The Straits Times: Births in Singapore hit decade low as deaths climb to historic peak


· Singapore,Press,Parents

SINGAPORE - The number of babies born in Singapore fell to a 10-year low last year, while total deaths were the highest in almost a century.

The recession and massive uncertainties due to the Covid-19 pandemic may be leading some couples to put off expanding their families, experts say, even though most newborns last year were conceived before the pandemic.

The double whammy of falling births and steadily rising deaths due to an ageing population has serious implications for society, from slower economic growth to fewer people supporting seniors.

Last year, 38,705 babies were born, a 1.5 per cent dip from the 39,279 born in 2019. It is the lowest figure since 2010, when there were 37,967 births.

Meanwhile, 22,000 people died last year, a 2.6 per cent increase from the 21,446 deaths in 2019.

The data was contained in the Singapore Demographic Bulletin Fourth Quarter 2020 report posted on the Immigration and Checkpoints Authority website at the end of last month. The figures for last year are provisional.

The number of deaths last year was the highest since at least 1931, checks by The Sunday Times found.

National University of Singapore (NUS) sociologist Tan Ern Ser said: "On the declining births for 2020, many would jump at attributing the decline to the pandemic. But the majority of the babies would have been conceived pre-pandemic."

But Professor Jean Yeung, founding director of the Centre for Family and Population Research at NUS, said: "When the economy is uncertain and people lose their jobs or worry about losing their jobs, they usually postpone major life events such as getting married or having a baby."

The fuller impact of the pandemic on births will be seen only from this year onwards, the academics say.

Marriages fell by about 6 per cent in 2019 from the year before, which could be one reason why fewer babies were born last year.

Prof Yeung said marriage and birth numbers are closely related as only a very small number of babies are born out of wedlock here.

Besides, women here are marrying at an older age and this affects their fertility, said Dr Tan Poh Lin from the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy at NUS.

The number of births in developed countries such as France, Italy and Spain also plunged last year, the Financial Times reported, as the pandemic ravaged the economy and family expansion plans.

Meanwhile, a baby boom this year is unlikely even after the circuit breaker period and work-from-home arrangements for many couples last year, said academics.

Dr Tan Ern Ser said: "The ability to meet their material aspirations and fulfil their responsibility as parents, which the pandemic has disrupted, can lead to postponement of the decision (on having babies) or a decision not to have a child or another child."

Working from home together could have resulted in more friction for couples and not more intimacy, he added.

Meanwhile, the number of deaths has risen steadily and will keep going up given Singapore's rapidly ageing population, the experts said.

The proportion of Singapore residents aged 65 and older was 7.2 per cent of the resident population in 2000, 9 per cent in 2010 and 15.2 per cent last year.

Residents refer to citizens and permanent residents.

This makes the Republic's population one of the fastest-ageing in the world, Prof Yeung pointed out.

The steady rise in death figures is not due to Covid-19. Singapore has had 30 deaths from Covid-19 complications, while 15 who tested positive died of other causes.

For senior physiotherapist Jessie Chui, January 2020 marked the long-awaited arrival of her first child, a daughter named Amber.

She tied the knot with Mr Silas Wong in 2015 and they have been trying for a baby for a few years.

Mr Wong, 33, is a section head at the Institute of Technical Education College Central.

Madam Chui, 32, said of her baby: "My life is filled with joy every day."

Mr Silas Wong and his wife Jessie Chui, with their first child Amber, one, who was born about four years after they tied the knot

Last year's provisional figure of 38,705 babies born in Singapore was the lowest since 2010.

The Republic's total fertility rate fell to a historic low of 1.1 last year, Minister in the Prime Minister's Office Indranee Rajah said last month.

"Covid-19 has caused some Singaporeans to postpone their marriage, resulting in about 10 per cent fewer marriages in 2020 compared to 2019.

"Others have delayed their parenthood plans. Raising fertility is an uphill task for advanced societies, but we must continue to support those who wish to marry and have children," she added.

She announced that the Government will increase its dollar-for-dollar matching in the Child Development Account (CDA) of a family's second child born from January this year - from $3,000 to $6,000.

This is in addition to the initial $3,000 that every Singaporean child receives in his or her CDA, a special savings account from which funds can be used at approved institutions to pay for childcare fees, medical expenses and more.

Dr Tan Poh Lin, of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy at the National University of Singapore, said of the measures to boost the birth rate: "The consensus from international evidence suggests that incentives do have a positive but weak effect. In the absence of incentives, fertility rates would probably be even lower than they are now."

Singapore has long struggled with a falling birth rate, despite a host of measures to promote parenthood, from giving parents a Baby Bonus cash gift to boosting maternity leave and the number of childcare places.

Mr Seah Kian Peng, chairman of the Government Parliamentary Committee for Social and Family Development, said that despite the rather dismal results, Singapore cannot give up and see boosting the birth rate as a lost cause.

It takes more than government measures to encourage the stork, he said. Bosses can also play their part to support parenthood, for example, by being more understanding of staff who need to take urgent childcare leave.

Partnerships manager Marcus Cheong, 32, who welcomed his second child in December last year, said he and wife Si Lin, a 31-year-old psychologist, love children and want three or four. He also has an older daughter, who is two.

Mr Marcus Cheong and his wife Si Lin, with their daughters – two-year-old Matilda and three-month-old Rebekah. The couple, who want three or four children, said that working from home due to the pandemic has given them more confidence to care for a larger family in the future

Mr Cheong said: "Having 'work from home' normalised overnight has made it easier to explore flexi-work arrangements with our employers, as we hope to sustain these caregiving arrangements."

He is also thankful for the various government measures to support parenthood.

Mr Jeremy Au also felt the measures were generous. The 33-year-old venture capitalist moved back from the United States with his wife last year, after the pandemic accelerated their plans to return.

Mr Au said he and his wife had been very anxious about how the pandemic would affect the pregnancy, but it all turned out well.

Madam Chui said she wants to have three children as she comes from a large family herself. The third of four children, she said it is fun and lively being part of a large brood.

She added: "I'm very thankful for what the Government has done so we don't have to worry too much.

"(The pandemic) is very controlled and it's so safe and secure that we can think of having kids."