Why does Singapore have such a low birth rate?

In the comments, Collin asked:

How is it the most productive, functional country Singapore has one of the lowest birth rate in the world? Is this robot future in which only the better off have children? Why is it richer the world is the less people can afford children?

Right now the total fertility rate in Singapore is at about 1.2 and at times it has slipped down as far as 1.16.  (Though it just went up to 1.29, perhaps because of “dragon babies,” noting that intertemporal substitution may snatch some of this back.)  Why?

1. Singapore does education very well, and education lowers birth rates.

2. Singapore land and housing prices are especially high, which makes it very costly to have a family with three kids.  Long working hours are expected too.

3. Singapore is a lot more fun than it used to be, and in this regard it has improved more than say France has.  Children are a bit more fun, because modern life is safer, but “the fun of children” is subject to Baumol’s cost disease.

4. Women are doing very well in Singapore and arguably they are not so willing to marry down in terms of income and educational status.  I was struck, when I gave a talk to the economists at the Civil Service College in Singapore this summer, that well over half the audience was female.  Sadly for some, rates of female “singlehood” for women in their twenties are still rising (pdf, very useful).  Controlling for education, however, female singlehood is not going up, which indicates the decline in fertility is related to the rise in education.  And in that same piece you will find direct evidence for a “marriage squeeze” for well educated women and less educated men.  That same squeeze doesn’t seem as strong in the other wealthy East Asian countries.

5. This 209 pp. cross-national comparative study (pdf, also very useful) suggests that Singapore’s generous childbearing subsidies do not work because women are still expected to shoulder so many responsibilities of child rearing.  The traditional family model there is stronger than in say France.  At the same time, France is a culture of leisure, long vacations, and limited work hours in a way which is quite far from practices in Singapore.

6. Modern fairytales do not work.  Rap music also does not work (try this video, if you need help), nor do government-sponsored cruises and speed dating services.

7. It is suggested that population density lowers birth rates.

8. Child care and subsidized child care have been less common in Singapore than in France (see about p.119 of this pdf, the comparative study cited above), though Singapore has been changing in this regard.

Here is a typical Singaporean answer to the question:

What is stopping you from having more than 1-2 children?
“Very stressful, because when they misbehave, you have to scold them.”

Why do you think some Singaporeans are not having children nowadays?
“It is very stressful for Singaporeans as the cost of living has gone up and they do not have time for their children. More women are now busy working too.”

If you are interested in the comparison, ethnic Chinese in Malaysia have a total fertility rate of about 1.8.  Malays in Singapore have a TFR of about 1.6, whereas the ethnic Chinese and ethnic Indians in Singapore are just barely above 1.0.  To me that suggests that both culturally-specific-to-Chinese-high-earner factors and cost-of-living-in-Singapore factors are playing a significant role.  Malay population growth, in terms of Malay babies born in Malaysia, is robust.  Perhaps Singaporean men need more confidence.  In Shanghai, by the way, the rate is barely above 1.0.

If I had to put it all in a sentence, I might try this: in Singapore, work and educational norms have shifted far faster than have family norms, relative to other birth-subsidizing countries such as France.

Note, most of all, that the low birth rate in Singapore is not the fault of Lee Kuan Yew.


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