An exercise in fertility

The Economist

In Asia’s “little tigers”, big families went out of vogue decades ago, and have stayed there

The Singapore dream, as commonly defined, comprises five Cs. The catalogue of cash, car, credit-card, condominium and country-club membership leaves some glaring alphabetical omissions. None more so than “children”. Singaporeans these days tend to have small families. In this as in much else they resemble Asia’s other “little tigers” (Hong Kong, South Korea, Taiwan), and tiny Macau. In one ranking of “total fertility rates” (TFR, a measure of the number of children a woman can expect to bear in her lifetime), these five places huddle together at the bottom of a list of all the world’s countries. Fearful of rapidly ageing populations and, in many cases, loth to contemplate the alternative—large-scale immigration—governments have tried to encourage child-bearing. They have failed.

The trend towards smaller families is a supercharged version of a pattern seen everywhere: as people get richer, live in cities and women are better educated, they have fewer children. And these places have seen economic growth at rates surpassed only in China, where fertility has also plunged, but growth has been accompanied by a coercive one-child policy. Even so, the tigers’ declines in fertility rates have been astonishingly quick.

In the developing world as a whole, fertility rates fell by half, to three, in the 50 years to 2000. In South Korea the TFR fell by two-thirds in 20 years from the early 1960s. In Taiwan it dropped from 6.5 in 1956 to 2.2 in 1983 and 1.7 in 1986. So for three decades, fertility rates have mostly been below the “replacement” level—of just over 2.0 in rich countries. Last year the TFR was 1.22 in Singapore, 1.15 in South Korea and 1.04 in Hong Kong. In Taiwan it was 1.03, and the government’s planning agency forecast a further decline, to 0.94% in 2010, as women defer having babies during the Year of the Tiger (inauspicious, oddly). These are unprecedented levels for places unaffected by war or famine.

On these trends, Taiwan will become rather geriatric. By 2060 less than half the population would be between 15 and 65 and more than two-fifths 65 or over. Alarmed, the government is promoting the joys of child-rearing. It has mandated generous parental leave (though many women are still scared of antagonising their bosses by taking their full entitlement), subsidising kindergartens for poorer families and so on. This month a prize was awarded to the winner of a government-sponsored competition for the best baby-promotion slogan. “Children are our most precious treasures” at least captures their growing scarcity value.

The other governments have also been encouraging their citizens to stay put and multiply. In keeping with its dirigiste traditions, South Korea actually has a five-year plan to encourage breeding, and a TFR target of 1.7 for 2030. Maternity pay is to be changed from a fixed, and low, rate to 40% of salaries. Employers are to be forced to allow mothers to work flexible hours, and the state will pay the school fees of second children. Hong Kong, of course, sets greater store by laissez-faire principles. So there was quite a fuss in 2005 when the chief executive, Donald Tsang, declared that families should have three children. The fertility rate, 0.97 in 2005, has barely budged since.

It is the efforts of Singapore’s government, however, that are most telling about the difficulty of reversing low fertility. Its people, after all, are famously malleable. In a generation they have been weaned off chewing-gum, learnt Mandarin and become models of courtesy. But they have not been persuaded to have more children. The fertility rate, 1.74 in 1980, climbed a bit later in that decade, but has fallen since.

This is despite the government’s best efforts. Its “stop at two” policy of the 1960s was ditched in 1983, when Lee Kuan Yew, then prime minister, now “minister mentor”, started promoting bigger families—with a distinctively Singaporean caveat. Mr Lee, believing that intelligence is inherited, wanted to encourage more graduate women to have children. He identified the problem as “the Asian man”, who “preferred to have a wife with less education than himself.” In response, two government matchmaking bodies were set up—one for university graduates, one for those with a secondary education. The number of graduate men marrying fellow graduates grew sharply. The fertility rate has not.

It is not just Asian countries that find it hard to boost birth rates once they are in decline. Economic incentives cannot always trump a shift in values. Nor is the self-centred consumerism of the “five C” dream exclusive to the newly industrialised tigers. Elsewhere, too, children, worse than merely not making the cut, actually get in the way. But the rock-bottom fertility rates in the tigers give the problem particular potency.

No huddled masses wanted

So too does the difficulty of the obvious alternative—large numbers of immigrants. For Taiwan and Hong Kong, where mainland China provides an inexhaustible supply of potential incomers, the fear of being swamped makes this a particularly touchy issue. In Taiwan legislation to open universities, which are short of students, to a mere 2,000 mainlanders provoked parliamentary brawls before being passed in August. In South Korea, where increasing numbers of men are finding brides in the Philippines and Vietnam, the metro in Seoul is plastered with a government campaign against the stigma on “multicultural families”.

Even in Singapore, a city of migrants, where more than a third of the population are foreigners, immigration is the hot political issue. On national day in August the prime minister, Lee Hsien Loong, devoted a chunk of his speech to allaying concerns about the influx of foreigners, and justifying the need for them in a small, crowded island. The final reason he listed was straightforward: “to make up for our shortfall in babies”. Even little tigers cannot have it both ways.

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