There are many new plans to build Singapore for the next generation, but the country first needs birth rates to rise so that the population can grow “a little bit”, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said on Thursday (Oct 10).
“We have so many plans for Singapore, in terms of new industries, new businesses, new schools, new opportunities, new towns to live in, new parks — a new society to be built for the next generation. And what we need are new people — our children,” Mr Lee told Nikkei Asian Review editor-at-large Takehiko Koyanagi at a dialogue held at the National University of Singapore.
Laying out the state of Singapore’s demographic challenge today, Mr Lee said that the population is growing slightly. Each year, there are around 35,000 Singaporeans born and 35,000 new permanent residents — out of which about 20,000 become citizens.
However, if the birth rates do not improve in four to five years, the population may start to decline, he said.
This means that Singapore could experience the same ageing population problem seen in Japan today, where one in three Japanese are seniors, within the next 15 to 20 years.
“Our challenge is that one-third of young people do not marry very soon even until their mid-30s,” Mr Lee said, adding that Singaporeans typically do not have children before marriage.
The two-thirds that do marry have an average of two children per couple, which is still not enough to achieve the replacement rate for the whole population.
The event was organised by the Japan Chamber of Commerce and Industry in Singapore to celebrate the 50th anniversary of its founding. During a 40-minute panel discussion, Mr Lee and Mr Takehiko touched on various topics, including the global economy as well as Singapore and Japan’s societies.
Both countries are grappling with a low birth rate problem. While this is attributed to a lack of childcare services in Japan, the issue in Singapore is that mothers today, being more educated, wish to have careers, Mr Lee said.
“And if they are working, they have to assess the impact on their careers and whether they can manage their children while at work at the same time.
“Many mothers do, but some feel that this — I can well understand — is not easy to achieve.”
Singapore has tried to make it easier for working mothers through flexible work arrangements, and putting in place a good infrastructure in infant care, preschool and daycare, so that the mother can return to her career a couple of months after childbirth, Mr Lee said.
Good schools and employment opportunities, as well as affordable housing, will allow people to see that there is a future for their children, he added.
“In Singapore, nearly everybody books and buys a public HDB (Housing and Development Board) flat before they set up their family… And then they may not live together (for a while) until the flat is ready, and they hold their wedding then,” he said. “This is fine, we are able to provide… which is why young people are able to have kids.”
WHAT SINGAPORE CAN LEARN FROM JAPAN
Mr Lee noted that Japan enjoyed a confident economy and a stock market boom more than 25 years ago, but later suffered when its bubble burst.
Its economy has since stabilised, but Mr Lee said that the difficulty for Japan now is its ageing demographic that is causing the active workforce strength to shrink.
“Therefore, the overall gross domestic product doesn’t look like it is going up, but actually (on a per capita basis), it is still okay. But there is a change in the mood of the country when that happens, and your towns, villages, you find it gets depopulated and, in fact, some of the villages are closing down,” he noted.
What Singapore can learn from Japan is how to adapt to an ageing society, because what is happening in Japan will eventually also occur here, Mr Lee said. He talked about various Japanese technologies that help older people to live better, such as appliances that make it easier for them to take baths.
Singapore can also learn from the adjustments that Japan has made to cope with its ageing workforce, such as how it is using technology to keep older workers productive, Mr Lee added.
Mr Takehiko then asked about Singapore’s efforts to increase birth rates, noting that the Government has been initiating matchmaking sessions with younger Singaporeans, such as blind dating.
Mr Lee replied, laughing: “I don’t know whether they do blind dates (now), but they used to do many activities. Nowadays, we have outsourced this and we encourage it… some do blind dates, some do cruises to nowhere, some play games together, but I think they are useful.”