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Singapore needs young immigrants to save its economy from long-term decline as a result of a falling birth rate, elder statesman Lee Kuan Yew said in remarks published Wednesday.
“At these low birth rates, we will rapidly age and shrink,” the 87-year-old Lee said in comments released to the local media after the government disclosed that the city-state’s birth rate fell to a record low in 2010.
“So we need young immigrants. Otherwise our economy will slow down, like the Japanese economy. We will have a less dynamic and less thriving Singapore. This is not the future for our children and grandchildren,” he added.
Lee’s defence of immigration came amid increasingly vocal criticism in web forums and local media directed at foreigners, who now make up more than 20 percent of the population of five million.
Most of the foreign workers and immigrants come from China, Southeast Asia and India, reflecting Singapore’s own ethnic mix.
Lee stepped down as prime minister in 1990 after leading the city-state since 1959, when it gained self-rule from colonial ruler Britain, but remains a powerful figure as an adviser to his son, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong.
The former leader said immigrants should be welcomed and integrated.
“The first generation will take some time to integrate, but their children will be completely Singaporean,” he said.
“They will increase our population and talent pool. Singapore will be vibrant and prosperous, not declining and ageing,” he added.
The resident fertility rate — or number of babies born per woman — dipped to 1.16 in 2010, down from the previous record low of 1.22 in 2009, Deputy Prime Minister Wong Kan Seng, who coordinates population policy, said Monday.
The rate, which has fallen as more couples choose to have just one child and more people opt to remain single, is well below the 2.1 babies per woman needed for the population to replenish itself naturally.
Singapore rolled out the welcome mat for foreign workers during the 2004-2007 economic boom.
But after the 2008 global financial crisis, the government took a fresh look following complaints from citizens that foreigners were increasingly competing for jobs, housing, medical care and even space on metro trains.
The inflow of foreign workers has slowed and full citizens were given more social and other benefits over foreigners.