“There needs to be intervention. I don’t think there’s any other country where it’s fallen down to these very low rates.”
Professor Prechmand Domarraju, associate professor of sociology at Nanyang Technological University, is talking about Singapore’s fertility rate (the mean number of children a woman would have by 50). In developed countries around the globe, birth and fertility rates are in decline and Singapore is no exception. According to the World Bank, Singapore’s FR is 1.1, a figure significantly lower than the global average of 2.4.
From the outset the city-state doesn’t appear to be on the brink of a population crisis. Singapore’s subway system, the MRT, heaves with impatient commuters. Throngs of pedestrians gather at crossings on upmarket Orchard Road. On almost every block, tradesmen slap together bricks in the dank heat, building apartments to house the city’s 5.6 million people.
But the city’s populated buzz is a mirage. In 2021, the Singaporean government’s Population in Brief report stated the country faced ‘long-term structural challenges’ if the population continued to shrink. There are concerns for the wellbeing of the ageing population, and with gaps in the labour force, the government has had to compensate with migration. Authorities are also trying to boost fertility rates by actively encouraging their citizens to have children, even going to the extent of playing matchmaker.
Singapore isn’t the only country suffering a reproduction crisis. In August this year Elon Musk tweeted:
‘Population collapse due to low birth rates is a much bigger risk to civilisation than global warming.’Elon Musk
Like any modern-day crisis, the question is how did we get here?
Dr Mu Zheng, an assistant professor of social studies at the National University of Singapore, says ‘multiple social forces’ have contributed to the country’s low fertility. Singapore, she says, is a ‘meritocratic society’ where overwhelming pressure is placed on education, career and success. “Individualistic pursuit, dreams, career goals and autonomy has been a priority for young Singaporeans today,” she says. “The ideal of marriage and family in a way, has been counteracting that individualistic pursuit because [it] involves lots of responsibilities…and commitment.”
Young Singaporeans – the childbearing population – have been influenced by Western expatriates. In 2014, World Atlas listed Singapore as the world’s fifth most cosmopolitan city, writing that 38 per cent of the country’s population were ‘foreign born’. “Singapore is very open and people are exposed to so many new ideas,” Domarraju says. “It’s not a closed society…[Singaporean] people are well travelled and well-informed of different trends.”
Zheng says youth embrace a ‘globalised, modern mentality’, shifting them away from conservative, Asian values where having a family is a priority. “There are so many things society expects us to do. Parents want their children to get married, but on the other hand, children face other pressures like the gritty work environment and culture.”
Yuva Turiahdassu knows all about hard work and hustling – competing in ultramarathons will do that to you. He’s only just come home to his family after competing in a 56km trail run in Jeju, South Korea. Together with his wife, Deborah Nanayakara, the two juggle their careers whilst raising their nine month old daughter, Rakshya. Turiahdassu is head of sports and physical performance at the Bianka Panova Acadamy, a prestigious rhythmic gymnastics school for children, and Nanayakara is the assistant vice president at CIMB Bank.
“So, is Singapore a good place to raise a family?” the question hangs in the air. “In an ideal world I don’t think so,” Turiahdassu sighs. “It’s very academic focused in Singapore compared to other countries where arts and sports are equally important. It is very stressful for kids who may not be academically inclined compared to others.” Nanayakara nods in agreement as she soothes a wailing Rakshya. She strokes her daughter’s hair, likely considering what academic anxieties Rakshya will face in the next decade. Even primary one – the schooling grade for five-year-old’s – comes with its own pressures. “We have friends who prepare for their kids to enter primary one like two years ahead by doing assessments, online enrichment classes and tuition,” Nanayakara says shaking her head. “We actually have another friend who moved her entire family to New Zealand because she did not want her children to be pressured by the Singaporean education system.”
Choosing to have a child is no small decision regardless of what country you live in, but in Singapore this choice is amplified by a dozen other factors: Who will take care of the child while you work? Will the child have a good quality of life here? Can you even afford to raise a child? Turiahdassu says for a period of time, he and Nanakayara ‘considered not having children.’ “By having a kid, we need to make drastic changes to our life,” he says. “It’s not easy, especially the cost of living with school. In terms of support there’s not much, especially if both parents are working.”
Ever since birth rates began to decline in the late 1960s, the Singaporean government has done as much as it can to incentivise having children. In Singapore children born outside wedlock are deemed ‘illegitimate’, so encouraging couples to get married is the first step. One government scheme, the Social Development Network (an initiative under the Ministry of Social and Family Development) funds private dating agencies to ‘increase social interaction’ between singles. Their mission is to encourage singles to find a ‘marriage partner’ and in turn, have children. A spokesperson from the SDN, Danae Low, says the network offers a ‘variety of lifestyle-based activities’ for singles to meet a potential partner. “The SDN partners [with] businesses such as local dating businesses to promote a conducive environment for social interaction and dating,” she says.
Lunch Actually, a private matchmaking agency, is one of the various dating services accredited by the SDN. Founded by Violet Lim and her partner (now husband) Jamie Lee, singles meet with a consultant to discuss their ‘physical’ and ‘personality’ preferences before being paired with a match. “It is a good time for our consultants to get to know them better and know what is a good match for them,” says Lim. Once a match is found, the two singles meet at a restaurant over lunch.
With so many Singaporeans prioritising career over relationships, Lim says more people are turning to dating sites. “I realised that people who were getting married or engaged met their other half at school or university…so if people miss the opportunity at school it gets more difficult when you start working.” According to the Ministry of Social and Family Development, dating agencies are accredited based on a Code of Professional Conduct. In turn, this ‘sets the benchmark’ for agencies to ‘attain high standards of professionalism’ to engage with singles. Lim says the SDN accredits companies that go through a round of certification, which ‘anybody’ can apply for. “[The SDN] have come here and checked what we are doing and looked through our process,” she says.
But how successful is the SDN? The number of marriages – and by proxy, births – that have resulted from initiative is unclear. In 2003 the SDN reported ‘over 33,000 members had tied the knot’ since the network’s inception, though this number is believed to include people who married irrespective of the initiative. In 2018, journalist Kelvin Cheng wrote an article for Channel News Asia explaining that although marriage rates in Singapore had gone up, ‘many have questioned whether the government programmes have been effective as a result.’
Others also have their doubts. “I asked my students [if they would use the SDN],” laughs Zheng. “They said it was too awkward to be part of national matchmaking…they want romance to happen naturally.” Dr Norman Li isn’t so sure either. A social psychologist at Singapore Management University, he says the SDN’s original name, the Social Development Unit, was nicknamed ‘Single, Desperate and Ugly.’ “I think it’s a step in the right direction,” says Li. “It has good intentions, but I don’t really know if it works or not.”
The SDN isn’t the only government initiative committed to increasing the country’s population. Singapore’s Marriage and Parenthood Package provides financial support to ‘help couples start and raise families’, favouring those who choose to have children. Couples who struggle to fall pregnant can save up to 75 per cent using the Package’s Assisted Conception Procedures and Assistant Reproduction Technology. The Baby Bonus Scheme offers parents $8000 for their first and second child, then $10,000 for each child after. Mothers are entitled to the Working Mother’s Child Relief and can claim 15 per cent of their income for their first child, 20 per cent for their second, and 25 per cent for their third.
Li is hesitant to believe these financial incentives high enough to motivate couples to have children. He says monetary incentives ‘don’t work enough’. A 2022 report by The World Population Review listed Singapore’s cost of living index as 83.98, ranking it tenth highest in the world, so a small financial bonus is not a luxury. “If you do a rational approach and you calculate how much it costs to raise a child…it costs half a million, a million dollars,” Li explains.
Although Domarraju believes ‘the government does a lot’ in supporting families with children, initiatives like the SDN and Marriage and Parenthood Package are ‘not successful.’ “I mean you can argue that if [these initiatives] were not there, the fertility rate would be even lower,” Domarraju says. “But I don’t think the fertility rate is going to go even lower, having no children would be the lowest.”
Whilst meritocratic pressure may be a factor, Li believes biology may contribute to the country’s low fertility rate. Dressed in a navy Hugo Boss tee and old runners, he gently swings on his desk chair. “You see that?” he points to a photograph of a dozen dewy leaves. “That’s where humans are supposed to live.”
Having done most of his research in the field of evolutionary psychology, Li explains that as a species, humans evolved to ‘live and function’ in an ancestral environment that is ‘green and lush’. “In the modern world there is a lack of greenery,” he says. “We’re only exposed to concrete and man-made structures and that might send a signal to your brain that your environment sucks, it doesn’t have enough resources to sustain a family.” Despite the government’s best attempts to add more urban greenery, Singapore – according to Mothership – has almost 5,000 high-rise buildings, a harsh contrast from a green oasis.
Li picks up a pawn that sits on his desk’s chess set. “It’s kind of like when you have animals in a zoo and you put them together [to] breed but they don’t,” he continues, flipping the chess piece between his fingers. “They’re stressed because this isn’t their natural environment.”
Turiahdassu and Nanayakara made a deliberate decision to raise their family in Telok Blangah; a quaint suburban estate some 8km south-west of Singapore’s CBD. In terms of Singapore, the estate is as ‘natural’ as you can get. Compared to the pace and noise of the CBD, Telok Blangah feels peaceful and remote. The estate is surrounded by Astonia and Monkey Pod trees which form a canopy over the roads, providing temporary relief from the clammy heat. On the weekends the family visit the harbour at Keppel Bay, hike up Telok Blangah Hill and take Rakshya to local playgrounds. But for a young family, there isn’t enough nature. “There’s so much concrete around,” says Turiahdassu. “There’s not really enough greenery to bring up a child…I think it’s fairly limited in what we can do.”
It’s hard to be optimistic about Singapore’s fertility future. If the country follows its existing trajectory, the Singaporean government estimates that by 2030, one in four Singaporeans will be over the age of 65. “It takes a bigger culture shift so that people think that it’s okay to have children,” says Domarraju. “But generally, this trend is very difficult to go up because it’s self-fulfilling right? If you don’t have children, then the next generation sees there are no people having children which tells them ‘Oh, I won’t have kids.’”
The 2022 Curtin Journalism Singapore Study Tour was funded under the federal government’s New Colombo Plan scheme.