Saturday, May 15, 2004

Governments take action amid declining birth rates 

Yesterday, the Immigration and Checkpoints Authority (ICA) announced that children born abroad to Singaporean mothers now have the same right to citizenship by descent as those born to Singaporean fathers.

Until recently, for children born overseas, only those who had Singaporean fathers could claim Singapore citizenship by descent. Those born overseas to female Singaporeans had to get their citizenship by registration. The Singapore government changed this law last month after observing a persistent decline in the country's birth rate and realising that Singaporeans were not replacing themselves. Last year, Singapore's fertility rate was only 1.26, well below replacement rate (see earlier post Baby talk in Parliament).

Singaporeans living abroad can now pass on Singapore citizenship as long as mothers or fathers meet new residency rules, including spending at least five years in the country before having a baby. "The main focus is to make the rules more gender neutral," said ICA spokesman Chia Wei Kiang.

In fact, Singapore is not the only country facing a declining birth rate. Much of the rest of the world faces it too.

The developed countries have long faced declining birth rates. In 2002, on average, women had 1.32 children in Japan, 1.6 in the United Kingdom, 1.9 in France and 2.1 in the United States.

Developing countries are fast following the same trend. In 2002, South Korean women had 1.17 children. And last month, the China State Statistics Bureau stated that the country had a low birth rate, without providing figures. Just earlier today, Randy McDonald posted an article The Third World: Staying Poor and Growing Old? on BonoboLand covering this point.

So what we have is a rapidly ageing world. The median age in the United States is now 35, up from 30 about 50 years ago. It will reach 40 in another 50 years. The developing world is fast catching up. According to UN projections, the median age in Iran will reach 40.2 by mid-century. Mexico's median age will reach 42 at about the same time, even older than its northern neighbour.

Ageing populations have economic consequences. Initially, the consequence may be good. Fewer children means fewer dependents. Available resources do not have to be divided among so many children, so each child can be better fed, better clothed and better educated.

However, when the children grow up, there will be fewer of them to become productive workers, which means that there will be less available to provide for the elderly. As an editorial in The Korea Times earlier this month pointed out in relating its country's population woes: "Various pension funds will be depleted, threatening the welfare system in its infant stage. The nation will suddenly become an aged society. Retired people will be compelled to return to worksites."

So countries facing ageing populations are concerned. Like the Singapore government, other governments are also giving out incentives to households to have more babies. The Korean government recently decided to grant three-month leave to working husbands when their spouses give birth. The Australian government is handing out a total of A$3,000 for every baby born after June. And in Estonia, the government will give either the mother or father the equivalent of a year's pay while she or he stays at home looking after the baby.

However, while such measures address the time and financial costs of raising children, declining fertility also has a lot to do with the greater economic and reproductive freedom enjoyed by women and the declining importance of marriage. Women are spending more time getting educated and delaying having babies until they have established a career. Obviously, this means they have less time to produce babies.

As long as such trends persist -- and it is difficult to see how they can reverse -- whatever measures governments can think up are likely to, at most, slow down the decline or arrest further decline in birth rates. Governments will also have to think of ways to handle the consequences of ageing populations.


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