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SOCIETY: Foreign Intel

Elegy for the Lion City

Singapore’s Demographic Woes Are of Its Own Making

by Michael Cook

Article originally appeared in
Salvo 23

Lee Kuan Yew, the founding prime minister of Singapore, is one of the great statesmen of the twentieth century. At 88 he is a bit unsteady on his feet and attends a lot of funerals, but his mind is as clear as ever. A man of steely resolve, he turned a tiny, defenseless, impoverished, and racially and politically divided island with no natural resources into an economic powerhouse.

Today Singapore is a leading financial center, is the world's easiest place to do business, is ranked no. 8 in foreign exchange reserves, has the world's top-ranked education system, and is the world's least corrupt country. Economically, Singapore is a miracle, and Lee Kuan Yew is its wizard. This past August 9th, the Lion City celebrated the 47th anniversary of its independence with cheers and fireworks.

Singapore's Cloud

But there is a cloud over Singapore's existence. Although it is situated in a volatile part of the world, the threat is not war or tsunami or cyclone. It is its own imploding birthrate.

In finances, Singapore is at the top of the chart; in fertility, it is at the bottom. With a birthrate of 0.78, it has been ranked by the CIA World Factbook at no. 223 out of 223 countries listed.1 To compensate for the falling number of babies, Singapore imports people. About 35 percent of its workers and 23 percent of its residents are foreign-born.2

In short, like the great man himself, Lee Kuan Yew's Singapore is slowly dying. The government is trying desperately to boost the birthrate with generous benefits, dating services, and even louche advertisements. And still the birthrate falls.

Lee is watching this tragedy with tears. Speaking at a National Day celebration dinner on August 11th,3 he sounded desolate:

If we go on like that, this place will fold up, because there'll be no original citizens left to form the majority, and we cannot have new citizens, new PRs [permanent residents] to settle our social ethos, our social spirit, our social norms. So my message is a simple one. The answer is very difficult but the problems, if we don’t find the answers, are enormous. . . .

Our educated men and women must decide whether to replace themselves in the next generation. At the moment, 31 percent of women and 44 percent of men are opting out. Not leaving a next generation.

So, just ponder over it and you will know the solution is not simple. But we've got to persuade people to understand that getting married is important, having children is important. Do we want to replace ourselves or do we want to shrink and get older and be replaced by migrants and work permit holders? That's the simple question.

A Great Man's Mistake

Perhaps it's rude to ask this of a man mourning the mortal illness of a child whom he conceived, dandled on his knees, and coached through adolescence, but who is responsible for this disaster?

The answer is: Lee Kuan Yew. Great men make great mistakes. In the 1960s and 1970s, Lee worried about the Population Bomb and enacted stern population-control policies. He encouraged sterilization, urged Singaporeans to "Stop at Two," and imposed harsh financial penalties on those who didn't.

By the late 1980s, the government had panicked and changed its tune to "Have Three or More (if you can afford it)." A future prime minister was already warning Singaporeans that "passively watch[ing] ourselves going extinct" threatened national survival.

It was too late. Singaporeans had acquired a taste for shopping and small families. Now their country's future belongs to immigrants and workers from nearby China, Bangladesh, Malaysia, and Indonesia. Singapore has to face the possibility of cashing in its chips.

A Lesson for All

Singapore's woes may be of its own making, but there is a lesson here for the rest of us. In a small nation, the impact of an ageing population is felt more keenly and more swiftly than in larger countries. But demographic trends are inexorable everywhere. When birthrates fall below replacement level, as they have throughout the developed world, migrants with very different cultural values replace the native-born.

Going extinct is no fun at all. Just ask Lee Kuan Yew. 

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