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Non-resident population growth continues to ease in 2015

Tight labour market here to stay; citizen marriages, fertility rate up in 2014: report

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The old-age support ratio - the number of citizens in the working age band of 20 to 64 supporting one older citizen - is shrinking.

Singapore

THE growth of Singapore's non-resident population continues to slow, easing from 2.9 per cent in 2014 to 2.1 per cent this year, on the back of tighter restrictions on foreign labour inflows.

While the annual population report from the National Population and Talent Division pointed to concrete steps taken by the government to slow the growth of the nation's foreign workforce, some private sector economists suggested that market conditions could have also had some impact on labour demand.

In September, private-sector economists cut their full-year growth forecasts for Singapore's economy to just 2.2 per cent this year, down from 2.7 per cent previously, citing a global slowdown and weaker manufacturing as a potential drag.

According to the latest government figures released in the population report on Wednesday, Singapore's population totalled 5.54 million as at June this year, up just 1.2 per cent in the slowest pace of growth in more than a decade. In comparison, the previous ten years had an average population growth of some 2.8 per cent, CIMB private banking economist Song Seng Wun pointed out.

Of the 5.54 million, 3.38 million were Singapore citizens, up around one per cent from the previous year through citizen births and "calibrated immigration". As in past years, the government granted about 20,000 new citizenships last year and plans to take in between 15,000-25,000 new citizens each year to keep the citizen population stable amid a low fertility rate.

There were 1.63 million non-residents this year, up from 1.6 million a year ago. Foreign workforce growth fell to 23,000 employees for 2014/2015, down from growth of 33,000 for 2013/2014 and a mere fraction of the 77,000 for 2011/2012.

Meanwhile, the number of permanent residents (PRs) was flat at 0.53 million, as new PRs offset the number of PRs that became citizens, said UOB economist Francis Tan. The government takes in about 30,000 new PRs each year, which also helps create a pipeline of candidates for citizenship.

In the report, the government also made it clear that the current tight labour market is here to stay.

"Business will continue to face a tight labour market," the report said. "The government will support businesses to shift towards skills- and capital-intensive ways to grow, so that businesses can continue to grow and succeed here to create quality jobs for Singaporeans."

At the same time, the government is committed to ensuring Singaporeans have equal access to quality jobs and are able to develop their skills throughout their career, such as through the SkillsFuture initiative and enhancements to the Fair Consideration Framework.

With the new normal, UOB's Mr Tan said firms will have to diversify from labour-intensive businesses, or from Singapore to other markets in terms of production and customer base. "Corporates need to rethink their strategies."

In the longer run, the issue of economic vibrancy - and whether a vibrant pool of talent is needed to support this - will need to be looked at by the government, said senior lecturer at SIM University, Dr Walter Theseira. "Unlike other global cities, we're crippled in terms of size and not having a vast pool of talent to draw upon."

As expected, the ageing of Singapore's population continues at a rapid pace, given increasing life expectancy and low fertility rates. The proportion of citizens aged 65 and above increased from 12.4 per cent in 2014 to 13.1 per cent this year, which means the old-age support ratio - the number of citizens in the working age band of 20 to 64 needed to support one older citizen - is shrinking. The figure has been coming down through the years, from 8.4 in 2000 and 7.2 in 2005.

Meanwhile, the median age of the citizen population increased from 40.4 years in 2014 to 40.7 years in 2015.

From an economic standpoint, the shrinking ratio also underlines the urgency for greater productivity in the workplace via technology adoption and improved processes so the economy can maintain growth, Mr Song added.

One bright spot in the report was the increase in citizen marriages and births last year, with over 24,000 marriages - the highest since 1997 - and nearly 33,200 births. This is up from over 21,840 marriages and over 31,000 births in 2013. As a result, the total fertility rate edged up from 1.19 in 2013 to 1.25 in 2014.

While the total fertility rate remains very low - below the replacement level of 2.1 - the decline has been arrested.

At over 33,000 citizen births last year, 2014 and 2012 - which fell in the year of the Dragon - brought the highest birth rates across the last decade. The government has been introducing pro-parenthood policies, most recently an enhancement of the Baby Bonus and an increase in the Medisave Grant for newborns.

Still, Dr Theseira noted that while such policies can be effective in shifting the timing of birth, they traditionally have been less effective in convincing people to change their minds about having children.