History suggests Singapore will enjoy a welcome baby boom in this Year of the Dragon, the most auspicious year for births in the Chinese zodiac.
However, after 25 years of state-sponsored matchmaking and fertility-boosting campaigns, the government’s attempts to arrest a sliding birthrate are falling flat, with potentially profound consequences for the wealthy Asian city-state.
The calls to conception are now urgent and constant to citizens whose fertility ranks last among 222 nations in the CIA’s World Factbook.
Faced with such dismal statistics, the government has begun a review of population and immigration policy and says it plans new measures to encourage births by the time it publishes the results of its consultation early next year.
The message to have more babies is all the more pressing as resentment builds over an influx of foreigners who now make up more than one-third of the population of 5.2 million, a factor that is eroding support for the long-ruling People’s Action Party.
“We have a problem. The long-term trend is down but we cannot give up,” Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong (李顯龍) said in a speech on Aug. 26 about the nation’s future. “We need to create the right environment, the right social environment, the right ethos so that Singaporeans want to settle down and have kids.”
Social and economic engineering is nothing new in Singapore, where a firm government hand helped to steer a small island with no natural resources to become one of the world’s most affluent countries in a little over a generation.
However, the relentless drop in the birthrate reveals the limits of that influence in what has been described as a “nanny state.”
For a global trade and financial center like Singapore, its extremely low fertility rate has implications for economic growth, tax revenues, healthcare costs and immigration policy as the number of elderly people looks set to triple by 2030.
There are now 6.3 Singaporeans of working age for every senior citizen. By 2030, the ratio will be closer to 2:1.
At current levels, the birthrate implies that the local population will fall by half within a generation, said Sanjeev Sanyal, a Singapore-based global strategist at Deutsche Bank.
“Even to attract a pipeline of good quality foreign talent, you need socio-political continuity and stability that can only be provided by a robust anchor population,” he said.
If there were any doubts about the government’s blatant message, the mint maker Mentos put out an advertisement urging married Singaporeans to do their civic duty on the evening of the Aug. 9 during Singapore’s National Day festivities.
“I’m talking about making a baby, baby,” the video’s rapped lyrics said, accompanied by hip-thrusting animated hearts. “It’s National Night, let’s make Singapore’s birthrate spike.”
Not long ago, Singapore had the opposite problem.
From the mid-1960s, with post-war baby boomers hitting child-bearing age, the fears were that a population surge would threaten the development of the newly independent nation.
With the slogan “Stop at two,” the government penalized big families, legalized abortion and rewarded sterilization. It was so effective that, by 1987, the policy was reversed and the slogan became “Have three or more if you can afford it.”
Conspiring against more births are powerful contraceptives in the form of intense career pressure, long work hours, small apartments, waiting lists for nurseries and soaring prices.