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Singapore's population challenge in a nutshell

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Madam Wong is a fiercely independent lady. Even at the age of 90, she insists on making a daily trip to her neighbourhood NTUC Fairprice supermarket to pick up some groceries, or just to take a look at the latest produce. On the way, she is sure to stop by the local coffee shop to chat with her friends, seniors who share the same spirit of independence and are out and about, despite getting along in years. Their conversations could be about the latest plot twist in a television drama, updates on their family members, or reminiscing about how things have changed over the years.

You would have encountered groups of such seniors around your neighbourhood, which will become a more common sight as Singapore’s population ages. The reason for an ageing population may seem self-evident, but is actually the result of two intertwined trends at the heart of Singapore’s population challenge — increasing life expectancy and low fertility rate.

Two trends, one tricky situation

So what exactly do these two trends mean?

On one hand, life expectancy in Singapore is on the rise, meaning that Singaporeans are living longer. This reflects a higher standard of living and affluence, and is a good thing, especially if our seniors can remain in good health and continue to be actively involved in the family, community, or even at the workplace.

At the same time, Singapore’s fertility rate – simply put, the average number of children women will have in their lifetime – remains low, with couples marrying later and having fewer children. Low fertility rates are not unique to Singapore, as many countries often deal with how to sustain and improve fertility rates as they become more developed.

Putting these together, at a population level, there will be more seniors than working adults or children in our midst. Current estimates suggest that the number of senior citizens (aged 65 years and above) is set to double by 2030.

Sizing up the potential impact of ageing

One way population ageing is measured is Old-Age Support Ratio (OASR), the ratio of those in working age (20 – 64 years) to those who are older (65 years and above). As a topline statistic, it has its limitations of course – in reality, not everyone 65 and above has stopped work; and likewise among those 20 – 64 years old, not all are working. Read more.

But hold your horses! The outlook may not necessarily be a gloomy one for us, if we consider Singapore’s specific situation, for three reasons:

1. Opportunities amidst population ageing. 

Assumptions of what ageing entails are increasingly overturned – many of our seniors, especially baby boomers, choose to continue working, and are staying active well into their later years. Hence, even as we prepare for the needs of an older population, there are opportunities ahead for employers and businesses; and room for society to grow, and for communities and families to come together.

2. Moving towards a more family-friendly Singapore.

Many couples in Singapore still desire to have children, and today’s dads are keen to be actively involved in parenthood. There are measures to support couples in the different stages of their marriage and parenthood journey. All in all, these measures help to make Singapore a great place for families.

A bright spot in Singapore's birth rates?

It’s still early days, but there are encouraging signs that things may be looking up where Singapore’s low birth rate is concerned. Read more.

3. Singapore remains open for business.

What does the economy have to do with rising life expectancy and low fertility rates? As it turns out, quite a lot! A calibrated foreign workforce policy supports economic growth, which in turn creates jobs for Singaporeans – for seniors, they can remain at work should they wish to do so; and couples have added stability and security to start families.

Holding fast to the things that matter most

There are undoubtedly pressures that Singapore faces with the twin trends that make up our population challenge. In other countries, this has whipped up controversy, and become a divisive issue that fragments societies – between people of different generations, income backgrounds, or ethnicity; whether it is to do with who foots the bill for rising healthcare costs, or who is welcome to stay and who must go.

Even as we face these tough decisions – finding the balance between economic and social, and reconciling the diversity of views – the deeper challenge may be in keeping Singapore society together, and holding on to what makes Singapore special. Fairness, respect, mutual understanding and trust are essential tools that will help us to bridge differences and bring people together, even as our population story, and Singapore’s story, continues to unfold.

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