S'poreans have to understand need for immigrants: LKY

SINGAPORE - Singapore's Former Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew called for Singaporeans' understanding towards the government's decision to continue taking in immigrants, saying that the alternative is economic stagnation.

Mr Lee was speaking at the Tanjong Pagar GRC and Radin Mas SMC Lunar New Year celebration dinner on Friday.

He said Singapore faces an ageing and shrinking population, and called the task of increasing the country's population its "biggest challenge".

More than 62,000 babies were born in the year 1959, when Mr Lee became prime minister. However, only 36,000 babies were born last year, The Straits Times reported.

Singapore's total fertility rate was 1.2 last year, Mr Lee said.

He said Japan also faces a similar problem, and their decision not to take in immigrants and to remain a homogeneous society has resulted in a stagnant economy.

However, unlike Japan, Singapore does not have reserves large enough to withstand slow growth for a long time.

"Like it or not, unless we have more babies, we need to accept immigrants," he said.

He acknowledged that Singaporeans do not feel very comfortable seeing so many strange new faces, but warned that not only do we face economy stagnation otherwise, worse, there'll be "nobody to look after our old people that are around".

He also added that the education of Singaporean women and their increasing earning capability have led to late marriages, as the women wait to choose husbands who have more earning power than them and can help in raising a family together.

The trend of deferring marriage or staying single could also be due to the inconveniences of getting pregnant, where pregnancy means losing out on work.

Mr Lee noted that 44.2 per cent of men and 31 per cent of women between the ages of 30 and 34 are single.

He expressed hope that the year of the Dragon will see more babies being born this year, but cautioned that the overall trend is downwards and this poses a risk to the economy.

Speaking in Mandarin, Mr Lee also called attention to the low fertility rate among Chinese Singaporeans, the lowest among all the races.

"Our economy is strong, but our population is shrinking. The birth rate for the Chinese is 1.08. This means that the Chinese population will shrink by half its current population in 18 years," he said.

"So I urge everybody to understand why we are doing what we are doing."