Population policy all at sea

Singapore’s Total Fertility Rate (TFR) fell to a new record low of 1.16 in 2010. For a population to replace itself generation after generation, a TFR of 2.1 is needed. The present rate of 1.16 means that local-born Singaporeans will only be half as many next generation compared to the present one.

The minister in charge of population planning, Wong Kan Seng, told the Straits Times that policies to encourage more babies are likely to be reviewed in 2012. It was previously reviewed, with incentives enhanced, in 2004 and 2008, evidently to no effect. TFR fell further.

It is true that as a general rule, the empowerment of women and modern economic development lead to declining birth rates. However, some Western countries have managed to reverse the decline, albeit with rather generous social benefits. This is what Wong had to say about emulating their success: Cannot.

But the Nordic model may not work for Singapore, said Mr Wong.

Policymakers from Singapore’s National Population and Talent Division (NPTD) argue that in these countries, ‘fertility reversal is mainly due to the rise in children born outside of marriage’.

Data show that in Europe, 11 countries have reversed their birth rates. Eight of them saw the number of births outside marriage rising as a proportion of total births. Only Sweden, Britain and Iceland have bucked the trend in recent decades.

This calls for circumspection in adopting their measures, said Mr Wong.

While noting that about half of the couples with children in these European countries get married within five years, he said: ‘The fact (is) that we don’t have social acceptance of babies born not within a marriage – we’re quite different from Nordic countries.’

— Straits Times, 26 Feb 2011, Govt may review fertility schemes ‘as early as next year’

I would have thought that it’s far easier to cultivate social acceptance of children outside marriage than it is to nag people into getting married. So, if we really do want babies, why not take the easier road?

The government would cite census data to show that if only people got married, the baby bust problem would solve itself.

In analysing Singapore’s baby shortfall, NPTD concludes the main culprit is the increase in singles. They now make up 32.2 per cent of the resident population aged 15 and older, up from 30.5 per cent in 2000.

Meanwhile, married couples are ‘doing their part’. Last year, the average number of children that ever-married Singaporean women in their 40s have is 2.02, a dip from 2.2 in 2000.

— ibid

‘NPTD’ stands for National Population and Talent Division, which Wong Kan Seng heads.

Despite the hopeful language, the government is working against two secular trends: (1)  The marriage rate is declining cohort by cohort, and (2) among those married, the number of children born by the time the women is in her forties (roughly the end of her child-bearing years) is also gradually declining. But our government insists on fighting on both fronts. They want Singaporeans to get married AND to have at least two children.

It seems to me that the population bureau is confused over its mission, which probably explains its lack of success. It appears less interested in promoting births than it is in recreating 1950s America — father, mother, two kids, going to church every Sunday. The unstated morality objectives are undermining their efforts.

Wong will of course protest that it is not so. He will say that two parents make for more resources to take care of the child. Yet, even this defence belies their unstated vision of 1950s America. Firstly, why not allow two same-sex parents? Resource-wise, won’t they be the same? Why not completely open the field to artificial insemination so that lesbians are free to bear children should they be in a relationship? Why not create a legal framework and encourage surrogate pregnancy so that two gay men in a relationship too can raise children?

Secondly, the fact of the matter is that in this day and age, the only way we’re going to get more babies is if the State makes very generous provisions, including an array of childcare services. If that is the case, how critical is it anymore that there should be two parents? The resources in question aren’t going to come only from the two parents. Much is anyway going to come from the State. Why should everything hinge on marriage?

Indeed, resources (time, money) are usually what Singaporeans say as chief impediments to having children. However, Wong made an interesting point:

He also cited the Singapore civil service.

‘They are far more generous in many of these things, compared to private companies. Yet we don’t have more babies, and yet we don’t have more marriages.’

— ibid.

I’m not sure what is so generous about the civil service, but this hints at more complex issues.

* * * * *

Staying on the subject of resources, I wondered whether our high Gini Coefficient of household income is a factor. A high Gini means that income inequality is greater. In such a society, there is a larger section of the population with income resources more distant from the mean (either much richer or much poorer), compared to a low Gini country (i.e. a country with less inequality). A high-Gini implies a higher proportion of  people who are economically stressed, and perhaps that means a higher proportion unable to afford children.

To test this hypothesis, I researched the TFRs and Gini Coefficients of the OECD countries. I managed to find data for thirty of them, and compared them to Singapore’s TFR and Gini Coefficient  for the same years in question. Here is the data; the graph follows below.


Gini for OECD: http://www.oecd.org/dataoecd/52/13/43201528.pdf
Gini for Singapore: http://www.singstat.gov.sg/pubn/papers/people/pp-s17.pdf

TFR for OECD: http://www.oecd-ilibrary.org/economics/oecd-factbook-2010/total-fertility-rates-table_factbook-2010-table6-en
TFR for Singapore (2008): http://www.channelnewsasia.com/stories/singaporelocalnews/view/1105496/1/.html

GDP per capita for OECD: http://stats.oecd.org/Index.aspx?datasetcode=SNA_TABLE1
GDP per capita for Singapore: http://www.singstat.gov.sg/stats/themes/economy/hist/gdp.html

The only way to visualise the above data is by means of a graph:

There is no neat correlation between the Gini and TFR, nonetheless, you get the feeling that there is a pattern.

Except for Singapore, the developed countries (red and dark brown) seem to have Ginis under 0.36 and boast TFRs in the range of 1.40 to 2.15. I think we’d be quite happy to have a TFR that improves to something above 1.50. Is a Gini under 0.36 a necessary condition to achieve that, in a developed economy? By the looks of the graph, it may seem to be a Yes.

The other clue that I am getting from the graph is that despite our per capita GDP qualifying us for a red dot, we may be more similar to the orange dots. These are generally semi-developed countries, with relatively more traditional cultural practices. Almost all these countries have TFRs under 1.50 (New Zealand is the exception). Drawing from the science of ecology, reproduction failure is usually a sign of a population under stress.

Why are these “orange”countries under stress? What are their features?

I will postulate these:

1. These semi-developed countries are striving to be developed ones. In so doing, they tend to throw resources in, in order to obtain increasing output instead of improving productivity, which should yield improving output for the same investment of resources. Among resources poured in might be time. People may be working longer hours, or holding two jobs in order to better their lives.

2. The reason why productivity is much harder to improve in these societies may be cultural, for example, the persistence of one or both of these traits: (a) hierarchical social structures — this tends to mean that workers wait for orders rather than take the initiative; it means seniors are reluctant to delegate. Waiting for orders, shuffling matters upwards is an enormous waste of time; thus low productivity; (b) patriarchal social structures that limit the potential contribution of women and put the burden of household work and child-raising disproportionately on women — yet, in striving for economic development, these societies also want women in the workforce.

And this suggests why Wong Kan Seng’s policy unit is all at sea. They fail to realise that one can only have two of these attributes, not all three:

  • Sustainable birthrate
  • Modern, developed economy
  • Traditional cultural attitudes and social models

We have to choose:



7 Responses to “Population policy all at sea”

  1. 1 liew kai khiun 28 February 2011 at 09:33

    Great observations once again reflecting more on the confusion of policymakers (and its tragic impacts)than on the attitudes of people. I guess we should also be looking at the profiles of people who are not having kids, having some kids and having too little kids.

    I have a suspicion increasingly that only the very rich could afford the resources to have more kids, and paradoxically, the very poor, who are blamed for not exercise family planning considerations (more of a case that the women of these groups do not have much of a say over their bodies when their neathendthrals men want to without contraceptives for both personal and religious reasons). If my own extended family structure can be a gauge, for my generation, the siblings and cousins who have most kids are those who have lucrative and secure professions like doctors and lawyers, or come from wealthy backgrounds.

    We may have a growing divid in future between increasingly highly privileged kids on one spectrum where going for posh holidays and expensive enrichment classes becomes the norm, and underprivileged kids from huge underclass families existing only on $30 per day for 5 people (as reported recently) on the other side, with a shrinking middle level to buffer the differences. And, perhaps this divide takes on a racialised dimension of elite ethnic Chinese kids against their significantly less endowed Malay Muslim working class. One may be a virtuous cycle, the other, a vicious one.

  2. 2 wikigam 28 February 2011 at 10:35

    Good re-search.

  3. 3 Tanky 28 February 2011 at 11:27

    Agree. You cannot have your cake and eat it. If you want your cake, and want to eat cake, the only way is to eat other’s cake. You can only hope that it takes the other guy a long time to realize that you uave eaten his cake. But, he will at some point realize that. When he starts demanding his cake …..

  4. 4 Gard 28 February 2011 at 13:03

    Singapore might have found the ‘fourth alternative’ – foreigners to boost birth rate:


    I believe the decision to have and raise children has a lot to do with expectations – projected lifetime income and welfare for the parents *and* the next generation. Translated: “You need to get the sense that your children will be better off than you are. Do you want your children to grow up and work 60 hrs a week to make ends meet, just to pay debts or buy flats?”

    Even if both Singaporean and the foreigner-born child are expected to earn the same amount of $$$ for their lives, the parents of the foreign-born child from the lesser developed countries would find it more economically pleasurable to have (more) children compared to the Singaporean parents.

    Liberal foreign talent policy + integration efforts (inculcate foreigners in state-approved values) = success in three fronts. Unfortunately, integration is easier said than done, as Europe’s experiences with Muslim immigrants attest.

  5. 5 Teck Soon 28 February 2011 at 21:38

    I would be happy if someone like you were an MP. Have you ever considered running as an independent? Everyone can read your blog and see where you stand on virtually everything.

  6. 6 Criticalist 28 February 2011 at 23:52

    Perhaps there is something else that needs to be considered in any discussion about governmental population policies, and that’s the relationship between declining birth rates and how that correlates with a particular SES or even ethnic group.

    For example, looking at the 2010 population census for Age group 0-4 against Ethnic Group (this was not published but can be calculated), you get the following:

    Overall: 194432 people who are aged 0-4 / 3771721 total resident population or 5.15% of the resident population.

    Breaking down into ethnic groups:
    Chinese: 128313/2793980 or 4.59% of the Chinese resident population are aged 0-4.
    Malay: 32203/503868 or 6.40% of the Malay resident population are aged 0-4.
    Indian: 24425/348119 or 7.02% of the Indian resident population are aged 0-4.
    Others: 9491/125754 or 7.55% of the Others resident population are aged 0-4.

    Comparing against the national average of 5.15% it becomes very clear that the Chinese population are ‘underperforming’ in terms of producing new residents (0-4 yrs old), whereas the minority races are doing well.

    So there may be another underlying ideological current driving the population policies – the minority ethnic groups are contributing to the population group better than the majority Chinese. When you correlate (and there is a strong correlation) this with SES, the Chinese which tend to be of a better SES than the minority groups, are the primary cause of concern for the declining birth rates. The government wants an educated younger generation (ie a Chinese, middle class, generation) and not a less-educated younger generation (ie a minority ethnic group).

  7. 7 suggestion 5 March 2011 at 09:30

    1. GDP per capita includes both residents and non residents.

    2. TFR includes only residents (citizens and PRs)

    3. Gini coefficient includes only residents I think.

    So it’s not useful to draw such comparisons when the first indicator has a huge component of non residents foreigners (at least 1 out of 3 workers are foreigners but they add to GDP but not included in TFR).

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