Europe's baby bump holds lessons for Singapore

Europe's baby bump holds lessons for Singapore

THE central issue about increasing Singapore's birth rate is whether we are prepared to take the perhaps radical steps which have enabled some developed Western countries to raise their birth rates from near terminal decline to more than replacement levels. Whether such steps, which largely involve creating a state-funded parental support ecosystem, are prohibitively expensive or a vital necessity, depends on whether we consider our birth rate to be a strategic imperative of the same priority as, say, national service, which is certainly not cheap either.

Ever since the mid-1960s when the Government launched a population control programme, our TFR, or total fertility rate, has been continually declining. For three decades, it has been below the replacement rate of 2.1 births per woman and, since 2003, a dozen years ago, it has been less than 1.3 births per woman.

We're hovering at the edge of the precipice, the so-called low-fertility trap, which is when a confluence of demographic, sociological and economic trends all converge and create a self-reinforcing, unstoppable spiral downwards. A slight uptick last year is encouraging news, but hardly a trend yet.

A few years ago, our resident population already started to shrink, although it has not been noticeable to most people because of the influx of foreign workers. Arresting this trend will not be easy: One Institute of Policy Studies finding was that even with an increased TFR to, say, 1.8 births per woman, which is quite optimistic and 50 per cent higher than at present, the resident population will still start to decline in the next 15 to 20 years.

We would need to take in about 20,000 new citizens per year on a net basis - meaning that it has to be more in reality to offset those migrating out of Singapore - to stem the decline and achieve simple zero population growth. This is about the size of a Marine Parade town each year. It is not small. And with anti-immigration sentiments persisting, if at least not increasing, in-migration cannot fill the population gap.

Surge in birth rates

HOWEVER, the demographic future of Singapore need not be as dismal as statistics suggest, nor should we be defeatist.

Birth rates in developed countries have somehow bottomed out and are starting to increase again. Demographers have discovered that when the Human Development Index or HDI increases, fertility rates decline but reach a level where it becomes a J curve and starts to rise again. The HDI is a more holistic measure of development beyond simply economic wealth which, in my last lecture, I advocated that Singapore adopt.

The negative correlation between rising HDI and falling birth rates has been observed for decades and was once thought to be inevitable. After all, it was a trend with virtually every country observed - as lifestyles improve, parents want fewer children.

But the study, first published in the magazine Nature in 2009, found that at some point as the HDI continues to advance, fertility starts to rise again. Some Western developed countries such as France, Sweden and Norway have seen fertility actually climbing back to replacement leve1s after decades of continuing decline. In the United States, fertility briefly surged above replacement level and is now hovering around there. New Zealand's TFR is now at replacement level.

What has caused this reversal in birth rates, and how can it be sustained? The prevailing theory is that this considerable and apparently sustained uptick in fertility rates is due to changing notions of gender roles within the family, work-life balance within careers, and government policies which support the ability of families to enjoy the natural happiness of raising children.

Studies in Europe have shown that before 1985, as more women went to work, couples have fewer children. Singapore's history corroborates this trend. But after 1985, the correlation reversed - countries where more women worked started to gradually have higher birth rates than those where more women stayed home. This has noticeably not happened in Singapore, where birth rates have stayed stubbornly low. Other East Asian economies like Hong Kong and Taiwan have similar trends as Singapore.

Sociologists say the data suggests that countries which recognise through concrete policies that young families today want more children only if both parents undertake equal responsibility for child rearing, and that children are well taken care of while both parents continue to engage in their careers, will get a positive response from young parents.

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