as the size of the younger labour force diminishes while the older segment of the population increases (Park, 2005).

The government adopted a growth strategy that had significant implications on the traditional Singapore family. Rapid industrialisation caused a growing requirement for skilled workers, facilitating access to education and paid work for the working age Singapore residents, including women. Instead of focusing on marriage and family planning, women pursued formal education to allow them entry into the work force and gain their own sense of economic independence (Straughan, 2012). Unavoidably, a devotion to the workforce and growing opportunities transformed the importance of motherhood and marriage in the new generation of Women’s lives. As women delayed their search for motherhood and marriage, the total fertility rate took a downward turn and motherhood ages increased. In 2018, the median age for a mother having her first child was 30.6, compared to 29.7 in 2009 (Darke, 2019)

Figure 2: fertility rates in Singapore 1960-2017 Source: World Bank

Singapore’s total fertility rate (TFR) dropped to 1.16 in 2017 (figure 2), making it the lowest figure since 1.15 in 2010 and the second lowest ever recorded for the country. Statistics on the TFR – which measures the average number of children per woman – have been available since 1960. The 1.16 mark continues a noted declining trend since early 2014 with a TFR recorded at 1.25, 2015 (1.24) and 2016 (1.20). In 2020, Singapore’s TFR has a growth rate of 0.58% to 1.22.

Although it is difficult to assess the specific impact of the government policies because a demographic transition was already in progress, the total fertility rate dropped dramatically from 1957 to 1977 (seen in figure 2), going from just over six children per woman to under two children (Fawcett & Khoo, 1980). Singapore’s total fertility rate has been below the 2.1 replacement level since 1977. In 1987, the government responded to the decline in fertility by instituting the ‘Pro-natalist New Population Policy’, which encompassed many incentives including tax rebates for multiple child families, more accessible childcare and improved parental leave policies (Lee, S., Alvarez, G., & Palen, J. 1991). Another focus of the pro-natalist policy was to promote marriage, as the large Chinese proportion of the population accounts for very low childbirths outside of marriage and marriage is was seen as the only acceptable means for increasing childbearing (Teo, 2005).


A progression from these somewhat patriarchal, traditional values, to a norm of more gender equal family roles has taken substantially longer in Singapore compared to societies in other first world countries. There are many influences that effect this, but perhaps it can be attributed to economic growth rapidly overtaking social and cultural change. The role of women in the family, society and economy is everchanging. Women in Singapore adapted with the growing economy, adjusting to a demand of increased productivity, investing themselves in advancing their skills training, flexibility, diversity and creativity. All of these intrapersonal investments however come with a cost. Delayed marriage, reduced focus on motherhood, and greater interest in career development and therefore decreased fertility rates. Gender equality is quite commonly associated with economic growth, increasing the utilisation of all members of the working force to improve demographic dividend and investment. A gender equal society is considered a “smart economy”. Women in Singapore are penalised for behaving and valuing their own economic development over the responsibility for maternal caregiving (Hayzer and Lim, 2016).

Singapore, in many aspects has done exceptionally well in equalising genders, especially in regard to educational outcomes, labour force participation rates of young male and female citizens, starting salaries. However, the decrease in retuned mothers to the labour force is quite concerning and may even act as a deterrent for women to have children in the first place.

Currently, there are still many issues in Singapore that need to be addressed to increase the incentive for women to invest time into marriage and motherhood. There are still many barriers in business such as employer’s preferential treatment over hiring and promoting males since there are less cost associated with maternity leave. Very commonly, this results in males being placed in a higher pay bracket compared to their female counterparts. Such discrimination makes it more rational to financially surrender the women’s income in turn for parental caregiving responsibilities. However, this deeply reinforces gender equality and can result in women being at greater risk of financial dependence and even poverty in the event of spousal abandonment (Greenhaus, et al 1989).

But in nearly every developing society, gender gaps gradually narrow, women are applying themselves in the work force and stay at home fathers are becoming a cultural norm. Further increases in economic development, access to education and independent affluence bridge the gap to decreased fertility trends. A step forward to better fertility outcomes is embracing women in entrepreneurship, and as working members of the family instead of sole caregivers.


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