Monday, 13 August 2012

Lee Kuan Yew: Singaporeans not replacing ourselves

Get married, have babies
Migrants are a temporary solution, in the long term, mindsets must change, former PM says
By Leonard Lim, The Straits Times, 12 Aug 2012

SINGAPOREANS need to marry and have children if they do not want the country to fold up, Mr Lee Kuan Yew warned last night.

In his annual National Day dinner speech to residents of Tanjong Pagar GRC and Tiong Bahru, Mr Lee kept his message on population simple: The country's citizens are not reproducing enough, and migrants are needed as a temporary solution.

But in the long run, mindsets must change, and the trend of declining birth rates needs to be reversed.

"If we go on like that, this place will fold up because there will be no original citizens left to form the majority," he said.

"And we cannot have new citizens, new PRs settle our social ethos, our social spirit, our social norms.

"So, my message is a simple one. The answer is very difficult, but the problems, if we don't find the answers, are enormous."

Mr Lee, who spoke first in Mandarin, and then in English, said that while getting married and having children are personal decisions, when Singaporeans do not marry and do not have children, it becomes "a national problem".

Addressing about 1,300 guests at Zhangde Primary School, he also spelt out current demographic trends.

The Chinese had the lowest fertility rate last year at 1.08. If this keeps up, it means that successive generations of the largest ethnic group here will halve in size in the next 18 to 20 years.

Indians and Malays fared marginally better with fertility rates of 1.09 and 1.64, respectively, but these were also below the replacement level of 2.1.

He also noted that around 44 per cent of Singaporean men and 31 per cent of women aged 30 to 34 are single.

Mr Lee recalled that when he became prime minister in 1959, more than 62,000 babies were born, even though Singapore's population was half what it is today.

Now, with the total population at 5.26 million, there are only about half that number of births.

The Government has tried for years to encourage marriage and parenthood through measures such as improving accessibility to quality childcare, and financial incentives such as the Baby Bonus.

But these have not proven successful. Mr Lee attributed it to a change in lifestyle, as Singaporeans want to have more leisure time, and not be burdened by children.

A stop-gap measure is to have immigrants. Many of the foreigners here are work permit holders who build roads, flats and other infrastructure.

"So, our choice is simple. Either accept migrants at a rate which we can assimilate them, and make them conform to our values, and have the others on temporary work permits to help build up Singapore," he said. "It is a temporary solution, but not a long-term one. Long term, is a change in mindset."

As of last year, there were 1.2 million foreigners working in Singapore, 532,000 permanent residents and 3.26 million citizens.

Mr Lee ended by asking: "Do we want to replace ourselves? Or do we want to shrink and get older, and be replaced by migrants and work permit holders? That is the simple question."

Among those at the dinner was Tanjong Pagar GRC MP and Acting Minister for Community Development, Youth and Sports Chan Chun Sing, whose portfolio includes families.

He said what Mr Lee had laid out in stark terms was a significant challenge, and a whole-of-Government approach was needed.

Simple choice: More babies or more migrants
This is an edited version of a speech Mr Lee Kuan Yew gave at the National Day dinner at Tanjong Pagar GRC last Saturday.

SINGAPORE'S experience in population growth is similar to that of developed countries. Our birth rates have been steadily declining. The 2011 fertility rate of the Chinese segment of our population was the lowest, 1.08, with the rate for Indians and Malays marginally better but still below replacement level at 1.09 and 1.64 respectively. Each successive generation of Chinese Singaporeans will halve in the next 18 to 20 years.

Many women are deciding to either put off getting married or remain single. Last year, this ranged from 31 per cent for those aged 30-34. It's a grave problem that 44.2 per cent of Singaporean men and 31.0 per cent of women between the ages of 30 and 34 are single. Fertility decreases steadily after 30 years old, with a rapid decline after 40 years old.

When I first became Prime Minister in 1959, more than 62,000 babies were born that year, and Singapore's population was half that of today's.

The population has doubled - the number of babies born has been halved. Low fertility and an ageing population are two of our greatest concerns.

If we go on like that, this place will fold up because there will be no original citizens left to form the majority and we cannot have new citizens, new permanent residents settle our social ethos, our social spirit, our social norms.

So, my message is a simple one. The answer is very difficult, but the problems, if we don't find the answers, are enormous.

Without the work permit holders to build the roads, dig the tunnels, help build HDB flats, help build the infrastructure, it's a different Singapore.

Without the permanent residents, our population would be older, smaller, losing vitality. So, our choice is simple - either (marry and have more babies or) accept migrants at a rate at which we can assimilate them and make them conform to our values and have the others on temporary work permits to help build up Singapore and improve.

It's a temporary solution, it's not a long-term one. Long term is a change in the mindset. Our educated women and men must decide whether to replace themselves in the next generation.

Ever-married females are having fewer children as time passes. From 2000 to 2011, the average number of children born to ever- married citizens aged 30-39 declined from 1.84 to 1.52. Over the same period, the average number of children born to ever-married citizens aged 40-49 has declined from 2.22 to 2.06.

This means that if the females marry, they actually are close to replacing themselves (close to 2.1). For the overall total fertility rate, it is 1.2 for all races (2011 figures) and 1.08 for Chinese.

Just ponder over it and you will know the solution is not simple, but we've got to persuade people to understand that getting married is important, having children is important. In the West, you have cohabitation, not marriage, just living together, and they have children. In Singapore, they cohabit, but our social values are such that they don't have children because mother and father will disapprove. We are in a bind.

So unless we are able to encourage locals to have more children, as well as assimilate or integrate immigrants into our society without upsetting the present racial balance, we will be a diminishing and ageing people. Young entrants to the work force bring new energy and generate more ideas and innovations. They help revitalise the economy, research and development and the arts. They help ensure that Singapore remains vibrant and exciting, connected to thriving cities around the world.

To encourage marriage and parenthood, there is a wide array of measures: accessibility to quality childcare, leave entitlements for new mothers and parents of young children, and financial incentives to help defray the cost of raising children.

We created a special account for each child in which the parents' savings have been matched dollar for dollar, by the government, with caps ranging from $6,000 to $18,000, depending on the birth order of the child. This is to encourage parents to have three or more children. However, this has not worked. It is not for financial reasons that they do not have children. It is a change of lifestyle. They want to enjoy travelling and have more leisure time, not burdened by children.

Therefore, we have to, in part, depend on immigrants to make up our numbers beyond encouraging our locals to have more children, for without them, Singapore will face the prospect of a shrinking workforce and a stagnant economy. But the rate of inflow must be decided by the pace they will need to be assimilated into our society.

1 comment:

  1. I totally agree with Mr. Lee Kuan Yew's warning that if we do nothing about our baby problems, Singapore will cease to exist or even if we do, it will be a very different Singapore. Honestly, why should he bother to bring up this problem or even seek a solution as he will not be around to face this problem. It will not even be Lee Hsien Loong's problem as the problem will only arise in 20 to 25 years time. It only proves that our leaders care for the long term survival of the country. Have any opposition members ever bothered to look into the future and come up with any constructive solutions. All they ever do is to throw stones at anything proposed by the PAP.

    To their credit, the government has tried everything to arrest this problem, often to much ridicule, but yet push on to find a solution. The common complaint is the high cost of living and education, long hours at work, stressful lives etc. Frankly, I think this is a mindset problem. When one is reluctant to do something, one will find all excuses not to do it. As they say the hardest person to wake up is the person who pretends to sleep. Our parents lived even more stressful lives with high unemployment, low salaries, poor living conditions, poor education system, non-existent childcare facilities. Yet, many have very large families and even producing some very top brains. How do you explain that?

    The warning given by Mr. Lee is very real but what options do we have? It's between the devil and the deep blue sea. So, the government had decided to do the next best thing which is to import immigrants but of course, with very high social cost as these people come from countries with very different cultures and social values. It will take time to assimilate them into our society and to the way we do things.

    Instead of complaining and bitching endlessly about this problem, I think it would be more productive if we offer some solutions to address this problem which is what I intend to do. With my limited brain power, I would like to propose what I think is a long term solution. Maybe we should require future immigrants to commit to having at least 2 babies before we grant them immigration status. Their babies will be easier to assimilate into our society and will have social values similar to ours. Our education system will be able to mould them into the kind of citizens we want. They will pose an easier problem than their parents. Inevitably, it will take at least 20 years for us to see the results but it's better than doing nothing.