Singapore Table of Contents

Population, Vital Statistics, and Migration

Singapore had a population of 2,674,362 in July 1989 and the low birth and death rates common to developed economies with high per capita incomes. In 1987 the crude birth rate (births in proportion to the total population) was 17 per 1,000 and the death rate was 5 per 1,000 for an annual increase of 12 per 1,000. The infant mortality rate of 9.1 per 1,000 in 1986 was quite low by international standards and contributed to a 1987 life expectancy at birth of 71.4 years for males and 76.3 years for females. As in most developed countries, the major causes of death were heart disease, cancer, and strokes. As of 1986, 74 percent of married women of childbearing age practiced contraception, and the total fertility rate (a measure of the number of children born to a woman over her entire reproductive career) was 1.6, which was below the replacement level but comparable to that of many countries in Western Europe.

Since the city's founding in 1819, the size and composition of Singapore's population has been determined by the interaction of migration and natural increase. Throughout the nineteenth century, migration was the primary factor in population growth. Natural increase became more important after the 1920s, and by the 1980s immigration and emigration were of minor significance. In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Singapore's population was composed largely of immigrant adult males, and grew primarily through immigration. By the 1920s, the proportion of women, the percentage of the population that was Singapore-born, and consequently the relative contribution of natural increase to the population, all were increasing. By the 1947 census, 56 percent of the population had been born in Singapore, and there were 1,217 males for every 1,000 females. The 1980 census showed that 78 percent of the population had been born in Singapore and that the sex ratio had reached 1,042 males for every 1,000 females.

Migration to Singapore dwindled during the Great Depression of the 1930s, ceased during the war years of 1941 to 1945, and resumed on a minor scale in the decade between 1945 and 1955. Most nineteenth-century and early twentieth-century immigrants came from China, India, or Sumatra and the Malay Peninsula. Between 1945 and 1965 immigrants came primarily from peninsular Malaya, which shared British colonial status with Singapore and so permitted the free movement of people between Singapore and the rural areas and small cities of the peninsula. After independence in 1965, Singapore's government imposed strict controls on immigration, granting temporary residence permits only to those whose labor or skills were considered essential to the economy. Most such workers were expected to return to their homelands when their contracts expired or economic downturns made their labor redundant. Illegal immigrants and Singaporeans who employed them were subject to fines or imprisonment. The immigrants of the 1980s fell into two distinct categories. The first category, unskilled labor for factories and service positions, was composed largely of young unmarried people from Malaysia, Thailand, the Philippines, Sri Lanka, and India. Regulations prohibited their marrying without prior official permission and required women to be tested for pregnancy every six months--measures intended to make it difficult for them to attain Singaporean residence or citizenship by becoming the spouse or parent of a citizen. The second category comprised skilled workers, professionals, and managers, often working for multinational corporations. They came from Japan, Western Europe, North America, and Australia. Predominately middle-aged and often accompanied by their families, they were immigrants only in the strict sense of the government's population registration and had no intention of settling permanently in Singapore.

The 1980 census reported that 9 percent of Singapore's population were not citizens. The aliens were divided into permanent residents (3.6 percent of the population) and nonresidents (5.5 percent). The acquisition of Singapore citizenship was a complex and often protracted process that began with application to the Immigration Department for permanent resident status. After residing in Singapore for two to ten years, depending on skills and professional qualifications, those with permanent resident status could apply to the Registry of Citizens for citizenship. In 1987 citizenship was granted to 4,607 applicants and denied to 1,603 applicants. The 1980 census showed that 85.5 percent of citizens had been born in Singapore, 7.8 percent in China (including Hong Kong, Macao, and Taiwan), 4.7 percent in Malaysia, and 1 percent in the Indian subcontinent (including Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Sri Lanka). Singapore's government, keenly aware of the country's small size and the need to survive by selling the skills of its citizens in a competitive international marketplace, was determined not to permit the citystate to be overwhelmed by large numbers of unskilled rural migrants. In 1989 Singapore mounted a campaign to attract skilled professionals from Hong Kong, offering a Chinese cultural environment with much lower living costs than Hong Kong's. At the same time, however, that the government was attempting to attract skilled professionals, Singaporeans themselves were emigrating. From July 1987 to June 1988, records show that 2,700 Singaporeans emigrated to Australia, 1,000 to Canada, 400 to the United States, and 97 to New Zealand. A large number of the emigrants were university-educated professionals, precisely the category that Singapore wished to keep and attract. In 1989 a special government committee was reported to be devising policies to discourage emigration by professionals and managers.

Population Control Policies

Since the mid-1960s, Singapore's government has attempted to control the country's rate of population growth with a mixture of publicity, exhortation, and material incentives and disincentives. Falling death rates, continued high birth rates, and immigration from peninsular Malaya during the decade from 1947 to 1957 produced an annual growth rate of 4.4 percent, of which 3.4 percent represented natural increase and 1.0 percent immigration. The crude birth rate peaked in 1957 at 42.7 per thousand. Beginning in 1949, family planning services were offered by the private Singapore Family Planning Association, which by 1960 was receiving some government funds and assistance. By 1965 the crude birth rate was 29.5 per 1,000 and the annual rate of natural increase had been reduced to 2.5 percent. Singapore's government saw rapid population growth as a threat to living standards and political stability, as large numbers of children and young people threatened to overwhelm the schools, the medical services, and the ability of the economy to generate employment for them all. In the atmosphere of crisis after the 1965 separation from Malaysia, the government in 1966 established the Family Planning and Population Board, which was responsible for providing clinical services and public education on family planning.

Birth rates fell from 1957 to 1970, but then began to rise as women of the postwar baby boom reached child-bearing years. The government responded with policies intended to further reduce the birth rate. Abortion and voluntary sterilization were legalized in 1970. Between 1969 and 1972, a set of policies known as "population disincentives" were instituted to raise the costs of bearing third, fourth, and subsequent children. Civil servants received no paid maternity leave for third and subsequent children; maternity hospitals charged progressively higher fees for each additional birth; and income tax deductions for all but the first two children were eliminated. Large families received no extra consideration in public housing assignments, and top priority in the competition for enrollment in the most desirable primary schools was given to only children and to children whose parents had been sterilized before the age of forty. Voluntary sterilization was rewarded by seven days of paid sick leave and by priority in the allocation of such public goods as housing and education. The policies were accompanied by publicity campaigns urging parents to "Stop at Two" and arguing that large families threatened parents' present livelihood and future security. The penalties weighed more heavily on the poor, and were justified by the authorities as a means of encouraging the poor to concentrate their limited resources on adequately nurturing a few children who would be equipped to rise from poverty and become productive citizens.

Fertility declined throughout the 1970s, reaching the replacement level of 1.006 in 1975, and thereafter declining below that level. With fertility below the replacement level, the population would after some fifty years begin to decline unless supplemented by immigration. In a manner familiar to demographers, Singapore's demographic transition to low levels of population growth accompanied increases in income, education, women's participation in paid employment, and control of infectious diseases. It was impossible to separate the effects of government policies from the broader socioeconomic forces promoting later marriage and smaller families, but it was clear that in Singapore all the factors affecting population growth worked in the same direction. The government's policies and publicity campaigns thus probably hastened or reinforced fertility trends that stemmed from changes in economic and educational structures. By the 1980s, Singapore's vital statistics resembled those of other countries with comparable income levels but without Singapore's publicity campaigns and elaborate array of administrative incentives.

By the 1980s, the government had become concerned with the low rate of population growth and with the relative failure of the most highly educated citizens to have children. The failure of female university graduates to marry and bear children, attributed in part to the apparent preference of male university graduates for less highly educated wives, was singled out by Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew in 1983 as a serious social problem. In 1984 the government acted to give preferential school admission to children whose mothers were university graduates, while offering grants of S$10,000 to less educated women who agreed to be sterilized after the birth of their second child. The government also established a Social Development Unit to act as matchmaker for unmarried university graduates. The policies, especially those affecting placement of children in the highly competitive Singapore schools, proved controversial and generally unpopular. In 1985 they were abandoned or modified on the grounds that they had not been effective at increasing the fecundity of educated women.

In 1986 the government also decided to revamp its family planning program to reflect its identification of the low birth rate as one of the country's most serious problems. The old family planning slogan of "Stop at Two" was replaced by "Have Three or More, if You Can Afford It." A new package of incentives for large families reversed the earlier incentives for small families. It included tax rebates for third children, subsidies for daycare, priority in school enrollment for children from large families, priority in assignment of large families to Housing and Development Board apartments, extended sick leave for civil servants to look after sick children and up to four years' unpaid maternity leave for civil servants. Pregnant women were to be offered increased counseling to discourage "abortions of convenience" or sterilization after the birth of one or two children. Despite these measures, the mid-1986 to mid-1987 total fertility rate reached a historic low of 1.44 children per woman, far short of the replacement level of 2.1. The government reacted in October 1987 by urging Singaporeans not to "passively watch ourselves going extinct." The low birth rates reflected late marriages, and the Social Development Unit extended its matchmaking activities to those holding Advanced level (A-level) secondary educational qualifications as well as to university graduates. The government announced a public relations campaign to promote the joys of marriage and parenthood. In March 1989, the government announced a S$20,000 tax rebate for fourth children born after January 1, 1988. The population policies demonstrated the government's assumption that its citizens were responsive to monetary incentives and to administrative allocation of the government's medical, educational, and housing services.

Population Distribution and Housing Policies

In the early 1950s, some 75 percent of the population lived in very crowded tenements and neighborhoods; these were usually occupied by a single ethnic group in the built-up municipality on the island's southern shore. The remaining 25 percent lived in the northern "rural" areas in settlements strung along the roads or in compact villages, known by the Malay term kampong, and usually inhabited by members of a single ethnic group. Many kampongs were squatter settlements housing wage laborers and urban peddlers. Low-cost public housing was a major goal of the ruling People's Action Party ( PAP). Vigorous efforts at slum clearance and resettlement of squatters had begun with the establishment in 1960 of the Housing and Development Board, which was granted wide powers of compulsory purchase and forced resettlement. By 1988, Housing and Development Board apartments were occupied by 88 percent of the population and 455,000 of these apartments (74 percent of all built) had been sold to tenants, who could use their pension savings from the compulsory Central Provident Fund for the downpayment. The balance was paid over twenty years with variable rate mortgage loans, the interest rate in 1987 being 3.4 percent. The government envisaged a society of homeowners and throughout the 1980s introduced various measures such as reduced downpayments and extended loan periods to permit low-income families to purchase apartments.

The massive rehousing program had many social effects. In almost every case, families regarded the move to a Housing and Development Board apartment as an improvement in their standard of living. Although high-rise apartment complexes usually are regarded as examples of crowded, high-density housing, in Singapore the apartments were much less crowded than the subdivided shophouses (combined business and residence) or squatter shacks they had replaced. Between 1954 and 1970 the average number of rooms per household increased from 0.76 to 2.15, and the average number of persons per room decreased from 4.84 to 2.52. Movement to a public housing apartment was associated with (although not the cause of) a family structure in which husband and wife jointly made important decisions, as well as with a family's perception of itself as middle class rather than working class. The government used the resettlement program to break up the ethnically exclusive communities and sought to ensure that the ethnic composition of every apartment block mirrored that of the country as a whole. Malays, Indians, and Chinese of various speech groups lived next door to each other, shared stairwells, community centers, and swimming pools, patronized the same shops, and waited for buses together.

Although the earliest public housing complexes built in the 1960s were intended to shelter low-income families as quickly and cheaply as possible, the emphasis soon shifted to creating new communities with a range of income levels and public services. The new complexes included schools, shops, and recreation centers, along with sites on which residents could use their own resources to construct mosques, temples, or churches. The revised master plan for land use called for the creation of housing estates at the junctions of the expressways and the mass transit railroad that were to channel urban expansion out from the old city center. New towns of up to 200,000 inhabitants were to be largely self-contained and thoroughly planned communities, subdivided into neighborhoods of 4,000 to 6,000 dwelling units. In theory, the new towns would be complete communities providing employment for most residents and containing a mixture of income levels. In practice, they did not provide sufficient employment, and many residents commuted to work either in the central business district or in the heavy industrial area of Jurong in the southwestern quadrant of the island. Public transportation made the journey to the central business district short enough that many residents preferred to shop and dine there rather than at the more limited establishments in their housing estates. Thus, as in other countries that have attempted to build new towns, Singapore's new towns and housing estates have served largely as suburban residences and commuter settlements, the center of life only for the very young and the very old.

Throughout the 1980s, the government and the Housing and Development Board made great efforts to foster a sense of community in the housing estate complexes by sponsoring education and recreation programs at community centers and setting up a range of residents' committees and town councils. The apartment complexes generally were peaceful and orderly, and the relations between residents were marked by civility and mutual tolerance. But social surveys found that few tenants regarded their apartment blocks as communities in any very meaningful sense. Residents' primary social ties were with relatives, old classmates, fellow-workers, and others of the same ethnic group, who often lived in housing complexes some distance away. In the late 1980s, families who had paid off their mortgages were free to sell their apartments, and a housing market began to develop. There were also administrative mechanisms for exchanging apartments of equivalent size and value. Residents used sales, purchases, and apartment exchanges to move closer to kin and friends who belonged to the same ethnic group. The result was a tendency toward the recreation of the ethnic communities that had been deliberately broken up in the initial resettlement.

The government criticized the tendency toward ethnic clustering as contrary to its policy of multiracialism and in March 1989 announced measures to halt it. Although no family would be forced to move from its apartment, new rules prohibited the sale or exchange of apartments to members of other ethnic groups. Although the tendency toward ethnic resegregation apparently stemmed more from personal and pragmatic motivations than from conscious antagonism toward other ethnic groups, the government effort to halt it and to enforce ethnic quotas for apartment blocks demonstrated the continued significance of ethnicity in Singapore's society.

Ethnic Categories

For more recent population estimates, see Facts about Singapore.

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress