65 years and over: 7.8%

Life expectancy at birth: 84 years

Population in 2050: 5.56m

In Singapore public protest is almost as rare as snowfall. Yet one rainy Sunday afternoon in February 5,000 people gathered to vent their anger at a government White Paper, just approved by parliament, on Singapore's population.

To maintain economic growth, the paper argued, the population would have to increase from 5.3 million at present to 6 million by 2020 and to between 6.5 million and 6.9 million by 2030. And unless Singaporeans change their habits, much of this increase would come through immigration.

The paper added weight to a message Singapore's government has been trying to drum into its people for three decades: stay home and multiply.

Yet, unlike other government campaigns -- to speak Mandarin, say, or give up chewing gum -- this one has failed. Singaporeans have small families. In this they resemble the other Asian 'little Tigers' (Hong Kong, South Korea, Taiwan), and tiny Macau.

In one ranking of total fertility rates, these five places are at the bottom of the global league, with rates of 1.25 or below, compared with 1.4 in Japan, and the theoretical replacement rate of 2.1.

The consequences of this are stark. From 2020, the number of working-age Singaporeans will decline and by 2030 there will be only 2.1 Singaporeans of working age for every one over 64, compared with 5.9 in 2012.

Everywhere, as people get richer, live in cities and women are better educated, they have fewer children. The Tigers have seen sustained economic growth at rates surpassed only in China, where fertility has also plunged. Even so, the Tigers' declines in fertility rates have been astonishing.

In the developing world as a whole, the fertility rate fell by half in fifty years, from six in 1950 to three in 2000. In South Korea, it fell by two-thirds in only 20 years from six in the early 1960s to two. In Taiwan, it dropped from 6.5 in 1956 to 2.2 in 1983 and 1.7 in 1986.

In Singapore, the fertility rate, 1.74 in 1980, climbed a little later in that decade, after the government ditched its 'Stop at Two' family-planning policy in 1983 and Lee Kwan Yew, then prime minister, started promoting bigger families -- with a distinctively Singaporean twist.

Lee, believing intelligence was inherited, wanted above all to encourage more graduate women to have children. The number of graduate men marrying fellow graduates grew sharply. The overall fertility rate did not.

In Singapore and elsewhere, last year saw something of a baby boom, as families tried to bless their offspring by bearing them in the Year of the Dragon, an auspicious one in which to be born, according to Chinese astrology. But the spike was less marked than in 1988 and 2000.

So in all the Tigers, governments are promoting the joys of child rearing. Taiwan's has mandated generous parental leave (though many women are afraid to take their full entitlement), subsidized kindergartens for poorer families and so on.

South Korea has a five-year plan to encourage breeding, and a fertility rate target of 1.7 for 2030.

Maternity pay has been changed from a fixed and low rate to 40 per cent of salary. Employers are now forced to allow mothers to work flexible hours, and the state will pay the school fees of second children.

Even in laissez-faire Hong Kong, in 2005, the chief executive Donald Tsang, declared that families should have three children. The fertility rate, 0.97 in 2005, has barely budged since.

It is not just Asian countries that find it hard to boost birth rates once they are in decline but the problem may be especially acute for them for two reasons: first, in these places, it is fairly obvious that their part of the planet is crowded; second, in all of them, for different reasons, immigration as an alternative to indigenous-population growth is controversial. It is an area of policy where governments cannot win.

Simon Long is The Economist's Asia columnist and an Associate Fellow at the Chatham House Asia Programme

 

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