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     FrontPage Edition: Wed 23 August 2006

Singapore needs 60,000 babies yearly but gets 35,500 only


Interview with DPM Wong Kan Seng, Minister-in-Charge of Population Issues

(1) What is Singapore's population challenge?
Singapore's total fertility rate (TFR), which measures the number of babies born per woman, fell to a historic low of 1.24 in 2004. It remained at the same level in 2005.
To replace ourselves, we would need a TFR of 2.1, or at least two per woman, and we have not seen that figure in Singapore since 1976. That means we have had 30 years of under-replacement.
At the same time, with globalisation, more Singaporeans will venture abroad. Today, we count more than 140,000 of them already.
A Straits Times article reported last month that two-thirds of Singaporean teens would like to work abroad. There is nothing wrong with that; in fact, we have been encouraging Singaporeans to venture abroad to study and work where possible so that they can learn new things and seek out new opportunities.
We hope that when they go overseas to study or work, they remain connected to Singapore, remain Singaporeans in heart and mind. We also hope that they will eventually come back, and play their rightful role in contributing to our economy, and serving our people.
However, the Straits Times survey also revealed that 53 per cent of Singaporean teens would consider emigration.
If the result is truly representative of the aspirations of the young, then Singapore would have a problem. At a time when we are not replacing ourselves through new births, we can ill afford to lose our able sons and daughters.
Any population will shrink if the number of deaths gradually outstrips new births - this is symptomatic of an ageing society.
When coupled with more emigrants leaving the country, the rate of shrinkage will accelerate dramatically. This is not an optimistic picture, and has begun to happen in Japan, which has recorded its very first instance of resident deaths outstripping resident births 1.
Our own population is ageing - current projections show that one-in-five Singaporeans will be over the age of 65 by 2030.
Without more new births, our population will shrink. A declining population will diminish our economic prospects and vitality, compromise our defence capabilities and increase the socio-economic burden for all Singaporeans.
Whether Singapore can continue to grow and prosper depends on how we tackle the population challenge. This problem is real and imminent. We need to do something about it.
(2) Is Singapore unique in facing its population challenge? How does the Government intend to deal with the problem of a shrinking population?
We are not alone in grappling with population issues. I had earlier touched on Japan's acute situation of deaths outstripping new births.
Almost all developed countries face the twin problems of a declining TFR and an ageing population.
Take Australia for example. In 2004, the Australian government urged families to have "one (baby) for mum, one for dad and one for the country",and more recently, to "procreate and cherish". While it has managed to reverse the downtrend to increase its TFR from 1.73 in 2001 to 1.77 in 2004, it is still below replacement rate.
To complement its fertility efforts, Australia has tried to reach out to its overseas diaspora and at the same time attract immigrants. The main and outstanding exception among developed countries is the United States, where TFR is holding steady at the replacement level of 2.1. Among others, a key factor behind the high TFR in the US is the high inflow of new immigrants.
Clearly, the population challenge is a serious one for many countries, including Singapore. It is also a complex and multi-faceted challenge. There is a need for planning and coordination at the highest level.
To do this, the Government has formed a ministerial-level committee, the National Population Committee (NPC)2 , which I chair.
The NPC steers and guides the development of strategic policies in confronting the population challenge. The NPC has adopted a holistic approach, focusing its efforts in the three key strategies on promoting marriage and parenthood, engaging Overseas Singaporeans and encouraging immigration of suitable foreigners.
The NPC was initially supported by a part-time secretariat based in the Ministry of Community Development, Youth and Sports (MCYS). It was housed in MCYS because the focus then was on marriage and parenthood.
However, given the complexity and urgency of the issue, it was upgraded to a full-time National Population Secretariat (NPS)3 in the Prime Minister's Office (PMO) in June 2006.
The NPS is responsible for setting policy objectives and coordinating the efforts of the various government agencies involved in the continuum of population-related issues.
3) The Government introduced the Marriage and Parenthood package in August 2004. What are the results so far?
It has been two years since we introduced the parenthood package.
Overall, we have seen some positive results - there were about 240 more births from January to June 2006 compared to the same period in 2005, and about 400 more births in 2005 compared to 2004 . This is a positive reversal which comes after four consecutive years of decline.
However, while the numbers have gone up slightly, it is not realistic to expect our population trends to reverse overnight or even in a few years' time.
The TFR is declining for all ethnic groups in Singapore.
The TFR for Indians and Chinese have been below replacement rate for many years. For the Chinese, the TFR was 1.65 in 1990 and hit 1.08 in 2005; for the Indians, it has dropped from 1.89 in 1990 to 1.24 in 2005.
For the Malays, the TFR was 2.69 in 1990 and dipped below the replacement rate to 2.07 for the first time last year.
A shift in trend requires a mindset change towards desiring parenthood and celebrating family life. We have seen some encouraging signs.
In a recent survey of 3,000 married respondents by MCYS, 83 per cent of them indicated that the parenthood package had created a friendlier environment for having and raising children. In particular, the younger and higher income respondents were more likely to respond positively.
56 per cent of the respondents also said that the parenthood package has influenced them to have or consider having (more) children or have children earlier. We must press on.
1Due to declining birthrate, deaths in 2005 outnumbered births by 10,000. From 2006, population is projected to dwindle, falling from 127.4 million to 100.7 million by 2050. Source: Asiamedia, "The Coming Internationalisation: Can Japan assimilate its immigrants?" dated 12 Jan 2006 (Source: Another example is Germany. Its death rate outstrips birth rate - 10.6 vs. 8.3 per 1,000 population in 2005 (Source:
2 Members of NPC: Mr Lim Hng Kiang, Mr Khaw Boon Wan, Mr Tharman Shanmugaratnam, Dr Ng Eng Hen, Dr Vivian Balakrishnan, Mrs Lim Hwee Hua and Dr Amy Khor.
3 The NPS reports to the Permanent Secretary in the PMO, Mr Chiang Chie Foo. DPM Wong Kan Seng oversees the work of the NPS as Chairman of the NPC.

Source: Press Release 23 Aug 2006

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