SINGAPORE: Minister in the Prime Minister's Office Josephine Teo on Thursday (Mar 1) revealed that Singapore’s total fertility rate (TFR) dropped to 1.16 in 2017, making it the lowest figure since 1.15 in 2010 and the second lowest ever recorded.
Statistics on the TFR - which measures the average number of children per woman - have been available since 1960. The 1.16 mark continues a declining trend since 2014 (1.25), 2015 (1.24) and 2016 (1.20).
Mrs Teo was speaking on population strategies at the Committee of Supply debate in Parliament. On the low TFR, she explained: “From the 1950s to mid-1960s, we experienced a ‘baby boom’, where births reached elevated levels. These birth cohorts are now in their mid 50s to 60s. When many of these ‘baby boomers’ married and started having children, we saw an echo effect in the late 1980s and 1990s where births also reached elevated levels.”
“Today, many of these ‘echo baby boomers’ would be about 20 to 30 years old. They are included in the denominator used for calculating TFR. But they are only just entering the peak childbearing ages,” she added.
“Compared to earlier cohorts, more of them are not yet married or have not started having children. When they do, we can expect the numerator, which is the number of births, to increase further. TFR could then also increase.”
She acknowledged that MPs may wonder if Singapore's TFR will further decline, or whether the dip could be due to couples holding back on parenthood, just like some had done during the 2009 global financial crisis.
Mrs Teo said: “We cannot say for sure. Our surveys show that a large majority of young Singaporeans want to marry and have children. However ... these are not their only life goals.
"Young Singaporeans today have many opportunities to pursue their passions. They may also prefer having their own home or establishing themselves financially before settling down. These factors have contributed to Singaporeans marrying and having children later.”
“However, couples who marry later are more likely to face difficulties conceiving,” she cautioned. “Medically, it is well-established that one’s chances of conceiving diminish sharply after the age of 35.”
Nevertheless, she does not expect major changes to Singapore's immigration policy.
“If our current citizen population were able to replace itself with a TFR of 2.1, we can have a stable citizen population well into the future, without immigration. But, at the current TFR and if there was no immigration at all, our citizen population will shrink in the long term,” she said.
“At around the current rates of immigration, we are close to achieving the same effect as if we had full-replacement TFR. Therefore, we do not expect any major changes to our immigration policy presently. In other words, with a moderate level of immigration, we can prevent the citizen population from shrinking in the long term.”
Mrs Teo assured the House that Singapore takes in a "carefully balanced" number of new immigrants each year. Last year, 22,076 Singapore citizenships were granted, about the same as in the past few years, she noted.
“We have also taken in a steady number of Permanent Residents each year, many of whom take up citizenship eventually,” Mrs Teo said. “The PR population remains largely stable at around 530,000, with 31,849 PRs granted last year.”
She added: "Given recent trends in foreign employment and current pace of immigration, we expect that by 2020, total population is likely to be below 6 million. By 2030, the total population is likely to be significantly below 6.9 million, as Prime Minister Lee (Hsien Loong) announced previously."
Mrs Teo also spoke about how the Government “can help those who are ready to settle down”, pointing to the support provided by the Marriage and Parenthood Package since 2001 while revealing upcoming initiatives.
To help couples get their own homes more quickly, the Housing and Development Board will start to launch 1,100 flats with shorter waiting times (of around 2.5 years) in 2018, with another 2,000 to be launched in 2019. The Government will also provide more flexibility in grant and loan processes, said Mrs Teo.
The Early Childhood Development Agency will also continue to increase provision of affordable and quality infant-care and childcare places, with 40,000 new full-day pre-school places over the next five years, she added.
In the bid to encourage more family-friendly workplaces, the public sector is piloting an additional four weeks of unpaid infant-care leave, for both fathers and mothers, to test the general viability of longer parental leave. The Government will also ask more employers to sign on to the Tripartite Standard on Flexible Work Arrangements (FWAs).
Also, the Work-Life Grant will be extended and enhanced to provide more support to businesses to encourage the adoption of FWAs, in particular job sharing. These will make it easier for employers to implement practices that enhance family-friendliness.
A new tripartite standard will be introduced to encourage employers to provide care-giving leave in unforeseen circumstances such as congenital conditions or sudden illnesses. To promote voluntary adoption by employers, such leave will be unpaid and kept to four weeks, said Mrs Teo.
Mrs Teo also announced that from Apr 1, to provide more assistance for those who face difficulties conceiving, the support for Assisted Reproduction Technology treatment for eligible couples will be raised from S$6,300 to S$7,700 for fresh cycles and from S$1,200 to S$2,200 for frozen cycles.
Healthcare support will also be enhanced with MediShield Life extended to cover serious pregnancy and delivery-related complications so that expectant parents can have less to worry about.