SINGAPOREANS have frequently been reminded that theirs is a rapidly ageing society. But a government paper released on Tuesday still managed to stoke, in plain terms with stark graphics, concerns about the country's demographic decline.
The grim reality of a shrinking population and an ageing workforce is presented in the paper not as any forecast but simply as a picture of reality if certain trends and assumptions prevail over the next few decades. The most optimistic scenario (and probably the most unlikely too) assumes that Singaporeans begin to replace themselves from this year - that is, they manage to achieve a total fertility rate (TFR) of 2.1 per female. Given that Singapore's TFR - as in most other East Asian economies - has been below the replacement level since 1976, despite a range of procreation and "marriage and parenthood" incentives here in the last 12 years, it would be a highly fortunate outcome if its TFR does not soon dip below the current 1.2, one of the lowest in the world.
Despite the government's best efforts - and many millions of dollars thrown into the mission - the task of spurring young Singaporean couples to produce and raise more children will remain an uphill challenge, what with today's work and lifestyle trends. And paradoxically, one of the most common antidotes to an ageing workforce - encouraging more women to work - would probably contribute to a low birth rate.
Clearly, if it can't grow its population organically, Singapore simply cannot get away from wooing foreigners to sink roots here. The National Population and Talent Division's paper presents the stark reality. If the status quo remains - low TFR, rising life expectancy - and with no immigration, the citizen population will begin to shrink in just over 10 years' time. Even in the better-case scenarios, if Singapore attracts between 20,000 and 25,000 new citizens a year - more than last year's intake of just under 16,000 - the citizen population will barely hold steady at some four million. And even with the influx of new citizens, the ratio of working-age citizens to elderly folk will still plunge from six currently to about two by 2030 - a scenario with major fiscal implications in terms of the tax burden to support higher government spending on the aged.
To be sure, the twin challenge of a low TFR and an ageing populace is one faced by developed economies everywhere. Japan, for one, has attempted to deal with it through technological means and has long embraced automation and robotics to replace its dwindling workforce - but has paid a huge price, both fiscally and in terms of foregone economic growth. While it's unlikely that robots will rule workplaces here, it would no doubt help if Singapore companies used more machines and less manpower. But that cannot be the only solution. That Singapore will need more human-power (whether permanent residents or citizens) to augment the local force is a reality which - hard as it may be to accept - Singaporeans will eventually have to come to terms with.