Singapore's plea to its people: Won’t you please have more children?

As Singapore goes all out to reverse its ultralow fertility rate, many nations facing tough economic and social problems as the ranks of young people dwindle watch closely for lessons.

Jonathan Ernst/Reuters
Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong holds a baby during a visit to Washington last year.
Wong Maye-E/AP/File
A young girl is dressed as Snow White as part of a makeover at a mall in Singapore. The country’s birthrate is among the 10 lowest in the world.

Benedict Lim likes children. He says he’s even pretty good with them. But, at age 28, that doesn’t mean he’s ready to have one of his own.

“I cannot see myself being a father in the next two or three years,” he says in between bites of chicken satay and clay-pot rice at a hawker center, or open-air food court, in the historical Chinatown district of Singapore. “I’m just not there yet.”

Mr. Lim’s girlfriend, Dahniela Foo, nods. While they plan to marry, they’re in no rush. They’re not even sure they will have kids.

For the Singaporean government, Lim and Ms. Foo’s indifference about child rearing is at the heart of a complex demographics trend it’s desperate to reverse.

Singapore’s fertility rate is among the 10 lowest in the world. The average number of births per woman in 2015 was 1.24, according to government statistics. That’s well below the replacement rate of 2.1, the number of babies generally required to maintain a country’s current population level.

Singapore’s fertility rate hasn’t been that high since the 1970s. In those years, the post-World War II baby boom fueled fears of runaway global population growth. Many countries, including Singapore, were anxious to curb it and pursued sometimes extreme family planning measures, such as voluntary sterilization.

Today, the outlook could not be more different – though change has been driven far less by official exhortations than by massive social change.

Amid signs of a sputtering economy and rapidly aging workforce, Singapore has introduced a wide range of policies to help defray the costs of raising children in one of the world’s most expensive countries. Couples can get baby bonuses and housing priority, and men can take advantage of extended mandatory parental leaves – just like women. The government sponsors dating services to help with the first step: finding a partner.

Singapore is an acute example of what has become a worldwide trend. Nearly half of all people now live in countries where women, on average, give birth to fewer than 2.1 babies. The Population Reference Bureau, a nonprofit research group in Washington, estimates the world population will reach 9.9 billion in 2050, up about 33 percent from an estimated 7.4 billion now. Yet the growth rate has steadily declined since its peak in the late 1960s.

Jake Turcotte – staff

That may be good news as more and more people are forced to share a limited supply of resources. But for many countries, their fertility rates have fallen further than they anticipated.

Governments across the world, from Denmark to Japan, are struggling to come to terms with shrinking populations, and the implications for everything from supporting aging populations to growing the economy. But Singapore’s all-out approach stands out as one of the most ambitious.

“If anybody is going to get it right, I would guess it’s going to be Singapore,” says Michael Teitelbaum, a senior research associate at Harvard Law School in Cambridge, Mass., and coauthor of a book on global fertility decline. “That doesn’t mean it will be easy.”

Transforming Singapore

The hawker center in Chinatown is a crowded labyrinth of food stalls and small shops. On the evening I met Lim and Foo in mid-December, nearby tables were filled with businesspeople, retirees, and young couples discussing their plans for the coming winter holiday. Strings of Chinese paper lanterns hung between pastel-colored shop houses that lined the street below.

The Chinatown Complex is one of the oldest hawker centers in Singapore. It stands as a testament to Lee Kuan Yew, the country’s founding leader who died in 2015, and his vision for a society in which collective responsibility for the greater good takes precedence over the rights of the individual.

Before the complex and hundreds of others like it were built starting in the 1970s, the streets of Singapore were filled with food vendors. They were an important part of the city-state’s urban fabric, providing affordable meals to its poor and working classes. But Mr. Lee viewed them as unsightly remnants of Singapore’s impoverished past.

“Thousands would sell cooked food on the pavements and streets in total disregard of traffic, health, or other considerations,” he wrote in his memoirs. “The resulting litter and dirt, the stench of rotting food, and the clutter and obstructions turned many parts of the city into slums.”

If Lee were to succeed in transforming this once-sleepy backwater at the edge of the British Empire into a shimmering center for commerce, he’d first need to clean it up. And so, citing public-health concerns, authorities ordered tens of thousands of hawkers off the streets and into government-built centers like the Chinatown Complex.

The unique strand of state paternalism that corralled street vendors – and, more famously, led to the banning of chewing gum – is one of Lee’s most notorious legacies. But even he conceded that twiddling the knobs of social control had its limits. This was especially true when it came to what he considered the biggest threat to Singapore’s survival: a record low fertility rate.

“I cannot solve the problem, and I have given up,” Lee wrote in his last book, published in 2013. “I have given the job to another generation of leaders. Hopefully, they or their successors will eventually find a way out.”

A half-century ago, KK Women’s and Children’s Hospital, located in the city’s Little India, set a mark recognized by Guinness World Records for delivering the most babies of any hospital in the world. Its 1966 record of 39,835 births, about 109 a day, held for 10 years and came to symbolize Singapore’s baby boom.

But fears of overpopulation in what was already one of the world’s most densely populated countries soon brought an end to the boom. In the 1970s and ’80s, the government worked to curb population growth through subsidized sterilizations and its “stop at two” marketing campaign. The total number of births at KK Hospital fell below 30,000 in 1978. By 1986, Singapore’s fertility rate had dropped to 1.43, down from 4.85 two decades earlier.

KK Hospital moved to a larger site in Little India in 1997. I visited one morning in mid-December and made my way to the delivery wing. The waiting room had seats for more than a dozen people; five were occupied when I arrived. Near the hospital’s main entrance, a pink-and-white banner proclaimed its newest entry in the book of Guinness World Records: On Oct. 16, it hosted the “largest reunion of people born at the same hospital” in celebration of its 1966 record. The event was attended by 2,241 people.

Lee wrote in his 2013 book that the suggestion that the “stop at two” campaign played a significant role in Singapore’s falling fertility rate was “absurd.” He also played down the role of economic factors, attributing the decline to changing attitudes instead. Young people are making choices that have become possible only recently – waiting longer to get married, and more women joining the workplace and focusing on their careers. Low fertility is one of the many cultural shifts that are direct results of Singapore’s rapid transformation into a developed country – and one that the government, as Lee saw it, was virtually powerless against.

Still, Thang Leng Leng, a deputy director of the Centre for Family and Population Research at the National University of Singapore, speculates that the government campaign has had a lasting, if subconscious, effect.

“For those of us who grew up in that period, we were used to this idea of ‘two is enough’ because we were socialized when we were young,” Professor Thang says. “On the other hand,” she says about young people today, “they may have a different mind-set. They grew up in the period when the government’s message has always been about having more children.”

Same approach, opposite goal

The question is whether the same state paternalism that encouraged families to have fewer babies for the greater good of Singapore could now lead them to have more for the same reason.

“You need a very small space to have sex,” Josephine Teo asserted in an interview with The Straits Times in October. It was a remarkably blunt statement for a senior minister of state who oversees the National Population and Talent Division – and, as a result, is the highest-profile recipient of Lee’s handoff.

The comment by Ms. Teo, who has a reputation for being very candid about issues of love and marriage, came in response to a question about whether young people were getting their own homes early enough to have children, a major sticking point in the fertility debate. A housing initiative pushes first-time married couples to the top of the list for government-built apartments, where 80 percent of Singaporeans live, but they must be expecting a child or already have one under the age of 16. A chicken-and-egg problem arises because many young couples say they need an apartment before having a child.

In public speeches and on social media, Teo often urges young people to look for love and settle down early, but even she has acknowledged a fine line between gentle persuasion and heavy-handed intrusiveness.

“One thing is clear,” she said in a speech at the National University of Singapore on Jan. 19. “Millennial Singaporeans, who number nearly a million, are not about to start families because someone exhorts them to. If and when they decide to, it will likely be because they regard marriage and parenthood to be achievable, enjoyable, and celebrated.”

The government’s aim is to help make parenthood as easy as possible. Aside from the housing initiative, it has also extended mandatory paid paternity leave from one to two weeks and even provides cash for babies. Families receive $14,000 (Singaporean; almost US$9,900) for their first child and are eligible for the same amount if they have a second; they receive S$22,000 for a third child, as well as for a fourth, and S$28,000 for each child beyond that.

The results have been mixed. Although Singapore’s fertility rate has varied between 1.15 and 1.29 for the past decade, there are small signs of progress. In 2015, the most recent year with available statistics, 33,725 children were born, the highest number in more than a decade.

The National Population and Talent Division said in a written statement that it regularly reviews ways to better provide a supportive and family-friendly environment.

“At the same time,” it added, “we are cognizant that there is no silver bullet or single policy measure that can on its own boost our fertility rate.”

Indeed, the high cost of parenthood is only partially to blame, says Tan Ern Ser, an associate professor of sociology at the National University of Singapore. Marriage and having children are important life goals for about 80 percent of Singaporeans between the ages of 15 and 34, according to a 2014 report by the country’s National Youth Council.

Yet, for couples like Lim and Foo, it still isn’t a top priority – and the government’s cheerleading is not changing their thinking. In Singapore’s highly competitive, career-oriented society, they’d rather focus on their jobs. Lim is a producer for fashion shows and drives for Uber on the side; Foo works in marketing. They’re both used to working long, sometimes irregular hours.

“From a young age, we’ve been molded to study hard, go to a university, get a degree, get a good-paying job,” Lim says. “That doesn’t really put us in the correct mind-set to start a family.”

Lim and Foo admit their mind-set could change. But if or when they decide to have children, it’ll be because they want to. As Louise Tan, a mother of a newborn girl and 4-year-old boy, says, “Eventually whether to have a kid or not is a personal choice.”

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