How to ensure Sustainability with an ageing population: Singapore is so young, but ageing so fast!

TL;DR – The answers are in a white paper published 7 years ago.

As a small, densely populated island nation with no natural resources, Singapore’s only resource is its people.

However Singapore is currently facing a critical challenge: How do we ensure sustainability with an ageing population that isn’t reproducing fast enough to replace itself?

There are currently about 3.5 million citizens in Singapore, 0.53m PRs and 1.68m non-residents. Out of the 1,68m non-residents, about 41% are low-skilled foreign workers. In this group are also over 0.5m foreign domestic workers and construction site workers.

Singapore’s population by residency status as at June 2019 (via Department of Statistics)


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Not enough babies to replace ourselves

Although the number of marriages seem to be following a trend of increasing over the years, Singapore’s total fertility rate saw a dip from 1.16 in 2017 to 1.14 in 2018. The replacement rate for us to sustain our population is 2.1, almost double our total fertility rate.

The replacement level fertility is 2.1, but Singapore’s total fertility rate is 1.14 in 2018.(via)

Ageing population

In the last decade, Singapore resident population has grown older with more elderly and fewer younger people.

Based on projections from the United Nations (UN), 47% of Singapore’s total population will be aged 65 years or older in 2050.

In other words, there are now fewer working-age adults to support each resident aged 65 years and over.

As of 2020, 3.8 workers support 1 elderly aged 65 and above. This will shrink to 2.3 in 10 years time.(via)

In addition, because we have been having fewer babies, the number of working-age citizens has started to decline since 2015.

The number of working-age citizens has passed its peak in 2015. (via)

With a shrinking working population, a growing ageing population and facing the unlikelihood of Singaporeans suddenly reproducing like rabbits in our stressful, fast-paced society, how can Singapore sustain itself?

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This question was actually addressed in the 2013 Population White Paper which was unpopular for its 6.9m target. In fact, if you read through the White Paper, there is a paragraph which says:

We need to find a balance. If we do too little to address the demographic challenge, we risk becoming a steadily greying society, losing vitality and verve, with our young people leaving for opportunities elsewhere.

But if we take in too many immigrants and foreign workers, we will weaken our national identity and sense of belonging, and feel crowded out of our own home.

This White Paper aims for a judicious balance to achieve our goal of: A Sustainable Population for a Dynamic Singapore.

How can Singapore remain sustainable with an ageing population?

Singapore’s sustainable population rests upon three key pillars.

  1. We must have a strong Singaporean core.
  2. Our population and workforce must support a dynamic economy that can steadily create good jobs and opportunities to meet Singaporeans’ hopes and aspirations.
  3. We must continue to keep Singapore a good home, with a high quality living environment.

A summary of the white paper’s suggestions can be found below:


Investing in Singaporeans

In order for Singapore to continue its journey towards a sustainable nation, it is important to invest in the people in Singapore.

Evidently, much been to ensure that Singaporeans can achieve mass education at the primary, secondary, and tertiary levels since the 1960s. The majority of Singapore workers are now PMETs.

Today, with the rapid technological advances which will change the nature of work and the skills required in the workforce, an array of initiatives have also been rolled out to help workers to stay relevant and nimble so that workers can move into new jobs and industries, and increase the labour participation rate (such as mature workers, back-to-work women and people with disabilities).

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In April 2013, the WorkPro scheme was implemented to augment local manpower, foster progressive workplaces and strengthen the Singaporean core of our workplaces.

Under this scheme, employers can receive funding grants to support the initiatives in the following areas:

  • Implement age management practices;
  • Redesign workplaces and processes to create easier, safer and smarter jobs for workers aged 50 and above; and
  • Implement flexible work arrangements for all local workers.

​To support the employment of Persons with Disabilities (PWDs), in 2014, a government-funded initiative known as Open Door Programme was launched by the Ministry of Social and Family Development (MSF) and Workforce Singapore (WSG). This programme aims to encourage employers to hire, train and integrate persons with disabilities by defraying employers’ costs in supporting them.

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How do foreigners complement a strong Singaporean core?

Although the government has been encouraging more Singaporeans to marry and have babies, our poor total fertility rate looks unlikely to improve drastically.

Hence part of the suggestions in the Population White Paper for a sustainable Singapore includes being open to immigration, maintaining a stable PR population, and complement our Singaporean core with a foreign workforce.

Allowing foreigners to take up the jobs in the workforce that are not being filled will continue to sustain the economy and attract foreign investments, in turn creating more jobs that Singaporeans can fill.

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At the same time, bringing in highly-skilled foreign labour would also inject new sources of innovation and entrepreneurship into the economy, and hopefully transfer some of these skills to the citizens too.

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However, the increase in foreigners has led to a rise in nativism and anti-foreigner sentiment. The Ministry of Manpower has implemented measures such as the Fair Consideration Framework (FCF) to crack down on companies which discriminate against Singaporeans. The FCF has seen further tightening and policing in recent months as well.

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Work pass quotas have also been increasingly tightened in recent years.

Sustaining Singapore on an ageing population (with limited land and resources to accommodate foreigners) is a tricky balancing act, because we also need to consider the impact of our social sustainability on our economic and environmental sustainability too.


From the Sustainability series



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Gabrielle Teo

Author Gabrielle Teo

I read lots, and I also spend an indecent amount of time trying to get my mostly unpopular opinions published. Oh, I argue a lot with fellow Singaporeans who complain incessantly about Singapore too.

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