In Singapore, citizens don’t want babies — or foreign workers, either

In Singapore, the place where most people go to make the biggest decision in their lives — other than, arguably, their choice of a spouse — is the headquarters of the Housing Development Board. It's a get-a-room, one-stop shop: Browse the planned communities depicted in glass-enclosed models on the first floor, pick out your unit at the staged showrooms three floors up, and descend again to line up your financing and apply for a spot.

Spend much time there, though, and the real mission becomes apparent: Make babies. Right now, Singapore is a time bomb. In 1980, there were 17 people working for every retired person. That's come down to six people today, and by 2030, the ratio is expected to be 2 to 1 — a problem stalking much of the developed world that's bearing down on this island city-state with alarming speed.

So at HDB, it's families first. Flat-screen TVs display b-roll of smiling pregnant women and couples with strollers. "Working together to build a loving home," scrolls the motto of the Ministry of National Development underneath. Expecting newlyweds and those with small children jump ahead in the line for new flats (just one of a slew of procreation incentives). Even though the government recently started allowing unmarried people to buy units if they're over 35 — past which they're presumably beyond all help — the videos depicting a homely single woman arranging flowers in her lonely living room did not make the choice look attractive.

Aisya Sharif, a 26-year-old kindergarten teacher, is doing exactly what the government wants her to do. At HDB's vast waiting room on a recent afternoon, she sat reading a book about pregnancy, about to pick up the keys to a new four-bedroom apartment she'd bought with her firefighter husband. It's an exciting new phase — getting married and buying property is pretty much the only way to move out of your parents' house — but the future doesn't look so bright.

"One word? Struggling," Sharif says, when asked how Singapore is faring. The costs of food, gas and goods are rising, but wages haven't kept pace. "Generally, what we're getting is not as much as things are increasing. To survive here is okay, but to do better is hard."

Looking over options at the HDB Hub. (Lydia DePillis)

Looking over options at the HDB Hub. (Lydia DePillis/The Washington Post)

Over the past decade, the government has tried to supplement the sagging labor force by welcoming immigrants — only 3.2 million of the country's 5.3 million residents are actually citizens. For Sharif, though, that's made doing better even harder. She's now competing with foreign teachers for the best jobs at private international schools. And she's noticed that everything is getting more crowded as foreign laborers flood the malls, subways and well-designed public waterfront.

"Public transport is just crazy," Sharif sighs. "You leave early, you're still late. You leave even earlier, you're still late."

Sharif's not alone in her dissatisfaction. Last year, the government reacted by starting to stem the flood of new arrivals — which leaves the country in an impossible position, as its half-century long growth miracle starts to fade.

HERE'S THE MOST irksome piece of the population problem: This wasn't supposed to happen to Singapore. The 50-year-old democracy has been a wonder of central planning, with a laser focus on attracting foreign investment and channelling the proceeds into public goods.

Housing policy, for example, is just one of many powerful tools. Too many people commuting into the downtown and creating traffic jams? Put more office buildings next to housing complexes. Ethnic groups starting to self-segregate into racial enclaves? Set up quotas for each race within each tower, to keep a harmonious mix. As a result, Singapore has enjoyed remarkable peace throughout its half-century of expansion, allocating decent housing for all with elegant efficiency.

The economy has needed that kind of active stewardship, argues Minister of Law and Foreign Affairs K. Shanmugam, because the island — which is slightly smaller than Cape Cod — lacks natural resources and is highly subject to the vagaries of international trade that flows around it.

"It's not a country with an internal economy," Shanmugam explained to a group of American journalists a couple weeks ago. "Basically, it's like a spinning top that's got to stay spinning in order to stay up."

But just like Aisya Sharif, Shanmugam knows that those easy times are over. Young people today don't remember the years of striving and sacrifice that gave rise to the prosperity all around them, he says, and no longer simply accept the government's benevolent paternalism; new plans have to be justified with arguments about what's in it for them.

"Now we are entering a new part of our history, where it's no longer possible to deliver those kinds of results every four years," he said. "Their expectations are going to adjust. You're not going to earn double next year. It's very jarring." Citizens are also starting to notice the rising inequality, which for so long had been hidden by forceful government redistribution. "The feeling that you can be like 'that guy' is not so strong."

That's why the long slide in Singapore's birth rate, now at 1.2, is so alarming. It threatens to upset the balance of the spinning top. The government  released a white paper on population last year that put the problem in stark relief. Even though the birth rate has ticked back up slightly in recent years, the projections are still dire. Caring for all those older people will be a huge burden on the young, and Shanmugam worries that everything his government has worked for could disappear.

Singapore's problem. (Government of Singapore)

Singapore's problem. (Government of Singapore)

In fact, he sees it every week. In Singapore, ministers are also elected members of parliament, and Shanmugam represents a community on the northern end of the island where the ratio of working people to retired people approaches what the country is expected to look like in 2030.

"You are looking at the future," said Quak Hiang Whai, one of Shanmugam's senior advisers, as the minister wove through a crowded market greeting constituents on a rainy Saturday morning. Elderly people were everywhere, picking out vegetables at the market stalls or lingering over bowls of porridge. Right now, their children can support them, but the next generation of retirees might not have had any in the first place. "We have the money to take care of old people, but you have to start taxing people more, so it's going to undermine our competitiveness," Quak said.

For more than a decade, the government has kept the top spinning with a liberal immigration policy for high-skilled professionals, as well as for manual laborers who work as domestic maids and in low-wage industries like construction and retail. They live in dormitories provided by their employers, make much less than native people, and don't enjoy any of Singapore's generous state benefits. But there's no way of keeping them out of public places, and since infrastructure hasn't kept pace with the burgeoning population, citizens are starting to notice.

"These people are not going to be citizens, but they do take up space," Quak said, noting that voters had sent a message in recent elections that they're sick of the overcrowding. "They hear the Chinese talking, they hear the Indians talking, and it's a minor irritant."

Singapore's Minister of Law K Shanmugam knows what his country needs. (Lydia DePillis/The Washington Post)

Singapore's Minister of Law K. Shanmugam knows what his country needs. (Lydia DePillis/The Washington Post)

FACING RISING dissatisfaction with their plan to compensate for a low birth rate with new immigrants, Singapore's central planners are doing their best to recalibrate. Last year, they tightened quotas on the number of immigrants any business may employ — a restaurant, for example, can only have foreigners make up 40 percent of its staff — and increased the fees levied for each hire. But since the unemployment rate among citizens is 1.2 percent, Singaporeans are hard to find, putting a ceiling on growth. Instead of creating more jobs, the government has asked businesses to make each worker more productive, through automation and if necessary longer hours.

That hasn't made businesses happy.

"What's happening now is you're a restaurant, you want a foreign worker to be approved, and they say, 'No you can't, because you already hit the quota,' " said Ho Meng Kit, CEO of the Singapore Business Federation. "So you find that food establishment will be closing down because it can't find the workers."

But here's the thing about the private sector: It, too, has been co-opted by a central government that's been in control for the country's entire history. So far, the ruling party has been radically pro-business. Now that it's choking off the labor supply, the Business Federation — whose board of trustees is appointed by the government — isn't sure what to do. It can protest the new immigration regime but not threaten to defect to the opposition. That signature Singaporean groundedness, it figures, is more important.

"We would rather have a stable government than one that loses votes as a result of continuing this policy," says Ho, referring to the government's old open-immigration strategy.

"We don't play politics," adds Ang Yuit, vice president for membership and training at the Association of Small and Medium Enterprises. "What's the point?"

So, having decided against pulling the levers of power that an American corporation might, businesses are relying on the negative economic consequences of the new policy to convince the government that the citizens' concerns are misplaced — or for citizens themselves to feel their corner noodle shop's pain, when it can't find enough people to bus the tables.

"They don't see the blood on the streets yet," Ang says.

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