Speech by Minister Indranee Rajah at the Population Association of Singapore 2023 Annual Meeting
Theme: Building Singapore’s Population Towards a Better Future
PAS President, Professor Jean Yeung
PAS Governing Committee Members
Co-Directors of the NUS Centre for Family and Population Research
Ladies and Gentlemen
It is a great pleasure to be with you here today at the inaugural annual meeting of the Population Association of Singapore.
Today’s conference theme is “Building Singapore’s Population Towards a Better Future”. This is apt and timely, as population is starting to become a matter of global concern. But it is also a thoughtful theme because it captures the very relevant issues of how to grow our population to ensure future generations of Singaporeans, how to ensure the well-being of the current population and how to ensure that tomorrow is better than today for both generations. I would like to address your conference theme in 3 parts:
a. First, the population challenge;
b. Second, our vision on population;
c. Third, some key strategies to achieve that vision.
Population – A Global and a National Issue
The population issue is not just a Singapore issue. It is also a global one.
Last year, the world’s population hit 8 billion. But despite that there are warnings that we should plan for population decline against a backdrop of falling fertility rates and ageing societies.
The decline in total fertility rate or the TFR is a global phenomenon. For example, despite recent efforts to encourage more births, China’s TFR has seen a sharp decline, and its population shrank for the first time in more than six decades. South Korea recently announced an emergency plan to address its problem of the lowest birth rate in the world. And even countries with traditionally higher TFR, such as the Nordic countries, they are having difficulties sustaining their TFR as well.
Singapore’s total fertility rate has been declining for many years, largely due to rising singlehood, later marriages, as well as couples choosing to have fewer children. Our latest figures show that our TFR reached a new historic low of 1.04 in 2022 and this is updated from our earlier preliminary estimate of 1.05, which was the figure I mentioned at the Committee of Supply in March, based on available data at that time.
At the same time, on the other end of the scale, we have an ageing population. Even as Singaporeans live longer, some worry whether they will have enough to retire on, how they can stay active, healthy, and socially engaged in their golden years.
These trends come with societal implications. Low fertility rates, coupled with increasing life expectancies, would mean an ageing population without a young base to support it. Singapore has one of the fastest-ageing citizen populations in the world. We want to provide top-notch care and a high quality of life for our seniors, but doing so requires resources, which will be increasingly stretched given fewer working-aged persons and a smaller tax base. We will also need to transform our living environment, to cater for the growing number of seniors living in the community, so that they can age well and with dignity, surrounded by family and friends.
Resident workforce growth has also been slowing down with fewer births. Foreigners have thus far helped to augment our workforce to meet various caregiving and economic needs, and mitigate the pace of ageing. If we look just at citizens, around 18% are aged 65 and above. But if we look at the overall Singapore population – Singaporeans, PRs, foreigners – then a much lower proportion, only 13%, are aged 65 and above.
If this situation does not change, our resident workforce numbers will eventually stagnate. While we can employ more foreign labour, there is a limit to the extent on which we can rely on foreigners to augment our workforce. Without a steady addition of Singaporean babies, we will find it increasingly difficult to maintain our core and identity, the dynamism of the economy, our attractiveness to global businesses and talent, and opportunities for the next generation. So that, in a nutshell, is our population challenge.
Our Population Vision
This may seem very daunting but please do not go away with the idea that it’s all gloom and doom. A challenging situation just means that we have to work harder and smarter at trying to resolve our population issues. This is our future at stake, and we will never give up on that.
Before we can address a problem, we must have an idea of where we want be. And on the population front, our vision is to have a Singapore where our people can be happy and fulfilled, where they can grow and thrive, where they can achieve their aspirations. We want a Singapore where young families flourish and where older Singaporeans can live their senior years with dignity, assurance, and peace of mind.
There are many aspects to achieving this vision – because we seek meaningful relationships with friends and family, we want a fulfilling career, and a safe, green, and dynamic environment to live in. Singapore, as a global city state, has made much of this possible. From access to economic opportunities and world-class facilities for sports and arts, to good quality housing, healthcare, and education.
Being an open vibrant economy brings us opportunities but also comes with challenges. Cost of living is closely affected by external developments; the pace of life tends to be faster. Unlike other global cities, we do not have access to natural resources nor a hinterland. Staying open is the only way for us to survive and thrive. But we need to do so in a way that puts the interests of Singaporeans at heart – so that Singapore can be a city of opportunities for all yet home for Singaporeans young and old.
These are all the things which need to be addressed if we want our Singaporean population to grow and thrive. And indeed, we are already working on these through the Forward Singapore or Forward SG exercise.
As part of Forward SG, the Government has been engaging Singaporeans on the values, priorities, and policies needed to strengthen our social compact for the next bound of our nation’s journey.
And in a broader sense, all the pillars of Forward SG are working on specific strategies to address population issues which I have outlined earlier. But for the benefits of guests who have come from other countries, let me just tell you a little bit about Forward SG. It’s a movement that has been started by the Singapore Government to engage Singaporeans and there are six pillars.
First is ‘Empower’, which is about how to have a dynamic economy and how to grow opportunities. Second, ‘Equip’ which is largely synonymous with education. How do we equip people before entering the workforce, when they are already working and how to have continuous education? The third pillar is ‘Care’, I’m involved in that. That looks at societal issues, ageing population, how to increase our TFR, healthcare as well as how to bridge the inequality gap. Then we have ‘Build’, which is about our physical environment. How do we build our city, how do we build homes for all? And the fifth one is ‘Steward’, as it suggests, stewardship, and it looks at sustainability, not just environmental, but also physical sustainability and how we can be sustainable as a nation. And the sixth pillar is ‘Unite’, which is really about how we can be a united society, a strong, resilient multi-racial, and multi-religious society, one that can withstand the shocks of not just the pandemic but some of the other divisions that are sweeping the world today. So that’s what Forward SG is about.
A lot of the content that is going into the various strategies and plans will address the issues or are intended to address the issues that I mentioned earlier. This, in turn, is going to have an impact on population because if you are at a place where people want to live, are happy to live, then that is the place where you will have families, that is the place you will have senior citizens who live rich and fulfilling lives.
Some Key Population Strategies
Forward SG covers a whole range, but let me just touch on two population specific strategies which are aimed at two ends of the population issue. First, Marriage and Parenthood, and then at the other end of the spectrum, Ageing.
Building a Singapore Made For Families
Our key strategy is to build a Singapore Made for Families, and that’s more than just a tagline. It means a whole of society support for marriage, parenthood, and families.
Despite fewer and later marriages, we have reason to be hopeful, as marriage and parenthood aspirations remain strong among Singaporeans. Most married couples still desire to have at least two children and the majority of singles indicate that they intend to marry. So that’s good news.
I am happy to see an increase in the number of citizen marriages from about 23,400 in 2021 to about 24,800 in 2022.
We recently announced enhancements to our Marriage and Parenthood or M&P package to strengthen financial and work-life support for parents especially in the child’s early years. This includes an increase in the Baby Bonus Cash Gift and higher Government contributions to the Child Development Account, as well as doubling Government-Paid Paternity Leave and Unpaid Infant Care Leave.
But we know that there is more we can do. Learning from the experiences of other countries with higher TFR, one critical area of need is in caregiving support for parents following childbirth. We will continue to create more preschool places, so that parents have access to affordable and quality preschools. We are also reviewing ways to extend more help to parents caring for their infants.
Another critical aspect is to continue the push to make Flexible Work Arrangements or FWAs a norm. The 2021 Marriage and Parenthood Survey showed that a large majority of married respondents agreed that the availability of FWAs would make it, or had made it, easier for them to start a family and have children.
The thing is, people often use the terms FWAs and Work From Home interchangeably, but they are not the same. And this is very important because when you say FWAs to employers, the immediate response is Work From Home but not all work can be done from home. The two terms are not interchangeable. FWA is a much broader term, Work From Home is a subset of it but not the only one form of FWA. While not all job types are suitable for Work From Home, all job types can accommodate some form of FWA in a way that suits the nature of the job. Employees’ needs for FWAs may also vary depending on the season of their lives.
For instance, those with young children may appreciate flexi-time, so they can drop off or pick their children up from school or childcare, as required. With flexi-shift arrangements, employees may also specify the days or hours they can work, and are scheduled accordingly. And this could benefit parents of school-going children who may opt to work in the mornings while their children are at school, or during the weekends when other caregivers are available.
Those with heavier caregiving responsibilities may opt for flexi-load and work reduced hours on a regular basis, rather than have to drop out of the workforce completely.
Understandably, not all companies are ready to implement FWAs to the same extent. The question is how to get the employers onboard? And I think the only way to do that is the employers see that their priorities are in line with the employees’.
To fully reap the benefits of FWAs, employers need to invest time and effort in developing the capabilities to redesign jobs, business operations and processes, human resource policies and systems.
But mindsets at work will also have to change, to focus more on outcomes, rather than the amount of time spent at work, so both employers and employees feel more confident offering and taking up FWAs. I do recall reading an article that this is in part also a generation thing. The Baby Boomer generation still see coming and leaving work at a certain time and those tend to be the employers. The Millennials and Gen Z see it quite differently. For them, work and work-life balance, those should be blended interchangeably and for them, flexibility is the key. So, I think we need to understand that there is a generational difference in approach. Employers and employees do need to have that conversation on how to get the right balance, because if this does not take place and a new equilibrium is not established, then they will always be at odds. The employers are not going to be able to recruit and retain the talent that they need. And the opportunities for employees being able to work and have families at the same time is not going to be as great.
If done well, FWAs will benefit both employers and employees. The Tripartite Partners which in Singapore, means the employers, the unions, and the employees, will support both employers and employees on this journey with resources to provide guidance and best practices. The Tripartite Guidelines on FWAs will be rolled out by 2024, which sets out practices that employers should adopt to fairly consider and respond to employees’ FWA requests. The Guidelines aim to shape enabling workplace norms, where employers and employees engage in open discussions on what FWAs would be most suitable to provide, to support both the business’ and the employees’ needs.
Going for Gold
Next, let me speak about ageing. Ageing has been traditionally associated with challenges – from increased healthcare and caregiving costs arising from the growing number of seniors, to the impact an older workforce that may have on the dynamism of the economy. While these are real challenges any ageing society will have to confront, there are also many positives that are often overlooked and under-harnessed, specifically, the opportunities brought about by Singaporeans leading longer and healthier lives.
We need to secure good health for our seniors. Health is wealth, if we don’t have health, we can’t do the other things. And that is why the conversation has to shift away from life spans to health spans – which is essentially the length of time that a person is healthy for. We need to start thinking not just about the years in our lives, but also the life in our years. We are helping Singaporeans take proactive steps towards better health through Healthier SG. With Healthier SG, residents can enrol with a chosen family doctor who can guide them on their health journey, with a customised health plan involving diet, exercise, and regular health screenings, so that they may achieve their health goals. And to do this, you really have to go upstream and not do it at the last stage of life. How healthy you are in your latter years depends very much on what you did in your earlier years. The only trouble is in the earlier years, we all think we are invincible. We need to get round that mindset and start investing in our later years. With better upstream and preventive care, we can increase the number of healthy years Singaporeans can enjoy in their old age.
The Ministerial Committee on Ageing or the MCA has also recently refreshed the Action Plan for Successful Ageing, which is a whole-of-society effort to enable all Singaporeans to age well. The refreshed Action Plan outlines steps we will take to:
a. First, empower seniors to take charge of their physical and mental well-being through preventive health, active ageing programmes and care services;
b. Second, enable seniors to continue to contribute their knowledge and expertise and experience, through enhanced learning, volunteerism, and a better employment landscape for them;
c. And third, enhance senior-friendly housing options and community infrastructure, so that our seniors may age-in-place, surrounded by family and friends.
Beyond these efforts, there is more that we can do to shift our mindsets around ageing – so perhaps rather than always talking about “ageing”, maybe we should talk instead about “longevity” and the benefits it can bring. Some have termed this the longevity dividend. Actually, since we often refer to our senior years as the golden years, we should perhaps think of this stage of life in as “Going for Gold”, sounds better than ageing!
Last year, the Stanford Center on Longevity released a report titled “The New Map of Life”. The report challenges us to think differently about how we live longer, 100-year lives. Longevity is a blessing and an opportunity. If we harness it well, ageing does not have to be about what is lost or being a burden to society, but rather, what can be gained at a new stage of life. We can make longevity a positive force, by changing the way we lead our lives.
For example, instead of focusing on how an extra 20 years post-retirement may be better spent, maybe we should instead re-imagine how these 20 extra years could be better used across the different seasons of our lives, so that we may more sustainably learn, work, and invest in our relationships throughout our healthy years? As our lives grow longer, we should have more time for family and our personal growth, not less.
We may, for instance, better support learning throughout life so people of all ages may continue to acquire the knowledge they need at each stage of life, and be given the time and resources to do so.
With longer, healthier lives, transitions should also become the norm. Individuals may opt to take breaks from their careers to pursue personal interests, upskill or start a family at a time that suits them. These transitions can be better supported with more structured off-ramps and on-ramps so that people can leave and re-enter the workforce with greater ease. This will also make it possible for us to work more years, with greater flexibility, if we can better balance work obligations with life goals on an ongoing basis.
Jessie Chong, who is 58 years old this year, is a good example of this. She was a corporate banker for 30 years and raised her two children while working full time. She quit her job in 2019 to take a two-and-a-half-year Master’s in counselling psychology so that she could join the social service sector. She then headed a centre at the Singapore Association for Mental Health MINDSET Learning Hub, supporting people recovering from mental health conditions by reintegrating them to the workforce. She volunteers in her free time to raise awareness on mental health literacy, and also cares for her mother, who was recently diagnosed with dementia.
Jessie says that in order to deal with the daily stressors in her busy life, it’s important for her to take time out for solitude and self-care, to exercise in nature, and to foster meaningful connections with friends. She says that starting a second career in the social service sector at the age of 57 has made the second half of her life much more meaningful, and she hopes to impact and inspire others also.
She believes that everyone can thrive in our senior ages and you are never “too young” to try new experiences and chase your passions. She stays young at heart by spending time with her 17-year-old daughter, window shopping and going on trips to South Korea to try and catch a glimpse of their favourite K-pop stars.
Jessie’s example shows that life doesn’t need to be a one-way road through clearly defined life stages. More flexible systems for work and learning are needed to support a diversity of life paths and choices so that we may all find the time, space and resources to pursue what matters to us.
The efforts that we are undertaking with businesses to redesign jobs and strengthen HR processes will enhance flexibility across the board. So will the SkillsFuture moves we have introduced to support lifelong learning and reskilling, and career transition. But there is much more that we can and must do, as a society, to be longevity-ready, and to make the most of the additional years of life that have been given to us.
So in conclusion, let me say that in my speech today, I have covered some of the key population issues, dilemmas, and complexities that Singapore faces, and the Government’s population strategies to tackle them. As mentioned by Deputy Prime Minister Lawrence Wong, these are key shifts that will form a part of our new social compact, ranging from a new approach for social support to new approach for caring for our seniors. Through the Forward Singapore exercise, we will continue our engagements with Singaporeans, and see how else we should work hand-in-hand to seize the opportunities and address the challenges that come with our demographic realities.
In the same vein, we are looking forward to hearing your views during this conference on how the public, private, and people sectors can come together to tackle our population challenge, and build a better future for Singapore.
The Population Association of Singapore plays an important role in providing a platform for academics and other stakeholders to share research, discuss and exchange views on current and emerging population issues. We look forward to our continued partnership with your community, to build a Singapore where our people can continue to thrive. Researchers, like yourselves, should be a part of our journey in making Singapore a place that is Made For Families. I invite you to contribute your research, ideas, and solutions that businesses, the community and individuals can adopt, to build an environment that supports families and values family well-being.