DPM Wong Kan Seng's Speech on Population at the 2011 Committee of Supply
“ADDRESSING SINGAPORE’S POPULATION CHALLENGE”
Mr Chairman, I thank the honourable Members who have spoken on the issues of Singapore’s low total fertility rate (TFR), ageing population and the need to keep our economy open and welcome migrants and foreign workers. Mr Lim Boon Heng will address the issue of ageing population later.
FACTORS CONTRIBUTING TO LOW FERTILITY
Our resident total fertility rate reached a new low of 1.16 1 last year, in spite of efforts to promote marriage and parenthood. One cause of this is that married women are having fewer children. They also marry later. The average number of children born to ever-married citizen females aged 40-49 fell from 2.76 in 1990 to 2.22 in 2000, and to 2.08 in 2010. While the TFR of ever-married women has declined, they still have around two children per couple.
The other contributing factor that has the greatest impact on our low TFR, is that more Singaporeans are remaining single. Table 1: Proportion of Single Citizens In 2010, 62.0% of females aged between 25 and 29 were single, up from 45.5% in 2000. For males of the same age group, 78.5% were single in 2010, up from 66.4% in 2000. Singlehood rates for those aged 30 to 34 have also increased significantly.
FACILITATING DATING OPPORTUNITIES FOR SINGAPOREANS
Some Members suggested that the key to raising our fertility rates lies in reducing our singlehood rates. I totally agree. But getting married is a very personal decision. I know from perception surveys that Singaporean women do want to get married, and so do the Singaporean men. They are waiting to find the right partner. What the Government can do is to facilitate the process by providing opportunities for singles to socialise. This is done 4 through the Social Development Network and accredited private dating agencies. Dr Vivian Balakrishnan will elaborate more about SDN’s programmes when he speaks at the COS debate on his ministry.
Mr Zaqy and Mr Ong Ah Heng at his budget speech suggested providing more financial assistance for couples to have children. The Government has indeed invested sizeable resources to support Singaporeans in having children. Since the Marriage and Parenthood (M&P) package was introduced in 2001, the Government has enhanced the package twice, once in 2004, and again in 2008. Members can note the details in the table I handed out. With the 2008 enhancements, we now have a broad-based package of support measures, including increased maternity and childcare leave, increased Baby Bonus cash gift and co-savings, and increased childcare subsidies. We should allow more time to assess the impact of these measures, before considering further adjustments. NPTD will consider Mr Zaqy’s suggestion on how to present the package more intuitively, so that Singaporeans can understand and appreciate the various measures that apply to them.
Mr Zaqy and Mr Sadasivan said that the cost of HDB flats could have deterred couples from getting married. While that may be the reason some give for not getting married, let me assure the House that the Government is committed to keeping new 6 flats affordable, through generous subsidies. Mr Mah Bow Tan will say more about this when he speaks at MND’s COS.
On the issue of facilitating work-life practices and work-life balance, Mr Sadasivan is well aware that there is the Tripartite Committee on Work-Life Strategy which drives the implementation of worklife strategies across industries. Companies can tap on the Work-Life-Works! Fund to defray the costs of introducing work-life measures, for example, for purchasing laptops and implementing infrastructure to support telecommuting. Companies are best placed to determine how best to address employee needs, to attract and retain talent. Mr Gan Kim Yong will say more about worklife harmony during the COS debate on MOM.
With regard to parental leave, the Government introduced paid childcare leave in 2004 to support both fathers and mothers in their parenting duties. In 2008, we extended paid childcare leave to six days for each parent, until the child turns seven. We have also introduced six days of unpaid infantcare leave a year, until the child turns two. That is a total of 42 days paid leave and 12 days of unpaid leave per parent. In 2009, a year after the introduction of the 2008 M&P package, 30% of fathers took more than three days of paid childcare leave, as compared to 46% of mothers. MOM’s survey also shows that 48% of companies voluntarily provide paternity leave in 2010 on top of the legislated childcare leave. For now, I think we have done enough to encourage shared parental 8 responsibility through childcare leave. Married couples should decide between themselves how to share their parenting responsibilities.
Mr Zaqy suggested that there could be a tipping point in subsidies beyond which Singaporeans will change their minds about having babies. But marriage and parenthood cannot just be about tangible costs and benefits. I hope married couples would not just take a transactional approach in deciding whether to have children. While having children means having to make sacrifices in the short term, there is immeasurable joy to seeing them grow up and be good citizens. There needs to be a mindset change among our population if we were to tackle the issue of low TFR. Or, as Mr Zaqy said, Singaporeans need to overcome their 9 psychological barriers to get married and have children. What the Government can and will do is to ensure that Singapore is a good place to raise children. The Government will also provide some funding support to help them do this, as we have done. But couples must bear some responsibilities for being parents too.
WELCOMING SUITABLE IMMIGRANTS
Mrs Mildred Tan asked whether we could make “willingness to integrate” part of our selection criteria for new immigrants, and whether we would consider implementing a citizenship test.
We need foreign manpower to augment our local workforce, so that we can remain globally 10 competitive. But not all foreigners who come here to work are allowed to sink roots. We allow only those of good quality and who share our core values to become PRs or citizens. We take into account not just factors such as the applicant’s economic contributions, qualifications and age, but also whether he can integrate well into our society, and his commitment to sinking roots. In general, PR and SC applicants would have to be in Singapore for some time before their applications may be approved, and this allows us to further assess their level of integration. We also consider the profile of the family, if they are included in the application.
Another group of foreigners that we allow to settle in Singapore as PRs and citizens are those with 11 family ties to Singaporeans. These are mostly foreign spouses. A key consideration is whether the local sponsor has the ability to look after the family, so that allowing the foreign family members to reside in Singapore does not result in increased burden to society.
Sir, it is difficult to assess immigrants’ “willingness to integrate” as this goes into his state of mind. Instead, we should make a holistic assessment of the immigrants’ “ability to integrate” through objective factors such as the applicant’s age, length of stay, family ties, and whether he has studied in Singapore and so on. Integration takes time and cannot be rushed. We must take a pragmatic and realistic approach. If there are practicable suggestions that help us to achieve the 12 objective of integrating new immigrants with locals, please let me know.
On the issue of citizenship test, this has been considered by the National Integration Council (NIC). Members felt that a test may not accurately assess or ensure the long-term commitment of new citizens. Instead, members felt that a more structured naturalisation process would be more effective in ensuring that all new citizens understand the fundamentals of Singapore society and our values. Hence, to enhance the integration of new citizens into our community, we have begun to put them through the Singapore Citizenship Journey. New citizens are required to complete the “journey” before they can complete the citizenship formalities. This programme seeks to enrich new 13 citizens’ understanding of Singapore’s history, nationhood, norms and values. It also provides platforms for new citizens to be involved in our local community.
Mrs Tan also suggested doing a longitudinal study on the impact of new citizens on Singapore. I am told that there is a periodic study on the perception of integration and rootedness of Singaporeans and PRs. A study is now on-going too. But we must be careful not to create too much of a distinction between new citizens and old citizens, lest we get into a debate on who is more Singaporean. The French had such a debate almost 2 years ago, and I don’t think they ended up feeling better or happier. It created divisions within the society as a result of that debate. Under our laws, whether a person is a 14 new citizen or old citizen, he receives equal treatment.
Mr Chairman, NPTD takes a Whole-of-Government approach in tackling the population issue. It will continually refine its policies and strategies to ensure a sustainable population - one that supports our economic aspirations and underpins a cohesive Singapore.
1 Preliminary TFR estimate for 2010