It's the Density, Stupid

In an eight-paragraph letter, writer Ivan Goh compares the total fertility rate of Chinese in Singapore (1.08), Indians (1.09) and Malay Singaporeans (1.64) and essentially asks why the TFR rate for Malays is so much higher.

“Perhaps the Government should find out why Malay women are more willing to have babies,” he wrote. [link]


Our sad story

By 2012, Singapore is the country with the lowest fertility in the world. It is a serious issue and we think we may have found a solution to it. If only it is as simple as that: Look at the Singaporean Malays, learn their bedroom secrets, convince rest to adopt their ways and Singapore's fertility woes will be resolved. In truth, the causes behind low fertility involved factors which are more complex, often intertwined and paradoxical.

A comparison was done by Swee-Hock Saw in 1990 comparing fertility rates in Malaysia and Singapore, two countries with very similar language and cultural demographics. In the study, it is worth noting that by 1987, Chinese fertility rate in peninsular Malaysia (Malays 4.51, Chinese 2.25, Indians 2.77) was greater than the Malay's fertility in Singapore (Malays 2.16, Chinese 1.48, Indians 1.95). Singapore only ceased to be part of Malaysia since 1965. What changes did Singapore go through in two decades that causes such a significant differences between the fertility demographics of both countries?

Antinatalism by the PAP

Some Singaporean bloggers penned articles [such as this] and [this] suggesting that antinatalistic policies in the early days of independence as the core reason behind the drastic decrease in fertility rates from mid 1960s onwards. This was noteworthy and difficult to dispute. However by early 1980s, the government did a sharp U-turn when it realised the adverse impact of a declining birth rate on Singapore in the long run and implemented pro-family policies and campaigns ever since. None of these campaigns or pro family incentives worked.

Was it Lee Kuan Yew's fault?

Not really. Let's recap by comparing Singapore's fertility rates between 1987 and today:

1987 (Malays 2.16, Chinese 1.48, Indians 1.95)
2012 (Malays 1.64, Chinese 1.08, Indians 1.09)

Note Malaysia's big fertility changes over the same period

1987 (Malays 4.51, Chinese 2.25, Indians 2.77)
2012 (Malays 2.60, Chinese 1.50, Indians 1.70) [source]

A quick check on the World Factbook (fertility by country) reveals that almost every country within the Top 100 are developing countries. All urbanised countries have a birth rate below the required replacement rate of 2.10. Undeniably, urbanisation is one of the key factors behind low fertility rates. Other factors include women marrying at a much later age, women entering the workforce, parents opting for quality over quantity by investing heavily on one child and obsoleting the notion of having kids to depend on during old age.

The big question - Should we be looking at the Malays?

No. Consider this:

1987 (Malays 2.16, Chinese 1.48, Indians 1.95)
2012 (Malays 1.64, Chinese 1.08, Indians 1.09)
Drop (Malays -31.7%, Chinese -37.0%, Indians -78.9%)

The idea was to increase the fertility rates of the Chinese and Indians to somewhere nearer to our Malay brothers and sisters. However , they aren't doing too well either. As we know, 1.64 is way below the desired replacement figure of 2.10 and the figures are still dropping year after year. We are knocking on the wrong door if we are looking for solutions here.

It's the population density, stupid

Given the right climate, nutrients, sunlight, growing medium and propagating entity, plants grow and multiply. Plants do not care if there isn't adequate space to produce young. Just look at the rainforest and that pot of Aloe Vera. Given the right conditions, both will multiply and grow denser and denser. 

The fittest survive, that is the law of nature. Plants abide by this rule. Each shoot will try to outgrow the other, spreading their influence as wide as they can. The weaker ones eventually die out as their reach for sunlight or nutrients diminish.

Singapore is a fine country with top notch education, medical and childcare facilities. The people are among the richest nationality in the world. We have the right conditions to propagate, we do not lack resources and wealth. Looking at it from the scientific point of view, Singaporeans can have a lot of children. Singaporean couples can get married without getting a HDB flat first. Couples can have children without their own 'love nest'. Couples can have 3 children or more living in a 67sqm apartment. Couples can have children without finishing their university program. Couples can have children without establishing their careers. Or without having a high income. If any Singaporean says we can't do that, he is lying. Many of our parents did that. Their children turned out alright, people like you and me. Though times have changed, each generation has their unique challenges and can be overcome. It can be done, it is proven but Singaporeans are not having children. Why?

Humans are not plants. We are subconsciously aware of our need of space. Every human being needs physical space to live, not only living space but a right amount of personal space to make the environment conducive for having children. Consider this:

Macau, Hong Kong, Singapore.

What do they have in common? The three countries (or city-states if you like to call them) have the lowest fertility rate in the world, Hong Kong (1.09), Macau (0.92), Singapore (0.78) and the most super crowded, Macau (19610/km2), Singapore (7362km2), Hong Kong (6452 km2).

Coincidence? "What do you think?"

I think that we have overlooked the importance of space as a correlation to fertility rate. Wide open spaces make child-rearing more attractive. Bringing up a large family in a tiny 67sqm HDB flat is a struggle, even if you can fold away your bed during the day. A high density population also means very stiff competition for child care resources, education, future housing and good jobs for our young. Our people are subconsciously reacting to an environment which is not conducive for their young and protecting them by not producing at all. In short, the people do not see a future for their young in Singapore.

With the lowest fertility and the highest population density in the world, we are left in a catch-22 situation whereby we need foreigners to support the aging population because we are not producing, because the influx of foreigners created an environment unsuitable to have children. It looks like we have big decisions to make.


  1. Great post! Absolutely agree with your catch-22 situation. Difficult decisions ahead.

  2. Malaysia density might have increased since 1987 but still have alot more space compared to SG. But their fertility rate dropped as well from 1987 to 2012. So maybe the problem is bigger than density ? My 2 cents worth

    1. At least the Malaysian govt is not so crazy with GDP growth, reserves accumulation, hub of this and that, world-class in this & that, number 1 in this and that, etc. compared to the f**king Pappies.

  3. Excellent analysis. Agreed to the views here. Costs of living is the main issue other than density. Thks.

  4. When I saw this article in the papers, I had this thought.

    It's in jest to suggest the reasons behind the higher birthrate in one community than the other. Please don't take it seriously.