Singapore Adopts New Immigration Policy to Correct its Regrettable Population Control

Over 30 to 40 years ago, the fledgling city-state of Singapore was forced to adopt drastic population disincentive measures to control its then increasing population.

The early government leaders of this now booming tiny city-state were worried that their relatively high total fertility rate (TFR) of 5.41 in 1960s would become unsustainable and cause social and economic problems. The new Singaporean government, which just gained its independence from Malaysia in 1965, was alarmed by this high TFR and was determined to remedy the situation.

From my previous post:

Like the Philippines, Singapore started to control its population several decades ago. It was in the 1960s and 1970s that neo-Malthusian intellectual Paul R. Ehrlich achieved tremendous influence. From 1960s to 1970s, Singaporean politicians were worried about their country’s burgeoning population. This led to the promulgation of population control policies known as “population disincentives” designed to increase the costs of bearing third, fourth, and subsequent children. The tiny city-state’s Malthusian policies produced politically desired results, as its total fertility rate radically dropped to only 1.006 in 1975 from 5.45 in 1960.

However, the country’s replacement rate continued to drop at an alarming level, a situation that forced its policy planners to rethink their population control agenda.  Thus, in the 1980s Singapore’s policy planners decided to reverse their population control program. So instead of discouraging families to have at least two children, the government allowed them to have “three or more, if you can afford it”. It even rewarded productive families with tax rebates, subsidies for daycare, priority in school enrollment for children from large families, priority in assignment of large families to Housing and Development Board apartments, among other government incentives.

But despite reversing its population control policies, Singapore still saw the continued decline of its TFR, from 1.15 in 2000 to an alarming 0.78 in 2012, which breached the replacement rate of 2.1. This very low TFR spooked Singapore’s ruling People’s Action Party that it recently adopted a white paper titled “A sustainable population for a dynamic Singapore” in January this year.


The Executive Summary of the white paper states (emphasis mine):

Our citizen population reached a turning point in 2012, as our first cohort of Baby Boomers turned 65. Singapore will experience an unprecedented age shift between now and 2030. Over 900,000 Baby Boomers, more than a quarter of the current citizen population, will enter their silver years. From 2020 onwards, the number of working-age citizens will decline, as older Singaporeans retiring outnumber younger ones starting work. At our current low birth rate, our citizen population will age rapidly, and also start declining from 2025, if we do not take in any new immigrants.

The white paper reveals that the only possible solution to remedy Singapore’s fast-dwindling population is immigration.

The purpose of the white paper is to “set out the key considerations and roadmap for Singapore’s population policies to address this demographic challenge.”

It also “outlines the Government’s policies to maintain a strong Singaporean core in the population, regulate how many new Singapore citizens (SCs) and permanent residents (PRs) we take in, create jobs and opportunities for Singaporeans, build a high quality living environment, as well as strengthen our identity and society.”


Furthermore, the white paper states that Singapore’s population must rest on the following three key pillars:

  • First, Singaporeans form the core of our society andthe heart of our nation. To be a strong and cohesive society, we must have a strong Singaporean core.
  • Second, our population and workforce must support a dynamic economy that can steadily create good jobs and opportunities to meet Singaporeans’ hopes and aspirations. Many Asian cities are modernising rapidly, and catching up on us. Singapore must continue to develop and upgrade to remain a key node in the network of global cities, a vibrant place where jobs and opportunities are created. A dynamic economy will provide us with more resources and room to pursue inclusive growth strategies to benefit all segments of our society.
  • Third, we must continue to keep Singapore a good home. Our city must continue to be well-managed, well-planned, and well-developed. We must meet the infrastructure needs of a changing population and economy in a timely and efficient way, while preserving and enhancing a green environment, so that Singapore can be a unique, bustling ‘City in a Garden’.

The Singaporean government is to be guided by the following population parameters:

  • 2012 – A total population of 5.31 million comprised of 3.82 million residents (of which 3.29 million are citizens) and 1.49 million non-residents
  • 2020 – A total population of 5.8 to 6 million total comprised of 4 to 4.1 million residents (of which 3.5 to 3.6 million are citizens) and according to Rappler’s calculation 1.7 to 2 million are non-residents
  • 2030 – A total population of 6.5 to 6.9 million comprised of 4.2 to 4.4 million residents (of which 3.6 to 3.8 million are citizens) and according to Rappler’s calculation 2.3 to 2.7 million are non-residents

The role of immigrants in Singapore’s booming economy:

We will continue to welcome immigrants who can contribute to Singapore, share our values and integrate into our society. More Singaporeans are marrying non-Singaporeans. About 40% of Singaporean marriages each year are between a Singaporean and a non-Singaporean – some 9,000 in 2011 alone.

We do not expect our TFR to improve to the replacement rate of 2.1 in the short term. Taking in younger immigrants will help us top up the smaller cohorts of younger Singaporeans, and balance the ageing of our citizen population. To stop our citizen population from shrinking, we will take in between 15,000 and 25,000 new citizens each year. We will review this immigration rate from time to time, depending on the quality of applicants, our birth rates, and our changing needs.

The limitations:

However, we cannot allow in an unlimited number of foreign workers. We do not want to be overwhelmed by more foreign workers than we can absorb, or to expand our total population beyond what our island is able to accommodate. Too many foreign workers will also depress wages and reduce the incentive for firms to upgrade workers and raise productivity.

The need to judiciously balance its population:

We need to find a balance. If we do too little to address the demographic challenge, we risk becoming a steadily greying society, losing vitality and verve, with our young people leaving for opportunities elsewhere. But if we take in too many immigrants and foreign workers, we will weaken our national identity and sense of belonging, and feel crowded out of our own home. This White Paper aims for a judicious balance to achieve our goal of: A Sustainable Population for a Dynamic Singapore.

This shows that Singapore learned from its population control mistakes and is willing to correct them by carefully, judiciously planning ahead to address its demographic challenge.

Now if you want to become a Singaporean citizen, you need to understand the government’s immigration vision and economic agenda. Based on the white paper, the city-state’s immigration policy is founded on Lee Kuan Yew’s political philosophy of egalitarian free market system.

Here’s former Prime Minister and Singapore’s founding father Lee Kuan Yew’s attitude toward immigration:

“Mind you, immigration of the highly intelligent and highly hard-working, very hard-working people. If you get immigration of the fruit-pickers you may not get very far.” [Mr. Lee’s interview with Charlie Rose]

Singapore’s most revered founding father’s vision is to attract only the best of the best– the scientists, the investors, the IT experts, the intellectuals, and highly skilled workers. However, the city-state’s new immigration policies are being opposed by left-leaning Singaporeans who are worried that the ruling People’s Action Party (PAP) are allowing too many immigrants into Singapore.

LKY’s son, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, vowed to continue his father’s legacy and vision– to keep Singapore relevant to the world.

Meanwhile, the Philippine government’s answer to our declining– not rising– TFR is more welfare and Reproductive Health policies and measures previously implemented by previous administrations.

The truth is, Singapore did not become an economic tiger by curbing its population. To develop Singapore, its founding father Lee Kuan Yew did exactly the opposite of what Filipino intellectuals advocated and politicians did in the Philippines. Instead of embracing protectionism and limiting foreign ownership of land and businesses, Lee Kuan Yew adopted free market reforms like lower taxes (the country has no capital gains tax), less regulations, no import tariffs except for duties on alcoholic beverages, tobacco products, petroleum products, and a few other items, no export duties, among others. In Singapore it will only take three days to start a business compared to our 35 days. This made Singapore the freest economy in the world and the easiest place to start and do business, according to Doing Business Index.

I must repeat: Singapore did not become an economic tiger in Asia by controlling its population. It became so by adopting free market reforms and sound economic policies.




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