Singapore Sling: How Slowing Population Growth May Hurt One of the World’s Great Cities

By almost any measure, Singapore is an impressive city.

Actually, it is a city-state, and it is consistently rated as the most law-abiding nation in the world. Singapore has one of the best health care systems, resulting in the lowest infant mortality rate and longest life expectancy in the world. Illegal drug use and violence are almost nonexistent, which is rather shocking for a city of over five million inhabitants.

The city is one of the four original “Asian Tigers,” nations whose economies were, when the expression was coined, rapidly growing (the others were South Korea, Taiwan and Hong Kong). More than ten thousand multinational corporations have headquarters or major offices in Singapore. It ranks number one in almost every business-oriented ranking, and one of every six households is worth more than a million dollars, the highest ratio in the world. In fact, the average gross domestic product per capita is $60,000 — 50 percent higher than that of the United States.

Singapore’s spectacular skyline is dominated by the recently-completed Marina Bay Sands Hotel and Casino, which is topped by a gigantic swimming pool and skypark, and by the world’s largest Ferris wheel, the 541-foot-tall Singapore Flyer. The streets are spotless; the only piece of trash I saw when I was there a few years ago was immediately picked up by the next passerby.

But despite the façade of dynamic growth, all is not well in this pecuniary paradise. People say that the young dislike Singapore because of the stringent control the government exerts on every aspect of their lives, and because of the incredibly high costs of living (it costs $80,000 US just to buy a permit to obtain permission to buy a car, for example). As they grow older, however, people like Singapore more and more because of its low crime rate and because they tend to make a lot more money than they would almost anywhere in the world.

The real problem is immediately evident to any child-oriented person who visits Singapore: There are very few children visible anywhere, even on the weekends. For a developed nation to replace its population, every woman must have 2.1 children. Singaporean women have not achieved this replacement total fertility rate (TFR) since 1976. They have only 1.1 children on the average, making theirs the third-lowest TFR in the world. If this trend continues, the TFR will be a disastrously low 0.70 within a couple of decades.

The failure to have children is the primary factor that leads to a rapidly-aging population. The average age of Singaporeans was just 18 in 1965; this has more than doubled to 39 now, with a projected average age of 58 by 2060. In order to counter this aging trend, the government has been strongly encouraging women of childbearing age to take their places in the workforce, which is a primary contributor to the low birth rate.

A total fertility rate this low would usually result in a rapidly-declining population, but Singapore has opened its doors to the immigration of both professionals and domestic workers, so its population is continuing to grow at a slow rate. However, the “native” Singaporeans are being displaced by immigrants and will be a minority in their own city-state within twenty years. Additionally, more people left the workforce than joined it for the first time in 2011 as the wave of “Baby Boomers” begins to retire. This means that the number of workers supporting each retired person will plunge from a relatively healthy 6.4 now to an unsupportable 2.4 in less than twenty years.

The root of the problem in money-mad Singapore is a more concentrated version of what is happening in the United States and around the world — a preoccupation with things rather than people. Abortionist Saifuddin Sidek put his finger on the problem when he said that “A lot of them [abortions] are because of the current economic climate. No matter what incentives the government gives, parents may find it a bit hard to make ends meet, especially if they already have more than one or two children.”

Ironically, the focus on wealth may ultimately destroy that immense wealth; the leveling population growth caused the Singaporean economy to suffer a sharp dip for the first time in its history in mid-2011, according to former Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew.

The government is schizophrenic the issue of population. On one hand, it launched a “Dating Campaign” in 2010 to get young couples to have more children, but it also forces Catholic schools to promote condoms.

Fortunately, Singapore has the economic reserves needed to withstand a stagnant population for a decade or so. However, even the gigantic structure of a tightly-controlled economic paradise will eventually sink if it is built on a foundation of extremely low birth rates. This is the lesson of history; it has happened before, and it will happen again in Singapore unless the authoritarian government adopts a strong pronatalist stance.