“TICKING TIME BOMB”, “tsunami”, “unprecedented”. Scary words but words, nevertheless, used to describe the not-so-small problem of Singapore's ageing population.
Indeed, this year marks the sobering point where, for the first time in our history, the proportion of folks 65 years and older matches that of younger ones (less than 15).
Extrapolating into the future, the elderly slice of the population will, by 2030, balloon to twice that of young Singaporeans.
Such a fast graying society would, in PM Lee Hsien Loong's words, bring about “profound problems”.
United Overseas Bank analyst, Mr Francis Tan, agrees: “Singapore is facing one of the toughest economic and social challenges since its independence in the form of a rapidly aging workforce and population.”
The most recent bout of hand-wringing came from Minister of State Indranee Rajah who warned that “the number of people who are getting older, in the next five to 15 years, is not something that Singapore has seen before”.
The cause of the population pickle in which we find ourselves is two-fold.
The first is the stunted birthrate. At 1.2 births per woman of child-bearing age in 2016, Singapore remains one of the lowest, if not the lowest, in Total Fertility Rates around the world.
The second is Singaporeans quitting the jurisdiction. A survey done by the Singapore Polytechnic found that six in ten Singaporeans between ages 15 and 35 are “looking beyond Singapore to achieve their dreams”. In practice, a whopping 213,400 Singaporeans actually packed up and left as of 2016. The rate is picking up – the figure was 157,800 in 2004.
Nothing works more handily in quickening the pace of a population becoming dependent on walkers and wheelchairs than young folks uninterested in procreating and/or thinking of saying sayonara to Singapore.
But what is driving such behaviour? The answer, with apologies to Mr Bob Dylan, is more than blowing in the wind – it is the kind of wild-hand-waving-look-at-me-I'm-right-here-in-your-face indication that leaves no ambiguity. Studies repeatedly tell us that the high cost of living, stressful lifestyle, and a stifling political environment are what make younger Singaporeans avoid the maternity hospital and head straight for the airport.
For example, a survey found that 50 percent of young couples cited finances as the main reason for not having children. The report straight up said that “with the costs of childcare and infant care at a premium, more couples are thinking twice about having children.”
Another survey conducted by students from the Nanyang Technological University also showed that the main cause of the low fertility rate in Singapore is the cost of raising a child. “The current generation,” the study explained, “may be unwilling to have children because of the costs required in rearing a child and the potential impact upon their individual aspirations.”*
Business news channel CNBC nailed it right between the eyes: “Dual-income families are the norm in the pricey city-state and the lack of time for family is frequently cited as a significant factor influencing couples' decisions on how many children to have, if they have any at all.”
As for the high emigration rate, the top reasons cited (as demonstrated by the Singapore Polytechnic survey cited earlier) are the high cost of living, lack of opportunity and stressful pace of life in Singapore.
A separate study done by the Institute for Policy Studies found that nearly 60 percent of young Singaporeans believe that emigration is "inevitable as society becomes more competitive and stressful".
Another major reason that younger Singaporeans are emigrating in such high numbers has to do with the lack of political freedom in this country. Joel Fetzer and Brandon Millan found that “anti-PAP and pro-democratic ideas strongly influence the decision of native Singaporeans to leave the island state.”**
The researchers also cited local academic, Dr Yap Mui Teng, as having observed that “helplessness and fear in the face of an overpowering political and power structure that the average person cannot hope to participate in, penetrate, or even understand” drives emigration.
Why not just make matters worse?
One would think that the solutions to such a conundrum are not hard to confect. But the government's responses are real head-scratchers; they are, at best, an egregious trespass upon the intellect. Consider these:
Problem #1: The suffocating political structure is causing Singaporeans to leave the country.
PAP's response? Insist that the presidential election be reserved for its – and only its – candidate, say that the GRC is meant for minority MPs but refuse calls for a by-election when that minority MP vacates her seat, prosecute activists for protesting the detention of other activists, attack already timorous academics who criticise public policies, and clamp down on the social media's "fake" news while ignoring the state media's fake news.
Problem #2: Singaporeans are leaving because of the stressful lifestyle in an overcrowded city.
PAP's response? Open the door for more foreigners to fill whatever precious little space that's left on an island that is already the third most densely populated city in the world – and then encourage everyone to steal everyone else's lunch.
Problem #3: The high cost of living is pushing people to emigrate and deterring young couples from having children.
PAP's response? Up the GST and extract even more tax dollars especially from the middle- and lower-income earners toiling in a city that is already the world's most expensive.
(The additional revenue is needed, our rulers tell us, to pay for the expected rise in medical care expenditure as the population ages. On this point, my colleague and party chairman Professor Paul Tambyah points out that the prevalence of chronic diseases among the elderly is falling. Just because there are more 80-year-olds now than there were 20 years ago does not mean that there are more unhealthy people around. “With good primary care, they can live long and healthy lives and should not be used as an excuse for raising taxes,” the Professor explains.)
What Mr Lee Hsien Loong doesn't seem to appreciate is that the “profound problems” that he cites are wholly his party's creation when it perpetrated the Stop-at-Two idiocy on citizens in the 1970s.
He then exacerbates these problems with his latter-day policies of making Singapore more expensive, more stressful, and more autocratic.
And when the problems deteriorate to an intractable level, he makes the people pay for them by hiking taxes. This, of course, increases the financial burden of the population which aggravates the stressful lifestyle here which pushes more of our younger folks to leave which adds to the disproportionate growth of the elderly sector and on goes the downward merry-go-round. .
There is truth that the acorn never falls far from the tree as one remembers the immortal words of the late Lee Kuan Yew, “What's wrong with collecting more money?”
As it turns out, plenty.
* Causes of Singapore’s Declining Birth Rate, Jenny Ng Yijing, Kong Pei Yu and Lim Bei Fen, Nanyang Technological University, Graduation Project, 2012.
** The Causes of Emigration from Singapore: How Much Is Still Political? Joel S. Fetzer and Brandon Alexander Millan, Critical Asian Studies, Vol. 47, Issue 3, 2015