Speech by Minister Indranee Rajah on Population at the Committee of Supply Debate 2023
Creating Opportunities and Better Lives for All Singaporeans
Mr Chairman, I thank members for their questions and suggestions.
Under the Forward Singapore exercise, we have spoken to many Singaporeans who have shared their views and aspirations for the future.
As we work towards building the future we aspire to, it is important to understand the key population trends affecting us, and how we must work together as one people to address them.
Key Population Trends
As Ms Ng Ling Ling mentioned, countries around the world are facing demographic challenges brought about by ageing populations and declining fertility rates. South Korea’s total fertility rate (TFR), currently the world’s lowest, dropped to a new low of 0.78 last year. China’s population also shrank for the first time in more than six decades, and their annual number of births nearly halved compared to six years ago. Births in Japan have plunged to a record low. Even Norway and Finland, who were previously successful in improving their fertility rates, are finding it difficult to sustain these gains.
Like other advanced societies, Singapore’s TFR has been declining for many years. In 2022, our resident TFR reached a new historic low of 1.05. This was partly due to the Tiger year in the Lunar calendar, which is generally associated with lower births among the Chinese.
But beyond that, there are longer-term global societal trends at play, which apply to us too. While the aspiration to marry and have children remains strong, more are postponing marriage and more are also postponing having children or having fewer children.
At the same time, we are living longer. Resident life expectancy at birth has risen from about 72 years in 1980 to more than 83 years today. By 2030, about one in four Singapore citizens will be aged 65 and above. With an ageing population, we will find it increasingly challenging to sustain economic growth as the growth of our resident workforce slows. Caregiving needs will intensify as family sizes shrink. More Singaporeans will face the dual pressures of raising young children while caring for their elderly parents – and in fact this is already happening.
We are also becoming a more diverse society. We have always been multi-racial, multi-religious and multi-cultural. While the proportions of our main racial groups remain stable among our citizens, our social fabric continues to evolve. In recent years, around one in three citizen marriages each year were transnational, and around one in six, inter-ethnic. It is therefore even more important that we recognise this diversity as a core part of our identity, appreciate different cultures and their practices more, and make this multi-cultural aspect of living in Singapore and being Singaporean, a strength.
These trends show the complexities and challenges on the population front.
Our Population Strategies
Our population strategies are key to managing these challenges.
Ms Mariam Jaafar asked how these strategies relate to the Forward Singapore exercise. Through these conversations, Singaporeans have shared their views on the kind of Singapore we want to be, and how we can forge our future together.
Our population strategies take into account these views and seek to achieve a stronger social compact by:
Strengthening assurance for Singaporeans;
Growing opportunities for Singaporeans, through a vibrant and resilient economy;
And strengthening solidarity for a more cohesive society; as well as
Planning ahead for a better home for ourselves and for generations to come.
Let me elaborate on each of these in turn.
a) Supporting aspirations and strengthening assurance for Singaporeans
First, we will continue to strengthen assurance for Singaporeans. A key aspect of this is the support we give to help Singaporeans realise their marriage and parenthood aspirations, among other life goals.
Mr Yip Hon Weng asked what can we learn from other countries’ best practices to encourage Singaporeans to settle down. Key elements that have made a difference elsewhere include societal norms that embrace children and families, and encourage shared parental responsibility, as well as a family-friendly workplace culture.
We need a whole-of-society effort to foster such norms, and to build a conducive environment that values and supports families. For individuals, this is often about finding a work-life rhythm that is suitable for our different life stages as we pursue our family, career and other life goals. And for employers, it is also about valuing employees’ family and overall well-being that could at the same time result in stronger talent attraction, retention, and higher productivity for the employer. It is also about everyone doing our part to strengthen the overall ecosystem of support so that we have a family-friendly environment.
On the part of the Government, as DPM Wong announced in the Budget Statement, we are providing more support for the early stages of family formation in a few areas.
We are doing more to enable young Singaporeans to achieve their housing aspirations. First-Timer families with children, as well as younger married couples, will receive greater priority in their BTO flat applications, including an additional ballot. We have also increased the CPF Housing Grant for First-Timers purchasing resale flats. Minister Desmond Lee will share more on these plans at MND’s COS.
We are increasing financial support for the early years of raising a child, where it is most needed by parents. We have increased the Baby Bonus Cash Gift and the Child Development Account (CDA) First Step Grant for all eligible Singaporean children. In addition, we have raised the Child Development Account Government co-matching cap for the first and second child. These enhancements apply to eligible Singaporean children born from 14 February 2023 onwards. We have also extended the Baby Support Grant for eligible Singaporean children born from 1 October 2022 to 13 February 2023.
With these enhancements, parents can now receive up to $24,000 in financial support for their first child, and up to $37,000 for their subsequent children. This represents an increase of up to $6,000 per child up to before the age of 7.
I hope this provides more assurance to couples like newly-weds, Mr Ng Jia Jing and Ms Chia Shi Min, who are planning to have a child next year. They are looking forward to the enhanced Baby Bonus Scheme which will help with their child-raising costs. This targeted financial help is in addition to existing subsidies for preschool, education, and healthcare for all Singaporean children, and regular top-ups to each child’s CDA, Edusave and Post-Secondary Education account including the most recent top-ups announced at Budget this year.
We will also increase support for parents in managing their work and family commitments.
As DPM Wong announced in Budget, we will double Government-paid Paternity Leave for eligible working fathers of children born on or after 1 January 2024 onwards – something Mr Louis Ng had long asked for. This is a big step towards normalising and enabling fathers to play a bigger role in raising our children. As mentioned by DPM Wong, we intend to mandate the additional Government-Paid Paternity Leave in time to come.
Mr Ng asked about efforts to increase the use of paternity leave, and proposed equalising the amount of maternity and paternity leave. Mr Louis Chua also spoke about shared parental leave.
Our focus for now is to encourage and enable fathers to use the paternity leave that is available to them. Even as the Government increases paternity leave and stands behind fathers in playing a more active role in child-raising, we need shifts in societal mindsets and norms to encourage and support fathers in taking up this leave. Workplace culture, in particular, the attitudes and mindsets of supervisors and colleagues, will make a big difference in helping fathers feel assured about using their leave. The take-up rate for paternity leave has gone up over the years, and I hope to see it continue to increase. I encourage every employer to consider providing this additional paternity leave, and I urge supervisors and colleagues to be supportive when fathers take time off from work to care for their children.
We will also double Unpaid Infant Care Leave for parents with children below two years old from 1 January 2024 onwards. Each parent will be able to benefit from an additional six days of Unpaid Infant Care Leave per year, in the child’s first two years.
Taken together, eligible parents will be able to take up to 26 weeks of parental leave in their child’s first year.
Mr Louis Ng asked if we can increase childcare leave provisions to cover needs such as caring for sick children, or provide leave for couples to seek fertility treatments. We are aware that employees need time off from work for these and other personal needs and commitments. Apart from leave, another important strategy we are focusing on is to increase the adoption of flexible work arrangements (FWAs). These include but are not limited to Work From Home, which Professor Hoon Hian Teck talked about. FWAs are a sustainable way of providing more flexibility for workers. This is critical not only for caregivers of children, but also for caregivers of the elderly.
A company that has put in commendable effort to make FWAs work for their employees is CBM Pte. Ltd. A facilities management company with 1,900 employees, CBM Pte. Ltd has been adopting staggered working hours and Work From Home arrangements since 2017. During the pandemic, they further tweaked the staggered working hours arrangement to give employees more flexibility in their start times to avoid peak hour congestion. They recognised that staff like security guards have to be on site and leveraged technology like roving robots to reduce man-hours. CBM also set up a floating team of covering officers to take over from staff who have urgent family or caregiving duties. CBM shared that with FWAs, their employees are more productive, more focused and happier at work as they are better able to adjust their work schedules to manage both work and personal commitments.
Employers also benefit from offering FWAs. While there may be adjustments to work processes and costs of implementing FWAs in the short term, FWAs can increase productivity, lower absenteeism and turnover, and increase employee engagement in the long term, if implemented well. Embracing FWAs as a workplace norm will help Singapore companies stay ahead of the competition, and better attract and retain talent.
The Tripartite Partners have developed a set of best practices for employers to voluntarily adopt under the Tripartite Standard on FWAs. To further encourage the adoption of FWAs, we will roll out the Tripartite Guidelines on FWAs in 2024, which will require employers to fairly and properly consider FWA requests.
Mr Ng asked if we can implement these Guidelines earlier, as well as consider legislating them. Even as we encourage more FWAs, we need to make sure workplace harmony is maintained. The best way to achieve this win-win outcome is not by taking a legalistic approach at the onset but to focus on shaping norms and fostering workplace trust. Tripartite Partners are developing the scope of the Guidelines, and we should also give them enough time to consult stakeholders. We will thus introduce the Guidelines by 2024, as committed in the White Paper on Singapore Women’s Development.
Beyond these measures, there were other suggestions to improve support for parents and to better recognise their efforts in bringing up their children. We have received feedback from parents about the difficulties they face in accessing reliable infant care arrangements when they return to work. Under the Forward Singapore Care Pillar efforts, we will be reviewing how we can better support new parents in caring for their infants. We will share more when ready.
Mr Faisal Manap asked about expanding the approved uses of the Child Development Account to purchase items such as infant formula and diapers. We have just enhanced the Baby Bonus Cash Gift by $3,000. This should help in defraying expenditure in these areas.
Ms Hazel Poa suggested recognising the contributions of stay-at-home parents through CPF top-ups. Many of our Marriage and Parenthood measures are given regardless of the parents’ employment status, including our recently enhanced Baby Bonus Cash Gift and Child Development Account. In addition, we also provide a tax relief of up to $8,000 per calendar year to individuals who make a cash top-up to their loved ones’ CPF savings.
I hope these enhancements and plans will give greater assurance to Singaporeans.
b) Growing opportunities for Singaporeans
Second, we want to grow opportunities for Singaporeans, amidst a more uncertain global economic outlook.
Economic growth over the past few decades has generated good employment and business opportunities for Singaporeans, as well as the resources to support public infrastructure, healthcare and education.
Ms Ng Ling Ling spoke about the decline in the number of Singaporeans in the working ages, and asked how we will achieve economic growth to generate more opportunities for Singaporeans. Indeed, with a slowing resident workforce growth and a maturing economy, we will have to work harder to restructure the economy to sustain economic growth.
Economic growth is driven by new ideas, new technologies and output from the work of people. Even as we strengthen efforts to enhance our overall productivity, there will be a limit to economic growth if companies do not have enough workers with the necessary skills to support their businesses and activities here.
Under the Empower and Equip pillars of Forward Singapore, the Government is looking into ways to further develop our local workforce. This includes preparing our students well for jobs of the future by providing access to good quality education and diversifying pathways in schools. We invest heavily in the upskilling of Singaporeans, and help them to strengthen career health and reach their full potential. We also want to build a stronger pipeline of Singaporeans for leadership positions across different sectors of the economy.
Even as we strengthen the quality of our local workforce, there are not enough Singaporeans to meet all our economic and social needs. Remaining open to foreign manpower brings benefits to countries by filling skills shortages in the labour market, boosting the productive capacity of the economy, and supporting innovation. This is true too, for Singapore.
Some segments of the foreign workforce support the caregiving needs of Singaporeans. Other foreigners help companies in Singapore grow by filling manpower gaps. Businesses know this well. Companies, including Singaporean-owned ones, have been raising concerns about the lack of sufficient local workers, and the need for foreign manpower. Global talent, such as those coming in on the Overseas Networks and Expertise (ONE) Pass or Tech.Pass, also bring in investments, new business operations, technology, and job opportunities for Singaporeans.
We fully understand Singaporeans’ concerns about job competition, and we remain committed to ensuring that Singaporeans can compete fairly and strongly.
We have raised qualifying salaries over the years and introduced the Complementarity Assessment Framework (COMPASS). These measures ensure that the foreign workforce complements rather than displaces the local workforce. TAFEP – the Tripartite Alliance for Fair & Progressive Employment Practices – protects workers from discriminatory hiring practices. We will be enshrining the TAFEP guidelines into law.
We will also continue to transform our economy and industries to create better jobs for Singaporeans. Under the Industry Transformation Maps, we are pressing on with economic restructuring, automation, and re-designing jobs for higher productivity. The Government will continue to work with our unions to support industry and our workers as we transform the economy.
We must be prepared to work together as a society to smoothen the transition. There will be new technologies and processes to adapt to. Some roles could be replaced with new ones, and so we must all reskill and take on new functions. Also, with higher wages, a part of increased business costs may be passed on to consumers. While these cost increases may be calibrated to manage the impact on overall cost of living, we must still be prepared to pay more in the longer term to fairly value the work and services provided by our fellow Singaporeans in jobs currently with lower wages. We will benefit in the long run, with a more productive economy, better jobs and higher wages for Singaporeans.
c) Strengthening solidarity for a more cohesive society
Next, I will talk about the need to strengthen solidarity and maintain a cohesive society in Singapore.
I have spoken earlier about how one in three citizen marriages is transnational. As Singaporeans venture overseas for school, work and travel, they may meet and marry non-Singaporeans. Some return to Singapore to start and raise a family here. There are also others who meet and marry foreigners based in Singapore.
Singapore is also an attractive place for skilled people who come here to work, given our connectedness, our security, and quality of life. Over time, some of them may share our aspirations and ideals, and may want to make Singapore their home. We should welcome those who are prepared to make the long-term commitment to Singapore.
Mr Gan Thiam Poh spoke about reducing our old-age dependency ratio by boosting our birth rates, as well as taking in new Permanent Residents and citizens to support our ageing population. This has been the Government’s approach. While our policies do not seek to achieve any optimal old-age dependency ratio, welcoming such immigrants continues to play an important role in moderating the impact of ageing and low birth rates in our population. Most of our Permanent Residents and New Citizens granted each year are aged 40 and below.
Immigration has to be managed delicately. We have seen how tensions over immigration in other countries have led to fissures and divisions in society. We must not let that happen here in Singapore.
While most Singaporeans understand why we need immigrants, there are, understandably, concerns over competition for jobs and other resources, and how the texture and character of our society could change, and whether our infrastructure can keep up.
Since the tightening of our immigration framework in late 2009, we have maintained a measured and stable pace of immigration. Ms Cheng Li Hui asked about trends in the number of new citizenships and Permanent Residencies granted. In 2022, we granted about 23,100 new citizenships, including about 1,300 to children born overseas to Singaporean parents. We also granted about 34,500 new Permanent Residencies (PRs). The numbers of new citizenships and PRs granted in 2022 were slightly higher than pre-COVID.At last year’s COS, I explained how COVID-related travel restrictions and safe management measures had slowed down in-person processes for the grant of citizenship or PR. A number of approved applicants in 2020 and 2021 had yet to complete the in-person processes. And some applicants who had intended to apply during that period were also unable to complete their own processes to submit their applications. Hence, some of these applications were rolled over into 2022.
We consider very carefully, who we take in as immigrants. When granting PR or citizenship, we look at a comprehensive set of factors, including an individual’s family ties to Singaporeans, economic contributions, qualifications, family profile, age and how long they have stayed in Singapore. This ensures that new immigrants are rooted, able to integrate and contribute meaningfully here. All new adult citizens come from within our pool of Permanent Residents. That means they have been in Singapore for some time already. Second generation Permanent Residents serve National Service, and in the process forge bonds with other locals and contribute to the nation’s defence.
During the Forward Singapore engagements, Singaporeans reiterated the importance of safeguarding our identity as a multicultural and diverse society. To do so, we must remain open to people of different backgrounds and cultures. But it takes two hands to clap. We must welcome newcomers and help them integrate into our society. At the same time, newcomers should respect our values and norms and make efforts to adapt to our way of life.
The Government has been working with our partners to develop resources and conduct activities to help foreigners settle in and understand our local norms and culture. This is a whole-of-society effort where different stakeholders including newcomers, Singaporeans, community groups, and businesses all have a role to play.
To illustrate this better, let me share a story about the friendship between Margaret and Heidi. Ms Margaret Hou became a Permanent Resident last year. She has lived in Singapore for the last 10 years. She regularly volunteers at community events and interacts with residents from different social and ethnic backgrounds. She takes the effort to interact and forge friendships with locals. Her ex-colleague turned friend, Ms Heidi Yeo, who is Singaporean, appreciates Ms Margaret’s willingness to help whenever they had to work closely together in their respective job areas. They continue to meet up and help each other even though they are no longer colleagues, and their friendship has blossomed over the years. Heidi shares Singapore culture and history with Margaret, which helps Margaret to gain a deeper understanding and appreciation of Singapore. Margaret in turn pays it forward by helping other newcomers to integrate into the local community through chatgroups, monthly meetups and monthly sports or family activities involving local Singaporeans.
Such friendships show us how both locals and newcomers can make efforts to foster integration, and how we can come together to strengthen our bonds with each other, and our sense of belonging to Singapore, despite being from different backgrounds. This is what the Unite pillar of the Forward Singapore exercise is all about.
d) Planning ahead for a better home for generations to come
We continue to plan for the long term, and steward our scarce resources for both present and future generations.
Ms Ng Ling Ling asked whether the Government has long-term projections to understand how we should adjust our population policies to achieve desired outcomes for Singapore in the future, and how Singaporeans can be involved in this process.
We have engaged Singaporeans in thinking about our future. For example, as part of the Long-Term Plan review, we engaged Singaporeans of different age groups and backgrounds extensively to better understand how our land and infrastructure plans can meet their aspirations and future needs.Through the Build and Steward Pillars of Forward Singapore, we will further explore how we, as a society, can build a greener, more liveable and more sustainable home for all.
Planning for the future is a complex process. We will have to consider what our future population will look like, not just in terms of size but also composition and make-up. And this is contingent on many factors – various demographic trends, such as birth rates, life expectancies, and migration, as well as future social and economic needs. For instance, we need manpower to build our homes or care for our seniors, but the numbers could change with evolving family structures and the health of our ageing population. Our businesses’ manpower needs may vary, depending on the types of industries in our economy and ongoing economic transformation efforts. As our workforce continues to evolve in tandem with economic transformation, their needs too will change.
As such, we do not plan on a single population planning parameter. Instead, increasingly we develop various scenarios to stress-test our assumptions and allow for a range of possible outcomes.
In 2018, we provided an update that our total population is likely to be significantly below 6.9 million by 2030. Based on the various scenarios we have, this remains the case. The planning parameter of 6.9 million remains relevant for the 2030s.
Our aim is, as it always has been, to build better lives for current and future generations of Singaporeans. Our population policies are all aimed at this objective.
Looking beyond 2030, it is critical that we will continue to plan ahead of time, to maintain the flexibility to adjust our plans, respond to new trends and safeguard options for the future. This will help us to maintain a good quality living environment and home for all Singaporeans.
Mr Chairman, in conclusion, I have laid out our population strategies and the key considerations behind them.
In the coming years, our demographic realities will only become more keenly felt. Our ability to nurture a high-quality workforce while attracting the complementary foreign manpower we need, and to integrate newcomers into our society while maintaining social cohesion, will become ever more important for Singapore’s future.
This is a delicate balance and much will depend on how circumstances evolve. But we will continue to work hard to build a Singapore with the well-being of Singaporeans at the heart of it, with opportunities for all, a society where families matter and are supported and where we can be united even in diversity.
Everyone – individuals, families, communities, businesses and Government – has a role to play in ensuring that Singapore continues to be a home with opportunities, assurances, and a strong sense of solidarity. Together, let us work towards a better future for all Singaporeans.
 1.05 was a preliminary figure. The 2022 resident TFR is 1.04.