Lee Kuan Yew’s 30-year concern

Elena Torrijos
SingaporeScene

Former Singapore Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew once again flags the issue of declining births. (AFP photo)

By Andrew Loh

In his 1983 National Day Rally speech as Prime Minister, Mr Lee Kuan Yew highlighted his government's concerns about the falling fertility rate in Singapore. It had fallen from a healthy 4.62 in 1965 to a grim 1.82 by 1980.

Some say the decline was a testament to his government's aggressive and highly successful anti-birth campaigns in the 1970s which the authorities undertook to curb what it saw as a potential problem, particularly the birth of babies by lower educated mothers.

Almost 30 years later, in 2011, Mr Lee again raised the matter of falling birth rates. This is set against the backdrop of an even grimmer statistic — Singapore's present fertility rate of 1.15, one of the lowest in the world.

This is a far cry from the heady days of 1966 when Kandang Kerbau Hospital (KKH) delivered a record-breaking 39,835 babies, earning it a place in the Guinness Book of World Records for the "largest number of births in a single maternity facility", a record it held for ten years.

The government's response to the low rate of births has been to introduce various measures to incentivise baby production — mostly to no avail. Perhaps as a desperate last-resort measure, it chose to open the doors to immigrants in order to top-up the numbers.

An issue of economic survival

In 1965, the year Singapore gained independence in self-rule, the population was 1.89 million. Currently, it stands at 5.08 million (Singstats), again showing the authorities' ability to artificially engineer population growth or decline, as it sees fit to do.

Underlying the concern and the tweaking of policies to increase or decrease the population is of course one of economic survival. Earlier campaigns to curb population growth was predicated on the argument that over-population would overburden the economy. The present situation is a reversal of that argument, that our low rates of birth will threaten our economic progress.

Without natural resources and faced with an ageing population, coupled with falling baby numbers, Singapore's economic viability and attractiveness will be hit. "The Institute of Policy Studies has a grim statistic of 60,000 migrants a year to keep our people young and economically active," Mr Lee told an audience of students at a dialogue session on 5 September.

He described the 60,000 figure as "politically indigestible", one which Singaporeans would not accept. Indeed, the influx of more than 2 million foreigners currently taking up space in the island-state has caused deep unhappiness among Singaporeans and has strained the country's infrastructure, even as these non-Singaporeans contribute to and help sustain GDP growth.

For almost 30 years, population management has been an uneasy one for the government to handle. On the one hand, the numbers are stark and clearly something needs to be done; on the other, there are no easy solutions and any "hard truths" or "hard measures" the government takes are often met with cynicism or skepticism — such as its soft approach of matchmaking couples in the hope that this will result in marriage and thus babies.

Many questions to consider

Critics have also pointed to what they see as the government's half-hearted approach and charge that it isn't putting in enough money where it matters and that it chose to take the easy way out by opening the doors to new immigrants.

There are wider considerations perhaps which would have factored in the government's deliberations on the matter, including long term projections.

For example, what will happen to the racial make-up of our society if the current trend of decline continues?

If new citizens are imbibed in such large numbers, most of who are mainland Chinese and Indians, what are the consequences?

And if we do not take these in now, will we be able to do so in the future, given the rapid progress in, for example, China itself, which may mean that the Chinese will eventually stop emigrating?

Could it be that the last few years of aggressively attracting and then granting residency to these foreigners are a recognition of the potential drying up of these inflow in the not too distant future?

In short, did the government see these trends and chose to strike while it is hot, so to speak? Is it unwise for it to have done so? What are the alternatives, otherwise?

Some have called for a relook at various government policies to help couples have children. These include areas such as housing, healthcare, employment, costs of living and cost of nurturing children, etc.

Lifestyle choices at the crux

While these are valid concerns in deciding whether one wants to have children and start a family, at the end of the day it really boils down to lifestyle choices. It is a paradox, and indeed ironic, that the opportunities afforded to Singaporeans through its economic growth have resulted in its people not wanting to reproduce and thus be able to replace itself.

However, it is not something which is peculiar to Singapore. Other societies also face the same problems. Japan, for example, which has a fertility rate of 1.21. So too does Taiwan which, together with Singapore, was one of the much-lauded Asian Tiger economies. Taiwan's fertility rate has declined to 0.895 in 2010, the lowest in the world.

In Singapore, as in elsewhere, there are many culprits for the low birth rate. These include income disparity, which is aggravated by the increasing cost of living and high inflation. Add to these is a high-pressured society where many, from school-going kids to parents to the average worker, feels that life is hard. Security in employment is another factor.

With a world which has changed, where what affects one country quickly infects another, whether it is economic malaise, terrorist attacks, health epidemics or global financial chaos, all of which have consequences for the average person nowadays, bringing children into such an uncertain world would concern would-be parents as well. After all, why bother when everything is thrown into flux every few years?

It is a maze of issues, really, as far as upping the birth rate is concerned. And one which requires a concerted effort to resolve, not to mention the time needed to do so. There are just no simple ways out of the conundrum.

No easy solution

"Our birth rate last year was 1.1, down from the year before at 1.22. Every year, 30 or more per cent of men or women stay single," Mr Lee said in August this year. "They are doing good jobs, earning good pay and unless they meet the ideal man or ideal woman, they are quite happy living their lives because they can afford it...and those who are married are having few children and having them later.

"So if we do not take in migrants, we will become an old, diminishing society with no vitality and no drive."

While it is hard for one to fault what Mr Lee says, and he has been reiterating the point for close to three decades, the government should also allow an open discussion about it.

One of the mistakes it made was to quietly open the door and, as it were, let a flood of foreigners slip in virtually unbeknownst to the general public, until the strain on our public infrastructure became too obvious. By then, the backlash against accepting foreigners into our fold had run too deep to ward off.

It is a lesson the government should learn — that Singaporeans do understand the seriousness of the matter, and that they do want an open and honest dialogue about it.

Gone are the days of overt and blatant government campaigns to discriminate Singaporeans (lower-educated and poorer women, especially) into subservience to the state's dictates, and what can only be described as the surreptitious manner in which it let in millions of non-Singaporeans onto our shores in more recent times.

Open it up to debate

With almost one million Singaporeans projected to be aged 65 and above in 2030, making up one-third of our local population, the issues are serious ones. Not being able to replace ourselves is thus a matter of grave consequences.

It is time that we had a national debate — facilitated by all media channels — on the issue of our fertility rate and get to the root of the matter once and for all.

And if in the end, Singaporeans agree that there are no other ways but to accept new immigrants into our fold to ensure our survivability, then let that be the way the country proceeds.

But there must first be honesty and openness in exchanging information and views. What Singaporeans want to know, for example, are the unspoken issues which the government surely must have in mind, and what truly are its long term goals with regards to this.

It cannot simply be a matter of topping up the numbers now and we all live happily ever after. The issue is too complex for such a simple answer. If it were, Mr Lee would not have to keep expressing his concerns for some 30 years now.

Andrew heads publichouse.sg as Editor-in-Chief. The site tells stories of the community and its people, capturing their many different and diverse aspects in interesting ways.