Diverging Demographics Leads to Fewer Babies in Singapore


Two interesting statistics were recently released in the same week. Singapore clocked in a population of just over 5 million and a sex ratio of 974 males per 1000 females.  Its neighbour and ally India inched closer to beating China in the population game by notching up 1,210 million people as its head count, along with the more news-worthy sex ratio of 940 females to every 1000 males.

If you happen to be a Singaporean female who belongs to the Club of 26 (1000 less 974) you can forget about ever finding a mate amongst your countrymen.  Even with its low girl child ratio, India’s large population base will ensure that the overall country continues to grow at a healthy pace for some decades with or without policy interruptions.  If Singapore’s declining birth ratio continues to favour women, at some stage there will be a shortage of men.

This is part of a larger demographic dilemma. Singapore is increasingly worried about not having enough babies to replace its residents. In the past the government has tried to counter the declining numbers by attracting a work force of immigrants. Most believe that that this has led to over-crowding of an already small country and driven up prices of everything that is already in short supply. Meanwhile the Singaporean birth rate has continued its southward march.

The leading explanation for the low birth rate centers around the high and rising cost of living. Life in one of the world’s ten richest countries can be a struggle even with a home ownership rate of more than 80%. Tax rates are low but everything else that contributes to living, i.e. a car, food items, apparel most of the time are imported and hence quite expensive.

Here are some observations that I hope can explain people’s concern about the “affordability” of having children.

The entire vibe of Singapore is progress. The government pumps in millions of dollars to ensure the country doesn’t fall behind in the ”world-class” game. Casinos, malls, theatres, world famous artists, and Formula 1 car racing all have been here, underlining Singapore’s ambitions to play cosmopolitan.  No private building is allowed to stand for more than 30-40 years. It is torn down to make room for swankier apartments with an appropriately swankier name.  Escalating property prices drive down the size of new apartments. The name of the game is upgradation. A Singaporean living in an HDB (housing development board) flat dreams of upgrading to an ”executive condominium” and from there to a ”luxury condominium with full facilities”. Adding fuel to the fire are comparisons with the foreigners many of whom live a better life than the native residents.

It is this constant comparison and hence the drive for a ”better” life that discourages the Singaporean from taking a break. Competition at work is fierce, work schedules are gruelling and flexi-hours not really an option without seriously compromising either money making or a chance at a promotion.

The policy of attracting talented foreigners has consequences on the birth rate of the nation. While foreign talent fuels the nation, the presence of upper end mobile foreigners ensures that Singaporeans do not assume that “the good life,” especially compared to their peers in the region. It also keeps them slogging away for more at the cost of parenthood.

Every Singaporean male has to serve in the Army compulsorily for a couple of years. That means for anyone aspiring for a regular career in the corporate or government world, a female colleague can get ahead of her male counterpart by two years. Over a period of a lifetime, two years do not matter much but in the early years of life, a two year lead time can put a woman in her 20s significantly financially ahead of her male counterpart. When it comes to choosing a life partner, she has the choice of a slightly older but financially compatible colleague or a younger but not yet established in his career co-worker.

Like most sensible women would, she chooses to push the marriage age away, and marry someone older than her. The median age for women at marriage is 27.5 years and for men 29.8 years (2009 data).  At that age, most people are at mid-level management, hence taking a career break for parenthood necessarily compromises not only earnings but also their future career options in a increasingly competitive job world.

In comparison, Singapore is a great place for foreigners to live as outsiders. By definition, foreign talent comes here in search of a better life than the one they can afford back home. To a large extent, that desire is fulfilled. To retain and continue to attract this talent, the country will have to maintain the distinct treatment of locals and foreigners.

However unlike most immigrant-attracting societies llike the US, Canada and Australia, there is precious little planned assimilation of these foreigners within the Singaporean society.  Most foreigners live, seek and mix with those of their own kind or closest to their own kind. Beyond familiarising themselves with food, there is very little ‘local flavor” in their life.   Tolerance and racial harmony are well-nurtured values, but integration is largely missing. 

Even as children, there is little mixing.  There are two distinct sets of students, those educated byt the international school system Vs. the competitive and compulsory local education system. Cross admission into either type is tightly controlled, by purse size, policy or peer pressure

If you do not study in the same school or do not live in the same area you are unlikely to hang-out together or assimilate anything from each other, neither in your formative growing up, “open-minded” years or later.

It is possible for a permanent resident to live for decades in Singapore as a guest, oblivious to the problems of the native Singaporeans, even unaware that there is a world outside of luxury condos and wall-to-wall shopping. Amongst the foreigners there is likely to be little empathy for the real issues facing their borrowed “workland” and its people. Yet it is not possible as a native of the country to ignore the people who come into their country, live a better life than them and do not seem to go through similar life pains.

The children of these semi-residents ,even those  born here, often view  the country as a stepping stone to migrate to larger, more developed economies or in tighter times like these, receive their higher education abroad and come back to a life not dissimilar from their parents. Their parents often then choose to go back to their much more affordable native countries than stay on and watch the cost of living overwhelm their diminishing retirement funds.

Barring a few exceptions, natives would live and retire in and inexpensive country leaving it to their children to fulfil dreams of an upgraded life.

Isn’t it time the two sets got together to create a better future, one for their land of birth and the other for their land of work? Perhaps balancing these two groups, and working towards their integration, is critical to maintaining Singapore’s progress in the future.

Vatsala Pant is a management graduate with several years of business leadership experience and a connoisseur of people, places and cultures. She currently lives in Singapore.

Photo by Lip Jin Lee