Slide in fertility rate raises alarm in Singapore

January 5, 2004
By Jason Szep

PRO-FERTILITY programmes to create more babies in Singapore through subsidies and even a state-run dating service have failed to stop a plunge in the nation's birth rate, a senior official said on Monday, Jan 5.

As childless couples become more common in the wealthy city-state -- the proportion tripling since 1980 to six percent -- and as the birth rate hits historic lows year after year, officials are resorting to direct public appeals for help.

In a bid to boost fertility, town-hall style "marriage and procreation" forums will be held this year, Yaacob Ibrahim, Minister for Community Development and Sports, told parliament on Monday after announcing a historic low in last year's births.

Singapore's birth rate has tumbled well below the 50,000 live births a year the government says is needed to meet the future economic, labour and defence requirements in the Southeast Asian island state of about four million people.

In 1990, Singaporean women, on average, gave birth to 1.87 babies in a lifetime. That fell to 1.42 by 2001 and to 1.37 last year -- far below the 2.1 rate needed for a population to replace itself.

Singapore's population is also ageing at an alarming rate. The number of people above 65 years is forecast to grow nearly four-fold to 800,000 by 2030 with no corresponding growth seen in the working-age population to support them.


The government has come up with various schemes to boost declining birth rates among a wealthy population obsessed with chasing careers, condominiums and cash.

But more adults are staying single either through a "lack of socialisation opportunities or deliberate choice," said Ibrahim. Couples are also marrying later, leading to fewer babies, while many put their careers ahead of starting families, he said.

The benefits of a government-run, pro-fertility programme announced in 2000 were unclear, the minister told parliament, noting that one- child families in Singapore have more than doubled to 14 percent since 1980.

Singapore's "Baby Bonus Scheme", announced in 2000, includes a yearly allowance of S$500 ($290) available for every second child and S$1000 for every third child up to age six. The plan also provides paid maternity leave for every third child.

But the rebates have done little to stem a shortage that some ministers say could cause serious problems in Singapore's future and needs to be plugged with an increase in immigration.

"We know that families also feel quite stressed bringing up children. But at the same time, we have to recognise that it is important that our population continues to grow, for the future of our country," said Home Affairs Minister Wong Kan Seng.

The low fertility rate came in a year when condom maker Durex ranked Singapore last in a global list of most sexually active nations for a second year running.

Singapore's authorities are also struggling to relax censorship laws that now ban "Playboy" magazine, clip racy scenes from movies and scissor drug references from pop cultural magazines -- rules that have helped earn Singapore the well-known sobriquet of Asia's "nanny state".

Although a ban on "Sex and the City", the hit US TV sitcom about four single women in New York, was lifted in September along with a 21-year ban on Cosmopolitan magazine, authorities have yet to air the show or allow "Cosmo" to go on sale.

And despite attempts by a government-run dating agency and a and a "Romancing Singapore" campaign to encourage dating, Singapore men are increasingly single. The percentage of unmarried men in Singapore aged 35-to-39 is growing faster than unmarried women, Wong told a community event on Sunday.