Singapore’s demographic winter

A catastrophic plunge in Singapore’s birthrate could undermine its success. Today, Singapore’s fertility rate has sunk to lower than all but a handful of countries, well below replacement level.
Joel Kotkin

Over the past half century arguably no place on earth has progressed more than the tiny island state of Singapore. A once impoverished, tropical powder keg packed into 268 square miles at the foot of the Malay Peninsula, the Mandarin-led republic has ascended from its difficult founding in 1965 to one of the richest economies on the planet. Today, in terms of purchasing power, its per capita income stands higher than most European countries’ or Japan’s and is roughly equal to that of the U.S.

But a catastrophic plunge in the country’s birthrate–a problem plaguing many of the world’s affluent economies–could undermine Singapore’s success. In 1965 Singapore’s leaders feared it could not survive an unsustainable fertility rate above 3.5 and embarked on a campaign encouraging citizens to have smaller families. Today the country’s fertility rate–the number of children per female–has sunk to roughly 1.2 , a rate lower than all but a handful of countries and well below replacement level.

This pattern poses a threat to the republic’s continued progress over the coming decades. The dependency ratio between retired persons and those 15 to 64–far lower than Europe, America or Japan in the 1970s–will reach the unsustainable levels of places like Japan, Germany and Italy by 2030. By then there could well be more people over 65 than under 15.

This shift in demographics is a common challenge for almost all advanced countries–even the U.S., which enjoys the healthiest demography of any major wealthy nation. In Europe and particularly Asia, once challenged by overpopulation, there is the looming prospect of what a new documentary calls the “demographic winter.”

Of course, not everyone finds this “winter” a chilling thought. A growing chorus of environmentalists, particularly in Europe and the U.S., sees the shrinking numbers of “little monsters” a boon for the planet.

Peter Kareiva, the chief scientist at the Nature Conservancy, one of the more levelheaded environmental organizations, has concluded that not having children is the most effective way of reducing “carbon scenarios” and becoming an “eco hero.” Meanwhile the more extremist Voluntary Human Extinction Movement promotes the lovely notion of terminating the species through voluntary childlessness.

For their part, Singapore’s leaders have focused on providing parkland, building a functioning subway and recycling city wastes. But these pragmatists show little tolerance for such Western-style species self-hatred. A society proud of its accomplishments, its agglomerated cultures–Chinese, Indian, Malay–continue to value family as the supreme societal unit.

At the same time, many leaders trace the depth of their demographic problem to their own campaign to limit families back in the 1970s. “We have been very successful in reducing the birthrate,” observes Lui Pao Chuen, adviser to the National Research Foundation and a prime architect of Singapore’s defense systems. “The society will die if it goes on like this. We want our society to live on.”

In the past decade Singapore’s leaders have tried to change course, attempting to raise the birth rate by offering generous cash incentives and other inducements for baby-making. But so far, they admit, these efforts have had little effect.

Part of the problem may lie with high densities, an inescapable reality in a city-state with literally no suburban periphery. Singapore’s public housing–80% of citizens live in government flats–is generally better and larger than those in other Asian countries. Still the prospect of raising children in a 1,000-square-foot, two-bedroom flat may seem less appealing than doing so, say, in a suburban housing estate in Australia, New Zealand, California or Texas.

Equally intractable may be the very competitive spirit at the heart of the republic’s success. Singapore possesses two great natural advantages: a strategic location between the Pacific and Indian Oceans and a motivated population. The city’s leaders have done a brilliant job of capitalizing on both, developing one of the world’s largest ports and one of Asia’s best-educated, hardest-working populations.

This in turn has created a population that often places education and career advancement over child-raising, marriage and even dating. Some 85% of singles still express a desire to get married, and nearly 80% want two or three children. But the pressure to succeed often prevails. “The pace of life has people putting things on hold,” admits NG Mie Ling, coordinating director for the government’s Family Development Group.

Despite these challenges, Singapore may not be doomed to follow Europe and other advanced east Asian nations into the demographic dustbin. For one thing, the city’s bureaucracy is cleverer than most and may be able to change some policies–placing more emphasis on leisure time for mate-chasing and child-raising to building larger apartments–to reverse the current birth dearth.

Singapore’s unique ethnic and national identity may prove an even bigger asset. Unlike its Asian rivals, Singapore–though mainly Chinese–remains a truly multiracial society. Like America, it is a nation of immigrants. Few can trace their local roots there more than two or three generations. This makes the Republic more suited for accommodating newcomers from China, India and Malaysia, as well as from countries like the Philippines or Vietnam.

Newcomers can find a kindred ethnic or religious community. Many also intermarry with Singaporeans; over 40% of all marriages are between citizens and noncitizens, up from only 30% a decade ago. Interracial marriages are also increasingly common. Whereas it is virtually impossible to become Japanese or Korean, one can become a Singaporean.

Immigration allows Singapore’s population and skilled workforce to grow at a healthy clip despite the low birth rate. Today barely 3.2 million of the current nearly 5 million Singaporeans are citizens; many others immigrate to enjoy the excellent schools, the high degree of safety and cleanliness and a political stability that is rare in the region. Last year 60,000 people were granted permanent residency and nearly 20,000 became citizens.

“We are still trying to figure out what it is to be a Singaporean,” observes Calvin Soh, chief creative officer in Asia for the Publicis advertising company. This evolving identity may not be obvious in the city’s impressive but hardly unique office, hotel and condo complexes. It is best illustrated in the city’s remarkable neighborhoods with their open air markets and a strikingly diverse food culture flourishing both in small, family-owned restaurants and hawker stalls.

The city’s internationally recognized food scene, Soh believes, could serve as a model for other cultural products, from media and fashion to product design. Ideally suited to serve as the crossroads culture of 21st-century Asia , Singapore can emerge like 14th-century Venice, which flourished by connecting Europe with the civilizations further to the east.

Like their counterparts in other successful countries, Singapore’s executives and administrators face enormous demographic challenges. But if any Asian society can confront, or at least ameliorate, the great fertility crisis, it is this tiny island country with a track record of solving seemingly insurmountable problems.

Joel Kotkin is a distinguished presidential fellow in urban futures at Chapman University. He is also an adjunct fellow at the Legatum Institute in London and serves as executive editor of He writes the weekly New Geographer column for Forbes.