The Issue of Falling Fertility Rate in Singapore

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Table of Contents

  • Background
  • Anti-natalist Era
  • Pro-Natalist Era
  • Evolving Socio-Cultural Norms
  • Conclusion

Singapore is an epitome of a success story in which the burgeoning population boom was curbed efficiently. Family planning had become imperative due to the strain on scarce land resources and possible diminishing economic prospects for the budding independent nation. This fuelled the state to place population control at the forefront of national agenda. The nation’s accomplishments in population control can be attributed largely to top-down, targeted state intervention. The People’s Action Party’s long history of dominance in Parliament accorded it the political clout to implement controversial policies with relatively less resistance (Yap 651). Their influence on procreation decisions was no exception. Although the government feels that marriage and family sizes are private matters, they believe that the salient, wider societal consequences of low fertility warrant state intervention (Yap 643). This paper contends that while government intervention was the central macro-socioeconomic driver for the falling fertility during the 1960s-2000s, such measures should be considered in tandem with other prevailing factors, which were more fundamental in guiding familial decision-making and marital fertility. These include personal, socio-cultural influences, economic pressures, and evolving social norms, which were in a state of constant flux during that time frame.

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Up till the 1940s, population growth had been driven by the influx of immigrants. The Total Fertility Rate (TFR) peaked in 1957 at more than six children per woman, after which the post-war baby boom extended into the mid-1960s (Yap 644). At this point, the national family planning programme came into play, whose remarkable impact saw plummeting TFR to replacement levels by 1975 (Yap 644). This sparked another slew of concerns, and a subsequent change in policy direction, to be examined later. Overall, demographic policy orientation started as anti-natalist in the late 1960s to early 1970s, and has since been reversed to be selectively pro-natalist.

It is crucial to frame the understanding of population policies along racial and socioeconomic lines. Immigration history is been instrumental in accounting for Singapore’s multi-racial population composition, with each ethnic group having distinct demographic and socioeconomic attributes (Yap 644). According to Drakakis-Smith and Graham, variations in fertility behaviour are rooted in ethnic identity (69). Fertility rate and family sizes are highest among the Malay community, followed by the Indians, and then the Chinese (Yap 644). The Chinese are top in socioeconomic attainment, followed by the Indians and the Malays (Yap 644). These distinctions can be attributed to the cultural-religious dimension among Malays, whereby children are perceived as gifts from God (Yap 658). Conversely, the practical cost of childbearing is paramount to Chinese Singaporeans. This diversity introduces complexities into population planning. Since the Chinese comprise three-quarters of the resident population, their predominance accords them a substantial influence on TFR (Gavin 89).

Anti-natalist Era

1966 heralded the beginning of a host of anti-natalist initiatives, with the Singapore Family Planning and Population Bureau established to oversee the family planning programme. In 1969, legalised sterilisations and abortion were complemented by paid maternity leave for who underwent sterilisation after the second child, and reimbursement of accouchement fees (Teo and Yeoh 81). This integrated, targeted approach saw 112,568 sterilisations and 288,666 abortions across 1969-1988. Furthermore, disincentives included restrictions of maternity leave to two children, and income tax relief to three children, progressively higher accouchement fees for higher parity births, and loss of priority for school placements after two children (Teo and Yeoh 81).

The United Nations Fund for Population Activities contends that the lack of opposition to family planning formed the crux of success (15). Resistance from family elders was minimal, even amidst the erosion of the extended family system through subsidized Housing Development Board (HDB) units which favoured the nuclear family. Furthermore, these legal reforms generated public consciousness and upward momentum by altering mindsets towards family planning (United Nations Fund for Population Activities 12). As such, goals were fulfilled, with the TFR falling to replacement level in 1975, remaining below replacement level since 1977, and thereafter plummeting to 1.4 in the mid-1980s (Yap 644).

However, Teo and Yeoh postulates that it was other prevailing, facilitative conditions which enabled policy success (83). The anti-natalist policies coincided with emerging trends like sustained economic growth, growing emancipation of women in the workforce, the dual-income family, and improving socioeconomic status of women. These circumstances boosted the policies, which would have yielded muted effects if it had operated in isolation.

Furthermore, these policies saw ethnic and social class differentials. The inherent ethnic differences in fertility behaviour persisted. Although fertility for all three ethnic groups fell to replacement level in the mid-1970s, the Malay TFR rose to replacement level and beyond thereafter, while the falling trend in TFR among Chinese and Indians lingered (Yap 647). Drakakis-Smith and Graham reasons that the class divide operates through the relative level of education and, probably, the differential reliance on having more children as potential income sources (84). As wealthier households already tended to be smaller, the disincentives impacted poorer families disproportionally.

The rising singlehood, later marriages and childbearing among the educated was perceived as a waste of talent, having knock-on effects on workforce quality. Compounded with the dwindling labour quantity experienced in the 1970s, the future economic security of Singapore was at stake (Jean 220). In fact, this socioeconomic differential in fertility prompted the shift in procreation policy in the mid-1980s.

Pro-Natalist Era

After roughly a decade of below-replacement level fertility, the mid-1980s became the turning point. The demographic transition had to be reversed, to develop a larger skilled workforce to maintain economic competitiveness. Following former Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew’s 1983 National Day Rally speech about the “lopsided” pattern of procreation and marriage, policies in 1984 aimed to lighten the responsibilities of prospective young, highly-educated parents to encourage procreation (Yap 652). The “graduate mother scheme” gave priority in primary school registration to children from families where the mother holds a university degree, along with increased enhanced child relief for better-educated women for up to three children. Class biases were propagated through fuelling an elite-group solidarity through the Social Development Unit (Drakakis-Smith and Graham 78). This created platforms for graduate, single government officials to mingle and hopefully settle down.

On the other hand, disincentives for lower income families included sterillisation cash incentives and raises in government hospital accouchement fees which rendered delivery charges more costly (Yap 652).

In 1987, the two-child policy was replaced with the “three, or more if you can afford it” policy. The package of procreation incentives encouraged the better-educated mothers to have at least three children. For instance, MediSave could be tapped on to pay for delivery and hospital charges for the third child. Furthermore, public housing priority schemes empowered couples with a third child to secure larger units, coupled with housing grants and the ability to rent public housing flats if their purchase units were not ready. This spared young couples the need to delay marriage while securing housing, restricting childbearing years. Mandatory pre-sterilisation counselling for educated men and women with only one or two children was introduced, while women with fewer than 3 children seeking abortion must undergo pre-abortion counselling (Yap 655). The exclusivity is notable, given that the low-income, lowly-educated qualified for cash grants merely by accepting family planning.

Initially, the TFR rose from about 1.6 children per woman prior to 1987, to nearly 2 children per woman in 1988 (Yap 656). However, fertility rates among the younger, below 30, age groups started to fall below the 1986 level thereafter. In fact, at this time frame, the effects of further postponement of marriage and childbearing materialised across the 20s and 30s age groups (Yap 657).

The ethnic differential from the anti-natalist era persisted, with these incentives favouring the Chinese, primarily because of their predominance in the wealthier groups at the higher end of the workforce. Drakakis-Smith and Graham posit that socioeconomic status is more influential than ethnicity in Singaporeans’ awareness of and attitudes towards the pro-natalist policies (85). Therefore, although differences in fertility behaviour may be rooted in ethnic identity, government control must manifest through class interests.

An inherent contradiction may be a chief reason for the ultimate failure of pro-natalist policies to augment fertility. Efforts to boost fertility rates while simultaneously raising female labor force placed conflicting demands on women to fulfil their dual roles at home and at work. This is in line with underlying evolving social-cultural norms which will be delineated in the following section.

Evolving Socio-Cultural Norms

The policy influences by the government should not be analysed in isolation. Instead, it is the evolving socio-cultural norms which are fundamental in shaping shared fertility decision-making.

The most noteworthy change is the elevated socioeconomic status of women, as a result of rapid industrialization and economic advancement. According to Wong and Leong, the enrolment of women in institutions of tertiary learning has improved from about a third of that of men in the 1960s to three-quarters in the 1990s, while the labour force participation rate leapt from below 20% in 1957 to 50% in 1990. Greater economic opportunities for women have widened their aspirations and freed many from financial independence on men (Gavin 90). As women break out of their traditional roles and enter the public realm, priorities and attitudes toward family formation evolve.

With changing times, singles perceive marriage as a personal issue rather than a social and familial duty, leading them to stress their personal freedom and self-actualisation, an attractive alternative to marriage and procreation (Gavin 94). Given this, it is likely that priority is given to career advancement, financial stability and material success, which are widely considered a precondition of marriage. It hence comes as no surprise that singlehood trends have risen, with delays in marriage and childbearing especially among the highly-educated.

With rising literacy rates and empowerment, women’s awareness of government policies was at levels comparable to that of men, a signal of women’s high level of public knowledge and engagement with the public realm (Teo and Yeoh 90). This triggered a shift of shared decision-making in family planning, especially since most of the incentives and disincentives directly affected the ability of women to fulfill their normative domestic roles within the home. As such, women were most responsive to direct benefits that impinge on their social reproductive roles, such as enhanced eligibility for school placements and public housing schemes (Teo and Yeoh 92).

In terms of decision-making, women negotiated fertility decisions within the constraints set and opportunities provided by broader macro-societal conditions (Teo and Yeoh 92). However, ultimate decisions seemed to be skewed towards personal autonomy, with government interference exerting a negligible influence. According to Teo and Yeoh, while 60% of women said that government policies did influence the size of the family in Singapore in general, 64% said that the policies did not influence their fertility outcomes. This is line with the common consensus that “decisions about family size are personal and should not be a matter for government interference” (Graham 229). Indeed, government policies do not override personal circumstances such as concerns over financial resources, opportunity costs of childbearing, education, childcare requirements, imparting values, and compromised work-life balance following procreation.

Where a policy conforms to women’s marriage and procreations principles plans and decisions, it will be taken advantage of, but it is disregarded where it runs counter to other personal circumstances (Teo and Yeoh 93).


This paper has outlined the principles behind government intervention to population control over the years, while acknowledging the fundamentality of personal circumstances and evolving societal norms in influencing fertility decisions during 1960s-2000s. As Jean contends, Singapore has established and altered population control policies during its economic restructuring in ways that place economic development above the multi-dimensional needs of families (217).

As fertility rates remain dismal, it is crucial for government policies to gain acceptance in the collective consciousness (Drakakis-Smith and Graham 83). The private should be realigned with the public, to reconcile the state’s priority to achieve demographics which enable sustained economic advancement, with the immediate concerns of the family unit. Ultimately, these two realms are interpenetrative and reciprocal, with fertility decisions being the outcome of the mediation between personal circumstances and public arena considerations.

Given that Singapore’s traditional value systems are family-centric, the government should tackle structural barriers to create facilitating environmental conditions for family planning, taking in account the reciprocal, multi-faceted aspects of couples’ lives, while alleviating their anxieties toward family planning in an integrated approach. Promoting shared responsibilities in child-rearing and gender equity would help alleviate the stark choices women face in choosing between a career and family (Gavin 97). There is more room for the establishment of family-friendly workplaces, which would incentivise procreation.   

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