Tiny Singapore risks economic gloom without big baby boom

Thu Aug 30, 2012 5:12pm EDT
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By John O'Callaghan

SINGAPORE (Reuters) - History suggests Singapore will enjoy a welcome baby boom in this Year of the Dragon, the most auspicious for births in the Chinese zodiac.

But after 25 years of state-sponsored matchmaking and fertility-boosting campaigns, the government's attempts to arrest a sliding birth rate are falling flat, with potentially profound consequences for the wealthy Asian city-state.

The calls to conception are now urgent and constant to citizens whose fertility ranks last among 222 nations in the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency's World Factbook.

Faced with dismal statistics like that, the government has begun a review of population and immigration policy and says it plans new measures to encourage births by the time it publishes the results of its consultation early next year.

The message to have more babies is all the more pressing as resentment builds over an influx of foreigners who now make up more than a third of the population of 5.2 million, a factor that is eroding support for the long-ruling People's Action Party.

"We have a problem. The long-term trend is down but we cannot give up," Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said in a speech on Sunday about the nation's future. "We need to create the right environment, the right social environment, the right ethos so that Singaporeans want to settle down and have kids."

Social and economic engineering is nothing new in Singapore, where a firm government hand helped to steer a small island with no natural resources into one of the world's most affluent countries in a little over a generation.

But the relentless drop in the birth rate reveals the limits of that influence in what has been described as a "nanny state".   Continued...

Babies lie in cots at a maternity ward in Singapore in this March 29, 2007 file photo. REUTERS/Vivek Prakash/Files