The population crisis: Stopping our brain drain and addressing our fertility rate
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Written by Ng E-Jay
06 February 2013
In my last article on our population conundrum, I wrote about how the government was obsessed with using population expansion as the way of generating economic growth, whilst neglecting to raise the levels of labour productivity. I also mentioned that there will eventually come a time when our population hits the limits of our country’s carrying capacity, and further growth would become impossible. When that happens, the Singapore growth miracle would collapse like a house of cards because that is what it truly is.
In this article, I would like to question the government’s priorities and motives with regards to perpetually importing waves of foreigners but neglecting to take steps to stop our brain drain and stem the depletion of our own local talent.
In the past two or three decades, Singaporeans have become more socially mobile and more globalized. Many Singaporeans have decided to leave our shores, often permanently.
There have been many factors contributing to this steady brain drain in which many of our best and brightest leave every year to make a life elsewhere with little thought of returning.
Some have decided to emigrate to spare their children the painful stress of going through our education system, especially with the emphasis on rote learning, cramming the students’ schedule to the brim with assignments, projects, and extra-curricular activities, and forcing students to master two languages in a mind-numbingly competitive examination environment.
Other have decided to emigrate because they saw quite simply that the Singapore market was too small and too shallow, and would not offer them the business opportunities and entrepreneurial challenge that would effectively harness their own abilities.
Yet others have decided that the incredibly fast pace of life, the overt emphasis on materialism to the exclusion of the intangibles of life, the escalating cost of living, the rat race, the dog-eat-dog society, was too much to bear. This was not the kind of environment they wanted their kids to grow up in, nor the kind of society they wanted to grow old in.
Over time, these people left Singapore because they felt no more joy or meaning in being part of this mad rush, because they felt they no longer belonged, because they felt they no longer mattered to Singapore and Singapore no longer mattered to them.
Despite efforts by the government over the years to stop the constant outflow of our nation’s top talents, our brain drain has continued unabated. The National Population And Talent Division (National Population Secretariat) of the Prime Minister’s Office, which is charged with dealing with all manner of sensitive issues relating to population, including monitoring, handling and deploying the most talented segments of society, has not found a solution to this conundrum. They will not find any solution as long as the overall governing philosophy of the ruling PAP remains constant.
The reasons why so many of our most productive Singapore citizens choose to emigrate year after year are also closely related to the reasons why our Total Fertility Rate (TFR) has remained so low for so long.
Singapore couples will naturally delay having children, or choose to have as few kids as possible, if they find that their incomes cannot keep pace with the cost of living, and property prices are becoming more and more unaffordable.
Couples cannot start families and they cannot plan well for the future if it takes so long (as much as 3 to 4 years) just to get a BTO flat. How are they expected to get married and settle down to a new life together when the government does not even give them a chance to move out of their parents’ homes?
The emphasis of putting one’s career first, the incessant rat race and the quest for materialism, are also significant contributors to our low TFR.
You expect couples to make love when you put them in a pressure cooker where the noise is so loud that they cannot even hear the sound of their own thoughts, where they cannot even find the peace and solitude to think, to feel, and to experience the moment?
The government cannot expect the TFR to reverse its secular decline when many families worry about the next pay-cheque, about being booted out of the workforce by foreign labour, about making the next mortgage payment which is consuming a huge chunk of their salary.
Trying to push the population constantly upwards will only worsen the problem of our brain drain and keep our TFR perpetually low. In other words, the root cause of our population crisis will not be solved by the methods the government is currently using.
In order to get to the root of the population problem, we must focus on improving the quality and standard of living, make Singapore a more conducive place to start families and have kids, and create a business and social environment that encourages our talented citizens to remain rather than emigrate.
If we fail to address the twin problems of talent depletion and low TFR, then we are merely kicking the can down the road by taking the easy way out of importing foreigners to boost the size of the population and workforce.
When our population reaches the maximum limit imposed by our country’s carrying capacity, we would still be saddled with the problem of low TFR as well as a continual outflow of the best brains of our nation. What would we do then?
By the year 2030, we would have lost our Singaporean core, if we continue down this myopic path. We would have allowed foreigners to replace Singaporeans, for whom the problems of low TFR and loss of talent pool through emigration have not been addressed.
We must therefore get to the heart of the problem rather than pretend that population and economic management is a mere numbers game.