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Singapore in Numbers - Immigration vs Fertility

Growing Xenophobia in Singapore

Singapore’s meteoric rise from a sleepy third world fishing village to a small first world economy is well known and well admired. But as a first world economy, it has also inherited challenges that many mature economies are currently facing – Xenophobia.

In the course of building the economic miracle that is Singapore, Singapore had resorted to immigration to fill in gaps in the nation building toolbox; in terms of sheer numbers as well as specialized skills and experience. But as the population grew, many locals started to feel displaced in their own country and that the economic spoils are not equitably distributed between locals and foreigners.

These feelings are not unique to Singapore; in fact, many mature nations are currently facing similar challenges. But Singapore, being a small nation and as the most expensive city in the world to live in, xenophobia runs the risk of being a major fault line in society with the potential of derailing the economic progress achieved thus far.

There are a lot of emotions tied to the words “Xenophobia”, “Foreigners” and “Foreign Talent”; and there is even more to unpack behind it. In this segment, we will leverage data to better understand and quantify some of the factors behind the link between immigration and fertility rates in Singapore.

Immigration has been growing in Singapore

Even as Singapore’s population grew, GDP per capita grew as well. The population was more prosperous even as there were more on the island. In order to support the economic growth, it required more people than Singaporeans were producing and skills not currently available in Singapore at the time. Immigration didn't really take off in Singapore until the 1980s, when Singapore’s economic growth took off. Immigration fluctuates very much with significant economic events impacting Singapore; where with each economic downturn, immigration tends to drop. However, it is clear that immigration has been growing over time.

Only 60% of the population are Citizens

The Singapore population has more than doubled in the last 49 years; from 2M in 1970 to over 5.7M in 2019. Singapore Citizens made up 90% of the population in 1970; but only 60% by 2019.

At 60% of the population, citizens are more and more likely to be in living conditions and social situations whereby they may no longer be in the majority. Public funds and policies passed benefit not only citizens but also non-residents as well. Taken in this context, it is not so hard to see why the citizens are concerned about being crowded out. But how did Singapore get here?

Low Fertility is partially driving immigration

One of the justifications for the influx of foreign labour and talent into Singapore is that Singapore residents are simply not producing enough people to support the economy; the natural increase in population has been trending down since independence. Hence Singapore had to turn to immigration to fill the gap.

But in multicultural Singapore; Singapore has the added challenge of maintaining the ratios of the major races in Singapore; as a matter of policy.

Most Singaporeans are familiar with the policy, it permeates many facets of society; it determines public housing eligibility, healthcare, education and many others. It is also something many Singaporeans take for granted. For example

  • Policies in the 1970s (“Two is Enough”) were instituted due to a fear of overpopulation.

  • But data suggests that fertility rates were already falling drastically even before independence

  • The policies essentially hastened the outcome to the point where fertility rates fell below replacement by 1975

  • Most Singaporeans are aware of Singapore’s dismal fertility rate; and if there was a race who was replacing themselves, it was the Malay

  • While the Malays were bucking the trend by have a fertility rate above replacement from 1980, they have fallen below replacement by 2003

  • Despite the many incentives to reverse the trend of low fertility rates

  • NONE of the races are replacing themselves

  • The above observations could justify immigration and integration of new citizens from China and India in the interest of maintaining the ethnic balance

  • But soon, Singapore will also have to consider attracting and integrating more Malays as well

Key Considerations

  • At 60% of the population, it would not be surprising that citizens find themselves in places and situations where they may not be the majority

  • Social norms may now be influenced by non-residents

  • Policies are not only about the citizens alone anymore; they need to cater to the needs of the non-residents as well

  • Competition for housing, schools and room on public transport are no longer among the locals

  • But without the many generations of non-resident labour force, Singapore would not be in same economic position that it enjoys today

  • The decision to leverage non-resident labour and talent was undertaken in part by the fact that Singapore lack the sheer numbers and specialized skills

  • With the total fertility rate dropping below replacement as early as 1975, the workforce and talent gaps had to be filled from outside Singapore

  • Despite years of incentives for more babies, Singapore’s Total Fertility Rate is one of the lowest in the world

  • Singapore currently spends over $3B in incentives to encourage people to have more children; but this has had little to no impact on Singapore’s TFR

  • The Chinese and Indians fell below replacement since 1975 and never recovered, regardless of incentives; which could have justified the attraction and integration of talent from India and China

  • While the TFR for Malays remained above replacement, it had fallen below by 2003. At some point Singapore may have to consider attracting and integrating Malays to maintain the ethnic balance

  • If Singaporeans want to stem the tide of non-residents, Singaporeans will need to produce more Singaporeans…and soon

  • The low TFR coupled with the longer life expectancy is causing all sorts of chaos in Singapore’s future; particularly for roles that only Singaporeans can do

  • Will Singapore have enough NS men to defend the country, fight fires, make the streets safe?

  • If Singaporeans want a Singapore core, it must produce a Singapore Core for the future

For more information about the analysis, you may click any of the chart to see an interactive version of the data visualization.

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