Phases of Singapore's Demographic Development Post World War II

An emerging phase of demographic development brings new challenges for Singapore.

Date Posted

1 Jan 2010


Issue 7, 14 Jan 2010



From a population of 1 million in 1950, Singapore's resident population, comprising citizens and permanent migrants, has grown more than three and a half times to 3.7 million in 2009 (5.0 million, if foreigners with permits1 are included). Singapore's demographic change from the late 1940s can be differentiated into three phases characterised by distinct population trends and socioeconomic developments, with a fourth phase now emerging.

Table 1. Characteristics of Singapore's Demographic Phases


Figure 1. Population and Growth, 1950-2009

Fertility had begun to fall even before the family planning measures were put in place.


Throughout Singapore's various demographic phases, direct measures had been put in place to modify fertility behaviour. Some have contended that the anti-natalist policies carried out by the Singapore Family Planning and Population Board played an important role behind our sharply falling fertility,2,3 and some have noted that Singapore was seen as a "role model for government fertility control" programmes4 in the days when the global attention was on reducing fertility for the sake of sustainable development. Yet others have viewed Singapore as having "succeeded too well", with "unintended consequences".5 While selected individuals might have been influenced in their fertility decisions, it was more likely that government policies had acted as a catalyst in hastening a fertility transition which would have taken place even without direct intervention.

Three observations support this view. Firstly, fertility had begun to fall even before the family planning measures were put in place.6,7 Total Fertility Rate (TFR) had fallen from a peak of 6.56 in 1957 to 4.62 in 1965, before the government set up the Singapore Family Planning and Population Board in 1966. This suggests that even prior to Independence, women were already making a conscious decision to reduce fertility either through traditional family planning methods, or through the limited family planning services made available by the voluntary Singapore Family Planning Association.

Secondly, even with the reversal to a pro-natalist policy supporting childbearing from the late 1980s, fertility did not rise from its low levels. The socioeconomic case for having a small family had become so strong that despite three rounds of measures by the Government,8 fertility remained below 1.3 from 2003 to 2008. A well-educated population, ample job opportunities and expectations to work hard in a highly competitive environment had created strong forces making small families advantageous. Actualising any desire for a large family remained impractical for most.

Changes in the population, society and economy were already leading to a reduction in the number of children couples would have.

Thirdly, we observe that most low fertility societies around the world (for example, Spain, Italy, Germany, but also Hong Kong and Japan) did not have anti-natalist population policies to push fertility down. What most of these societies had in common were a well-educated population or a rapid rise in the education profile of women, increasing ages at marriage and childbearing, and an economy that had been successful in creating jobs for its people.9 Observers10,11 have noted that socioeconomic conditions could already have provided a favourable basis to the success of family planning programmes. While family planning policies are likely to have contributed to Singapore's pace of fertility decline, they are secondary to the fact that changes in the population, society and economy were already leading to a reduction in the number of children couples would have.

Lesthaeghe12 has suggested that the post-modernist values of industrialised countries have resulted in an environment favouring continued low fertility, leading such countries into a Second Demographic Transition.13 Lesthaeghe emphasises ideational changes—society and individuals influencing one another—that affect demographic behaviour related to the formation/dissolution of unions, marital/non-marital fertility behaviour; shifts towards individualism and self-fulfilment as higher order needs; and the formation of new societal norms. The role of men and women as economic agents in the commercial economy are not directly compatible with the role of mothers and fathers at home.14 With demands on limited time, trade-offs have to be made.

Singapore appears to have entered this Second Demographic Transition. With lifestyle changes, employment opportunities, economic progress and social development, couples have fewer children, no matter how much they desire children. Fertility is unlikely to rise now or in the future without some fundamental and large-scale changes.


Arising from a rapidly ageing population, continued low fertility and need for migrants,15 a fourth phase of Singapore's demographic development is emerging. A key characteristic of the fourth phase is that the main source of population growth in Singapore will shift more and more from natural increase to net migration.16 This is to be expected, as the Crude Death Rate is also likely to increase in the coming years as the baby boomers reach age 65 and above, and mortality starts to set in. Natural increase (i.e., births minus deaths) would fall towards zero with Singapore's below-replacement fertility, and migrant inflows will be needed to maintain population growth. The implications are discussed below.

Net migration will take over natural increase as the main source of population growth.

Addressing Lowest Low Fertility

Comparing attempts to address low fertility, one key difference between the experiences of East Asian countries and the Nordic countries, is the availability of comprehensive and quality state-provided childcare in the Nordic states. Arguments have already been made in Singapore to lower the formal age of education. As well as promoting early childhood educational development, this also reduces parents' burden in raising children and frees them to pursue careers, personal interests, and have more time with each other. One way to implement this is to take an opt-out approach, so that state-provided childcare becomes a societal norm rather than an exception. Opting-out also allows flexibility for some families who may prefer themselves or grandparents as primary caregivers.

Moving towards comprehensive, accessible and quality childcare for all will take time and resources, and will require a full review of current pro-natalist incentives and initiatives. It is worth considering how else the state can help working parents to reduce the burden of childrearing, given that ideal family size is in fact much higher than total fertility rate.17


In the third phase of demographic development, both permanent and temporary migration had been utilised to supplement the local population and workforce in the form of "replacement migration".18 This strategy will continue into the fourth phase, even if the inflow of foreign workers and immigrants is expected to be moderated.

Integration of migrants will be a key area of focus in the coming years,19 particularly if Singapore will have to depend more and more on migrants for population growth with natural increase declining. While it has been argued before that Singapore was a migrant society to begin with, it should be noted that there were communal goals among the diverse population at the time of Independence, and some sense of shared identity today after 44 years as a nation. This is an important difference from the migrants of today, who may be entering society without the same sense of shared communal values.20 Do they integrate and adapt; do they preserve their own immigrant identity and work within their enclaves; do they change the current shared values; do they enrich Singapore as a cultural melting pot—these are issues which need to be further reviewed.

Social and Age Structural Shift

The combined effect of low fertility and sustained migration will also mean that Singapore will undergo a huge age structure shift in the population. While this has been in the background for the third phase of demographic development, pronounced changes would only come after the post-war baby boomers reach age 65 years (Figure 2). The intake of permanent migrants in working ages from 1990 (third phase of demographic development) onwards will also start to reach age 65 from about year 2030, and will further raise the numbers of elderly in the population.

Figure 2. Population Age Structure, 1990, 2009 and 2030

Permanent migrants in working ages from 1990 will start to reach age 65 from year 2030 and will further raise the numbers of elderly in the population.

With fertility below 1.3 and the new birth cohorts in the current 35,000 to 40,000 in the foreseeable future, the age structure imbalance will be accentuated. Singapore's dependency ratio will rise quickly in the near future, with the old dependency ratio overtaking the young dependency ratio in the future.

Singlehood proportions are high at about 13% to 15% for residents aged 40–44 years.21 Proportions of those with zero or one child among ever-married resident females are rising. In 2008, 8% of those aged 40–49 years have no children, while 18% have only one child. The large increase in the elderly and the low numbers of children in the local population will eventually cause strains at the family level and add pressure to current social structures. Single or widowed elderly without children or near kin may have difficulty even in engaging and managing domestic helpers to look after them. The State may have to be prepared to come in on a larger scale at some point.


As with the other earlier phases, the fourth phase of demographic development in Singapore will bring new challenges to policymakers. Raising fertility would solve its own problems, and would be a more sustainable long-term solution. The Prime Minister announced additional procreation incentives during the National Day Rally in August 2008. While a large increase in fertility to 1.5 remains an optimistic target, it remains to be seen how much the population will respond to the additional procreation incentives, and whether further measures or social trade-offs will have to be made.



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Dr Koh Eng Chuan is Director of the Income, Expenditure and Population Statistics Division in the Department of Statistics, Ministry of Trade and Industry. He has a PhD in Demography from the Australian National University. His areas of interest are in marriage and fertility studies, as well as population trends and movements. He is also a visiting affiliate of the Asia Research Institute, National University of Singapore. The views expressed in this article are his own.


  1. Includes temporary professional and skilled workers, domestic workers, foreign students and social visitors with permits who stay for certain periods of time.
  2. Wan, F. K. and Saw, S. H. "Knowledge, Attitudes and Practice of Family Planning in Singapore." Studies in Family Planning 6 (1975):109-112.
  3. Yap, M. T. "Fertility and Population Policy: The Singapore Experience." Journal of Population and Social Security (Population), Supplement to Volume 1 (2003): 643- 658.
  4. Lee, S. M., et al. "Fertility Decline and Pronatalist Policy in Singapore." International Family Planning Perspectives 17 (1991): 65-69+73
  5. Anderson, B. "Unintended Population Consequences of Policies." Population and Environment 25 (2004): 377- 390.
  6. Chang, C. T. Fertility Transition in Singapore (Singapore: Singapore University Press, 1974).
  7. Fawcett, J. T. and Khoo, S E. "Singapore: Rapid Fertility Transition in a Compact Society." Population and Development Review 6 (1980): 549-579.
  8. Including tax reliefs and rebates, baby bonuses, paternity leave, increases in childcare places and subsidies, paid maternity leave for the third child, increases in the length of maternity leave, etc. in 1987, 2001 and 2004.
  9. Atoh, M., et al. "The Second Demographic Transition in Asia? Comparative Analysis of the Low Fertility Situation in East and South-East Asian Countries." The Japanese Journal of Population 2 (2004): 42-75.
  10. Fawcett and Khoo (1980), and similarly Atoh, et al. (2004:47).
  11. Ridker, R. G. "Desired Family Size and the Efficacy of Current Family Planning Programmes." Population Studies 23 (1969): 279-284.
  12. Lesthaeghe, R. "The Second Demographic Transition in Western Countries: an Interpretation," in Gender and Family Change in Industrialised Countries, eds. K. Mason and A. Jensen (UK: Oxford Clarendon Press, 1995): 17-62.
  13. Van de Kaa, D. J. "Europe's Second Demographic Transition." Population Bulletin 42 (1987): 1–57.
  14. McDonald, P. "Theories Pertaining to Low Fertility." International Union for the Scientific Study of Population Working Group on Low Fertility. Tokyo, 21-23 March 2001.
  15. Wong, K. S. "DPM's Speech at the Committee of Supply. Prime Minister's Office, Sep 2004., accessed 28 November 2009.
  16. In the period 2000-2008, Net Migration (187,400) balanced Natural Increase (181,900). In the near future, net migration would take over natural increase as the main source of population growth. Author's computations of estimates based on Saw, S. H. Singapore Population in Transition (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1970) and Reports on Births and Deaths, various years, Immigration and Checkpoints Authority.
  17. Sources: Reports on Births and Deaths, Immigration and Checkpoints Authority. Reference to "Ideal Family Size" from Yap, M.T., "Population Policies and Programs in Singapore" in Population Policies and Programs in East Asia, ed. Andrew Mason (Hawaii: East-West Centre, 2001); reference to "Ideal Family Size 2007" based author's survey results based on 754 respondents aged 25 to 39 years.
  18. United Nations Population Division. Replacement Migration: Is It a Solution to Declining and Ageing Populations? (New York: UNDP, 2000).
  19. Ministry of Community Development, Youth and Sports (MCYS). National Integration Council to Foster Social Integration., accessed 31 August 2009.
  20. Yeoh noted that social integration concerns may arise from differences within racial categories as it becomes "inflected by differences in nationality and history". For example, the Chinese community now is not going to be the same as the Chinese community a generation later with the migrants coming in. Yeoh, B. "Migration, International Labour and Multicultural Policies in Singapore." Asia Research Institute Working Paper No 19. February 2004.
  21. Singapore Department of Statistics 2009. Population Trends 2009., accessed 30 November 2009.

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