Mar 1, 2018

Speech by Minister Josephine Teo on Population at Committee of Supply 2018


1 March 2018 - Speech by Minister Josephine Teo at Committee of Supply Debate

“Together, We Can Be Well-Prepared For Our Future”


Mr Chairman, I thank Members for their questions and suggestions.

At last year’s Committee of Supply debate, I focused on how we can support Singaporeans to marry and raise a family.  Today, I would like to take a longer term view and share more broadly about how our population strategies prepare us for the future.

We want to work towards a Singapore population that can (i) support a vibrant economy, so Singaporeans can earn a good living; (ii) enable a cohesive society, where people from different backgrounds can live in harmony; and (iii) sustain a stable citizen population over the long term, where citizens have a strong sense of national identity.

It is a delicate balancing act to meet all three objectives.  This is more than just the numbers. It is also about sensitivity toward how connected people feel with our evolving society.

At the same time, we face two long term challenges as we shape our strategies. First, a rapidly ageing population. Second, our low total fertility rate which many MPs have spoken about.

Mr Gan Thiam Poh and Mr Henry Kwek asked about the Government’s strategies to secure a bright future for Singaporeans, in view of our demographic challenges.

In this debate, I will provide an update on our population strategies and outlook, how we are planning ahead, as well as further measures to support marriage and parenthood. 

Our Population Strategies

Mr Chairman, we have three broad strategies to shape a healthy population profile. First, to enable all Singaporeans to age with purpose and grace; second, to make Singapore a Great Place for Families where marriage and parenthood are achievable, enjoyable and celebrated; and third, to maintain a careful balance in our foreign worker as well as immigrant flows.

Enable All Singaporeans to Age with Purpose and Grace

Let me start with the first strategy, which relates to a motion debated in Parliament last month. Members will recall that the debate reaffirmed that “seniors are a gift to society”, and we need a “whole-of-Singapore effort” to build a “Nation for All Ages”. Our ambition is to enable all Singaporeans to age confidently with purpose, grace and dignity.

We are making good progress. Today, Singaporeans are living an average of 74 years in good health, compared to 67 years, three decades ago [1]. Many who wish to continue working past the legal retirement age of 62 have been able to do so with our re-employment policies. More than 4 in 10 residents aged 65 to 69 are employed. This is the 5th highest employment rate when compared against the 35 OECD countries [2].

About 6 in 10 of active CPF members are now able to set aside the Basic Retirement Sum in their Retirement Accounts when they turn 55.  By 2020, this proportion is expected to increase to 7 in 10. But as SMS Amy Khor shared last month, we must continue to deepen our efforts at three levels.

At the individual level, to enable seniors to continue pursuing their passion or causes, to work for as long as they choose to; at the family level, to empower care-givers to give better support to our seniors to age-in-place; and at the community level, to build stronger communities of care, to complement family support for seniors.

We also want our seniors to stay healthy as they live longer. With good health, more seniors who wish to work can do so. That is why we raised the re-employment age from 65 to 67 last year. We also provide employers wage offsets through the Special Employment Credit to encourage them to employ seniors.

Last year, under the Adapt and Grow initiative, we enhanced support for mature PMET jobseekers, to make it more compelling for employers to hire them.

We also recognise that with extended longevity, families worry about their ability to manage should serious disability strike. This is why, having introduced MediShield Life, the Ministry of Health is reviewing ElderShield to strengthen support for seniors requiring long-term care.

We will continue supporting Singaporeans to lead active lives well into their silver years, contributing to the economy and society, while enjoying strong bonds with their families and communities.

Singapore: A Great Place for Families

At the same time, we should find meaningful ways to support families who are bringing up the next generation. 

This is why our second broad strategy to shape a healthy population profile is to make Singapore a Great Place for Families. This means strongly supporting Singaporeans’ aspirations to marry and have children so that both are achievable, enjoyable and celebrated.

Singaporeans continue to value families, and the pace of family formation remains strong.   Over the last four years, the number of citizen marriages and births has been above the past decade’s average.

But as Mr Melvin Yong and Mr Gan Thiam Poh highlighted, our TFR has remained low. It has hovered at around 1.2 in recent years. Last year, our TFR fell to 1.16. Why this apparent contradiction, when the number of births have been higher in the past few years?

With your permission, Chairman, may I display a slide on the LED screens?

Citizen Population by Age Group

This chart shows our citizen population by 5-year age groups. 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. These are the cohorts which Mr Alex Yam spoke about.

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 [3]. 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.

Like Mr Melvin Yong, Members may wonder if our TFR will further decline, as parenthood competes with other priorities. Or could this dip be more like that of the year 2010, where it appeared to have been due to couples holding back parenthood plans in 2009 because of the global financial crisis?

We cannot say for sure. But based on many interactions with young people, I remain convinced and optimistic that we should continue to strengthen support for young families.

Consistent with my own observations, our surveys show that a large majority of young Singaporeans want to marry, and have children.  However, what is also very clear – these are not their only life goals.

Half of the singles aged 21-35 (54%) whom we surveyed in 2016 wanted to focus on their career or studies before marrying. Almost eight in ten (77%) said that travelling was an important life-goal.

One couple who managed to start a family, while pursuing their interests, is Kenny and Peiru. They are a sporty and adventurous couple who enjoy travelling and exploring the outdoors.

As they were about to get their keys to a new BTO flat in Punggol Waterway, they planned for their wedding.  They knew that they wanted a meaningful occasion with family and friends, and decided this was achievable without over-spending.

Soon after getting married, Peiru found that she was expecting, and the couple put their sports and travel plans on hold. However, as soon as Peiru was out of confinement, they resumed their active lifestyle but this time with a new focus - making sure that baby Faith is part of it. In fact, they recently took Faith on a family-friendly coastal hike in Perth, slightly less challenging than what Kenny and Peiru are used to, but it’s a start.

Just like Kenny and Peiru, 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. Two decades ago, the median age of Singaporean women at first marriage was around 26 years. Today, it is around 28 years. The median age of mothers at first birth has accordingly increased from 28.6 to 30.5 years.

However, couples who marry later are more likely to face difficulties conceiving.  Medically, it is well-established that one’s chances of conceiving diminish sharply after the age of 35 [4]

For some couples, it is not that they set out to marry late. It is just how their lives unfold. The Government cannot interfere with how people go about finding a partner, or whether, and when, they start trying to have children. These are personal decisions. But we can help those who are ready to settle down.  

Mr Alex Yam spoke about the Government’s support for Singaporeans to marry, and have children earlier, and we thank him for his suggestions. Since 2001, we have invested significant resources in a comprehensive Marriage & Parenthood Package. We recently strengthened support, especially for young Singaporeans, in three main areas.

Mr Chairman, may I have your permission to distribute a compilation of the Government’s key support for marriage & parenthood?

First, we helped more couples get a home of their own more quickly.

Since 2015, more than 50,000 new BTO flats have been launched with priority allocation for first-timers. The vast majority of couples like Kenny and Peiru that applied for a BTO flat in a non-mature estate were able to select a flat by their second try, and all were able to do so by their third try. 

To provide faster access to housing, HDB will start to launch 1,100 flats with shorter waiting times of around 2.5 years this year.

Second, we enhanced pre-school support to give parents greater peace-of-mind that their children are well taken care of while they work. Ms Sun Xueling and Ms Tin Pei Ling had asked whether we can do more.

The Government is committed to ensuring that every parent who wants a preschool place for their child will be able to have one.

Over the past 5 years, we increased pre-school capacity by 50%. There are now about 7,800 infant-care places and 140,000 childcare places.

We also ramped up affordable, quality places through the Anchor Operators (AOPs), Partner Operators (POPs), and MOE Kindergartens, with a focus on new estates with many young families. 

Today, a median-income family who enrols their child in an anchor operator pays about $350 a month for full-day childcare, after Government subsidies.

ECDA will continue to increase provision of affordable and quality infantcare and childcare places. Over the next five years, there will be 40,000 new full-day pre-school places to meet the needs of parents. At the same time, we will continue to safeguard the safety and well-being of children in pre-schools, including through regulation on space norms, which Ms Sun Xueling asked about.

The Ministry of Social and Family Development will elaborate more on ECDA’s pre-school efforts later in the debate.

Mr Darryl David and Ms Sun Xueling also asked about the progress made in encouraging more family-friendly workplaces. We have indeed strengthened work-life support to help working parents achieve both career and family aspirations. Today, a working couple can access 20 weeks of paid leave and 2 weeks of unpaid leave in their child’s first year.

Ms Kuik Shiao Yin suggested increasing leave support for fathers, and extending adoption leave to adoptive fathers. Today, adoptive fathers already enjoy the same Paternity and Shared Parental leave provisions as biological fathers.

We have also progressively enhanced our leave provisions for fathers over the years.   For instance, we introduced Paternity Leave in 2013, and doubled it to two weeks in 2017. Similarly, we increased Shared Parental Leave from one to four weeks over the same period. In total, fathers, including adoptive fathers, can tap on up to eight weeks of leave to care for their children in the first year of birth.

Our unions know that each time parenthood-related leave is enhanced, there is some risk of inadvertently denting the employment prospects of parents and causing some friction with other employees. Given the recent enhancements to the legislated leave provisions, we will give businesses some time to adjust.

In the meantime, the Public Sector is piloting an additional 4 weeks of unpaid infantcare leave, for both fathers and mothers, to test the general viability of longer parental leave. It has only been 6 months since we implemented that pilot. The take-up is encouraging. We have more than 80 staff who have taken it up. It is a bit too early to form a view, but the feedback from staff who have taken the extended leave is that the leave has been very helpful.

We will also continue to encourage more fathers to make use of the enhanced leave provisions to care for their children. Since Paternity Leave was introduced five years ago, take-up rates have increased from 25% to 46%. As Mr Seah Kian Peng pointed out, there is still room for improvement. The Government pays for the Paternity Leave in full, and we hope it helps employers to be supportive of employees who are new fathers.

In addition to parental leave, we have strengthened support for workplace flexibility. More than 350 employers, covering about 250,000 employees, have adopted the Tripartite Standard on Flexible Work Arrangements (FWAs). This was launched just about 6 months ago. Three in four (74%) of these employers are from the private sector including small and medium enterprises. I believe Ms Sun Xueling will agree that this is a good first step, as a society, in moving towards encouraging FWAs.

But there is much more to do. We will encourage more employers to sign on to this Standard to distinguish themselves as employers with progressive workplace practices. I will speak more on the issue of FWAs during the COS debate for the Ministry of Manpower.

At the same time, these support measures would not work if employees do not have the confidence to tap on them because of unsupportive supervisors or co-workers.

This is why the Government takes a multi-pronged approach to help Singaporeans achieve their marriage & parenthood aspirations, including by encouraging employers and community organisations to lend strong support.

We will continue to enhance our policies where possible. Today, I will outline five further enhancements.

First, we will do more to help couples own a home faster. As announced by Minister Heng Swee Keat last week, we have enhanced the Proximity Housing Grant to provide more support for couples who wish to live together with or near their parents. Some young couples are ready to settle down earlier in life and wish to apply for a BTO flat. We will provide more flexibility in our grant and loan processes to better support them in owning a home. Minister Lawrence Wong will share more later in the debate.

Second, we will provide more assistance for couples who face difficulties conceiving. This is also what Ms Rahayu Mahzam suggested. Today, eligible couples receive co-funding of 75% of the costs of Assisted Reproduction Technology (ART) treatment. From 1 April 2018, we will raise the maximum support available from $6,300 to $7,700 for fresh cycles; and from $1,200 to $2,200 for frozen cycles.

Third, we will improve healthcare assurance for young families.

Today, all newborn citizens receive a Medisave grant of $4,000 that can cover their MediShield Life premiums up to age 21. We will go further and extend MediShield Life to cover serious pregnancy and delivery-related complications so that expectant parents can have less to worry about. MOH will share more details in the coming months.

Next, we will strengthen work-life support. While we have significantly enhanced parenthood-related leave provisions, there are sometimes unexpected caregiving needs that put families under stress. For example, congenital conditions or sudden illnesses among infants, or in cases of multiple or preterm births. 

Our fourth enhancement is to introduce a new Tripartite Standard to encourage employers to provide caregiving leave in such instances.  To promote voluntary adoption by employers, such leave will be unpaid and kept to 4 weeks. The Standard also provides up to 2 weeks of unpaid leave for employees with immediate family members who are hospitalised. So this Tripartite Standard will really help the “sandwiched” class - those who have to look after the young as well as the seniors in their homes.

The fifth enhancement is to extend and enhance the Work-Life Grant. We will 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. I will share more in a few days.

Besides these policy enhancements, employers, co-workers, and the community can also provide strong support. For example, Mr Alex Yam will be glad to know that the People’s Association’s Embracing PArenthood Movement, which celebrates young families, reached out to 30,000 parents and caregivers across 250 celebrations held nationwide last year. I have attended some of these very joyous occasions that signal to the new parents that they are not alone, and that the whole community is here to support. And so through this Movement, several parent support networks have been formed.

We will continue to strongly support Singaporeans to start families sooner rather than later.

Making Singapore a Great Place for Families is a continuous effort.  The Government will do its part, and work with employers and community organisations to keep up the momentum.

A Balanced Flow of Foreign Workers and Immigrants

Mr Vikram Nair and Mr Henry Kwek asked about our foreign workforce and immigration policies. Our third strategy to achieve a healthy population profile is to maintain a careful balance in foreign worker as well as immigrant flows.

Our total population growth has slowed considerably.  Growth was 1% per year over the last five years, compared to 3% per year for the previous five years.

Mr Chairman, I would like to show one slide and this has to do with our working-age citizen population.

Number of citizens projected to decline

Our working-age citizen population will soon shrink.

Even with immigrants, the number of Singaporeans aged 20 to 64 is projected to peak at 2.2M around 2020, and then it will decline thereafter.

Without immigration, it would have started to shrink earlier and decline at a much faster rate.

Balanced Inflow of Complementary Foreign Workers

Recognising this trend, we have started transforming our economy towards lower manpower reliance and more productivity-driven growth.  Recent results are encouraging. As Minister for Finance shared last week, last year’s productivity growth was the highest since 2010.

We should press on to raise productivity in all sectors of our economy. However, to sustain a healthy growth momentum that provides good jobs for Singaporeans, some workforce growth is still necessary.  Therefore, we will continue to support higher labour force participation among locals and balance these efforts with a calibrated flow of foreign workers that complements our local workforce.

From 2013 to 2015, foreign employment grew but at a much slower pace than the earlier years. In fact, since 2016, due mainly to cyclical factors in the Construction and Marine & Offshore Engineering sectors, foreign employment fell even as local employment expanded. 

The Manpower Ministry has also stepped up efforts to emphasize complementarity between the local and foreign workforce:

The Fair Consideration Framework sets out clear expectations for companies to practise fair hiring.

The Human Capital Partnership Programme supports progressive employers who are committed to strengthening local-foreign complementarity.

A new Capability Transfer Programme will support businesses, associations and professional bodies for the specific purpose of building up local capabilities through the help of foreign expertise.

By focusing on local-foreign workforce complementarity, we continue to see good employment outcomes for Singaporeans.

Employment rates for those aged 25 to 64 are on an upward trend [5]. Unemployment rates have generally remained low. And over the last five years from 2012 to 2017, real income at the median and 20th percentile of full-time employed citizens grew by 3.9% and 4.3% per annum.

There’s more to be done. For example, we can better match local jobseekers to occupations with significant vacancies, and help them access new jobs that are being created. This will benefit both businesses and the local workforce. The Ministry of Manpower will provide a fuller update later in the debate.

From now till 2020, workforce growth will be around 1% to 2% a year. This is significantly less than in the past. Having said that, we think that it is a more sustainable pace going forward. We appreciate businesses’ efforts to make adjustments, and the economic agencies will continue to provide strong support through various schemes and programmes.

Total workforce growth

Carefully Managed Immigration Flows and Quality

While managing foreign workforce flows to complement the local workforce, it is also important that we carefully manage immigration flows. Without immigration, not only will our working age population shrink rapidly, the total number of citizens will eventually decline.

This is why, each year, we take in a carefully balanced number of new immigrants. Last year, 22,076 Singapore Citizenships were granted, about the same as in the past few years

Mr Gan Thiam Poh asked if our immigration policy will change given our low TFR. 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. But at current TFR and if there was no immigration at all, our citizen population will shrink in the long term. 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.


We have also taken in a steady number of Permanent Residents each year, many of whom take up citizenship eventually. The PR population remains largely stable at around 530,000, with 31,849 PRs granted last year.

But as I said earlier, it is more than just the numbers.

We are selective about the profile of our immigrants, because it affects how we grow a strong national identity. This is why we prioritize not only those who can contribute, but those who are also prepared to sink roots in Singapore, and can integrate well here. A significant proportion of citizens granted each year have family ties with Singaporeans, and/or have lived here for some time.

Kenny, whom I mentioned earlier, was born in Malaysia, and came here to study when he was 18.  There are many examples like him and Peiru, where a Singaporean marries a foreigner and both have chosen to settle in Singapore to raise their young ones.

An Open and Cohesive Society

Mr Darryl David and Ms Rahayu Mahzam asked what more can be done to strengthen integration. It starts with how we see ourselves, and how our nation was built up.

As Prime Minister Lee reminded us in his New Year Message, and I quote, “Our forefathers came from China, India, the region and beyond, leaving their families behind, to seek better lives here. They came as sojourners, with no intention to stay. But slowly this changed. They brought their families over, or formed families here. They built hospitals, schools, mosques, temples and churches for their communities. They brought their own cultures and traditions, interacted with one another, and wove these strands together into a rich and diverse tapestry. Over time, out of their shared experience grew a Singaporean identity, a shared sense of being rooted in Singapore.” And I end the quote.

The journey of integration starts with this understanding, and is deepened through relationships, which has to go both ways. Today, 1 in 3 marriages are between a Singaporean and non-Singaporean. Just as Peiru’s family opened their hearts and welcomed Kenny into their lives, so too can Singapore continue to welcome people who are able to contribute, and certainly those who are committed to sinking roots here. 

And in the same way that Kenny has won over Peiru’s family through his words and deeds, Singaporeans hope that newcomers can adapt to our local cultures and social norms, and for immigrants especially, to fully embrace our way of life. 

To facilitate this process, the National Integration Council works with its partners in the community, workplaces and schools to help newcomers settle in better and appreciate Singaporean values and our way of life.

Over the past 3 years, the Council under the leadership of Minister Grace Fu has supported more than 320 ground-up integration projects by 150 organisations. These projects encourage immigrants and locals to bond over various interests, such as sports and volunteerism. Companies and schools have also stepped up to organise events on their own. Ultimately, integration involves all of us.

Integration will always be a work-in-progress and take time. As Ms Rahayu correctly points out, while we seek to preserve the character of our society, we must also maintain a sense of openness to those joining us. This duality must firmly remain embedded in our DNA. It is the foundation on which we can build a harmonious, multi-racial and multi-cultural society that stands the test of time.

Planning Ahead for the Future

Mr Chairman, I have outlined our approach for achieving a healthy population profile.

We are also investing in building up quality infrastructure. Agencies have been planning ahead, to create a vibrant and endearing Home in which Singaporeans can live, work and play. These include plans to:

Build new towns, such as Tengah and Bidadari; and extend our rail networks. The Downtown Line has fully opened, and more lines, such as the Thomson-East Coast Line, Jurong Region Line and Cross-Island Line, are on the way.

The size of our population will be an important input for planning. Given recent trends in foreign employment and the 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 announced previously. 

Our long-term infrastructure plans are well in place and being steadily implemented. The respective Ministers will update on the progress of the plans under their charge.

Together, We Can Be Well-Prepared for Our Future

Mr Chairman, to conclude, we have planned ahead to address our long term challenges of an ageing population and low TFR, to ensure a healthy population profile that improves the lives of each generation. 

Together, we can work towards a bright future in 2030 and beyond where Singapore remains a great home to build families and grow old together; where our economy is vibrant and able to create good jobs for Singaporeans; where society is open yet cohesive; and where there is quality infrastructure to meet our needs. 

Our strategies have Singaporeans’ interests at heart. We are well prepared for the future, and have a strong foundation upon which to keep building up a nation that we will always be proud to call home.

Thank you.


[1] Global, regional and national disability-adjusted life-years (DALY) for 333 diseases and injuries and healthy life expectancy (HALE) for 195 countries and territories, Global Burden of Disease Study, 2016. Lancet 2017.
[2] Based on latest available data from OECD Stat database.
[3] Since 2002, the resident age-specific fertility rate is highest for the 30-34 years age group, followed by 25-29 years.
[4] A normal healthy couple in their 20s has about a 20% chance of conceiving in any particular month. At age 35, the chance is only 15%. After age 40, the chance is even slimmer at around <10%. (Source: KKH)
[5] Ministry of Manpower, Labour Force in Singapore 2017 Report.
Last updated on 11 Jul 2017