Only in today’s top-turvy world are falling
fertility rates seen as a sign of success. Look no further than the world’s most competitive
economies, which are all having problems creating new people to replenish their workforce.
There’s no mystery as to why people in fast-paced cities have children later in life or never
have them at all. Because kids are only fun for the first 12 years, and then they become
uninspired, suckier versions of you. Really Jimmy, you want to be a Project Manager? Unbelievable.
But for real, we know that the more successful the country, the higher the cost of living,
the bigger the burden of parenting so the longer one has to work to feel financially
secure to have children. Competitive economies also tend to have a diverse range of job and
recreational opportunities that inadvertently encourage people to be more discerning about
how they spend their time. Why subject yourself to the draining routines
of raising a child when your busy work schedule already leaves you with so little free time?
Jimmy, you know the job isn’t about bossing people around, right? Why can’t you be more
like Mark, he wants to be the first tour guide on Mars.
Bottom line is, despite considerable efforts by governments to make conception a more enticing
proposition, young people are not taking the bait. This is more apparent in developed Asian
countries than their Western counterparts. There are a few reasons for this, top of which
is the patriarchal structures that are still in place in these Asian societies, especially
in Japan and South Korea, where women are often persuaded to quit their jobs or take
up smaller roles in their companies the moment they become mothers. This is regardless of
their qualifications or how much time and effort they’ve already invested in the company.
Whether it’s a lack of will or creativity on the part of policymakers or resistance
from the corporate world, Asian societies are struggling to design flexible solutions
that encourage women to pursue both motherhood and a career.
This patriarchal problem is compounded by Asian culture’s masochistic approach to living,
where hard work is perceived as the answer to all problems, so the willingness to work
long hours and sacrifice family time is seen as a positive trait.
It’s almost ironic that the cultures which have long deferred to Confucius’ family-oriented
values are now prioritising Western ideas of living over family.
Does this mean that Asian countries are doomed to have more kung fu masters than pupils in
thirty years? Probably, but one Asian giant is already taking
initiatives to get ready for a greying population. And they’re doing it on their own terms.
It’s Japan, land of the rising sun. Japan has given the world many gifts. Nope. I’m
talking about reliable automobiles that are the envy of the world. I’m talking quirky
gadgets, value shops, memorable video games and many other forms of entertainment. The
world would stand to lose a great deal if Japan only existed in the history books.
In recent years, the country has made headlines as a cautionary tale of how an industrious
nation can still perpetually be on the brink of a recession because of declining population
numbers. Although Japan’s fertility rate is not the
lowest in Asia, it’s been too low for far too long, culminating in more total deaths
than total births in the last decade. The answer to Japan’s woes is clear to many—friendlier
immigration policies. But call it xenophobia, call it racism, call it ignorance, call it
stubbornness, Japan has been resistant to opening up their borders to foreigners. While
the world silently judges them, they’ve been chipping away at alternative solutions.
Japan may no longer be a leader in consumer technology, but they haven’t lost their innovative
edge. In fact, the country has gone all out to advance robotics and automation technologies
that don’t just allow goods to be manufactured with fewer people, they’re able to perform
traditionally human jobs. Granted, many of these service-oriented systems need further
refinements. But Japan isn’t bothered because it’s their homegrown companies that are spearheading
the technologies that all countries will need when they face labour shortages and an ageing
population. In 2016 alone, Japan exported US$1.6 billion
worth of industrial robots—more than the next five biggest exporters combined.
It’s not surprising that Japan’s robotics industry is advancing at such a rapid pace
since the locals behind it are aware that their machines hold the key to their nation’s
survival—what better motivator is there for success?
On the cultural front, Japan is encouraging more women to participate in the workforce
by improving child care infrastructure and introducing labour reforms which allow for
flexible work schedules. It must be said that some of these policies
which are meant to maximise productivity in the face of a shrinking workforce are being
criticised for creating situations that might lead to more workers dying from overwork.
A troubling phenomenon known as “karoshi”. Bottom line is, Japan still has plenty of
self-reflection and course corrections in its future. And even then, they may realise
that their best hope is immigration. Do it—the world is ready for a black samurai.
Look, think what you want about Japan’s current strategies for tackling their most crippling
dilemma, but one thing you must respect is they didn’t go for the quick-fix solution,
unlike some countries (Singapore). When your first instinct to seeing a wound
is to slap a band-aid on it (Singapore), you’re not going to see the wound for what it really
is. And if you can’t figure out the underlying causes of the wound, how can you really treat
it? A problem that involves the citizens of a
country not being able to sustain their way of life without additional people is not just
a problem of numbers. It’s also a problem of expansion without conscience.
Sure, importing labour to fill jobs due to a manpower shortage allows the economy to
grow, which in many ways is beneficial to everyone if demand and supply of goods and
services is maintained. However, imported labour should always be an interim or supplementary
solution while the country’s administrators invest in homegrown talents and technology,
as well as look into policies that rely less on manpower to increase productivity.
Currently, Singapore’s constant reliance on foreigners for everything from domestic help
and public works maintenance to top executive positions shows a systemic lack of faith in
its own people’s ability to be inventive, resourceful and responsible.
I have no doubt that this guy who’s getting Singapore’s infrastructure ready for the future,
is qualified for the job. I have no doubt that this guy who has the monumental task
of trying to cool the island down is deserving of his position.
But we’ve had foreigners making key decisions for Singapore for decades now. Where are the
hopeful signs that waiting in the wings to take over them are Singaporean talents and
technologies? What does it say about us that the local education
and local living experience aren’t enough to empower our youths with the knowledge,
creativity and confidence to solve their own country’s problems?
And don’t tell me they can be politicians. I’m specifically talking about jobs that require
a soul. It’s one thing to make your population feel
disposable by using immigration as a cure-all, but it’s a whole other level of neglect when
it leads to the disillusionment of your youths. This isn’t a piece hating on foreigners. I
respect their pursuit of a better life. We all should. In fact, if I had an offer to
move to Switzerland, this YouTube channel would be all about chocolate recipes and multi-purpose
knives. I’m just saying that artificially growing
the population size every year can’t be the fulcrum of a country that’s as physically
small and culturally anaemic as Singapore. Singaporeans are already struggling to find
space to do the Great Singapore Workout without hitting someone. On top of feeling increasingly
alienated by a country that wants to be a welcoming hotel more than a warm home. That’s
just what happens when your country is a layover station in which the folks that come and go
hang out in their own communities while they’re here and never contribute to the local culture.
If Singaporeans were the ones who drafted that white paper which suggested that Singapore
be stocked with 6.9 million residents by 2030, congratulations, you’ve proven that we don’t
just need foreigners to run our industries, we need them to run the country. Because you
still naively believe that Singaporeans don’t have any aspirations beyond making a living. Sad Coffee, out.