Today's Opinions, Tomorrow's Reality 

Shrinking Singapore

By David G. Young

Singapore, March 19, 2006 --  

With clusters of densely packed high rise apartments scattered throughout this small island nation, you'd think underpopulation would be the least of Singapore's worries. You'd be thinking wrong. With one of the lowest fertility rates in the world - 1.05 children per woman in 20051 - current trends foretell depopulation and economic decline for this city-state.

Like many European countries facing similar problems, Singapore has plenty of poorer neighbors whose residents would be happy to fill the void. Lines at the main border checkpoint with poorer Malaysia can be long. In nearby Indonesia, where wages are far lower still, there are tens of millions of economic migrants in waiting.

The prospect of mass immigration is upsetting to the Singapore government, dominated by the wealthy Chinese majority, which rules the island with infamously patronizing policies. Much like the white Europeans a continent away, the elite of Singapore are reluctant to reverse population decline by letting in darker skinned Muslim immigrants who come from a different culture.

In the case of Singapore, there is already a local minority of ethnic Malay residents. Poorer, less educated, and segregated by their Muslim culture, the government knows that letting in more Malays from Indonesia and Malaysia could signal the eventual end to the Chinese-dominated culture of the island.

It is for these reasons that the government has embarked on a program to encourage marriage and children - especially by Chinese families. Low birthrate European countries have tried similar programs with limited success. France has managed to stop its birth dearth through generous family subsidies, but such programs in Sweden have failed.2,3

Unless something changes, most of Europe is on the brink of severe depopulation. Visitors to Berlin or Budapest two generations from now may well find a largely Muslim city of Arabs and Kurds, the descendants of today's relatively high-birthrate migrants to the European Union.

While accepting such changes in ethnicity and culture is difficult for members of the historic majority, cultural preservation is only part of the problem. The people choosing to limit, delay, and forgo childbirth tend to be more educated and more intelligent than the population at large. Since intelligence is largely inherited, the greatest long-term effect of low fertility will be the gradual dumbing down of the world's population. The descendants of the Chinese in Singapore or the Germans in Munich may well be cleaning toilets for the smarter and better educated migrants from higher birthrate countries.

This is a terrifying prospect to Singapore's Chinese elite, who sit at the top of a deservedly proud culture almost obsessed with success and wealth. The irony is that the same coveted path to prosperity for the individual encourages deferring marriage and children, which ultimately means a collapse in prosperity for Singapore's Chinese community as a whole.

Singapore's solution - not surprisingly for a country that bans chewing gum and fines citizens for unflushed toilets - is government intervention. Government-sponsored dating services, government bonuses for having additional children, and subsidized child care4 may only delay an inevitable decline of the community. Several generations from now, Singapore will either resemble the Muslim Malay-dominated cities to the north, or the sparsely populated island that existed before Sir Thomas Raffles founded the British Colony in 1819.


1. The CIA World Factbook, Singapore, 2005

2. The Straits Times, Suede Success? Not Anymore., March 18, 2006

3. Ibid., Liberte Equalite Fraternite, Family, March 18, 2006

4. The Washington Post, With Birthrate Falling, Singapore Targets 'Lifestyle Impotency', September 11, 2004