Demographic danger facing Singapore

On the face of it Singapore is doing a fine job in future proofing its transport infrastructure whether it be from developing a new maritime cluster in the west of the republic, investing heavily in research and development or ensuring the financial conditions are attractive to the many shipowners that now call the city-state home. All commendable, but what cannot be changed – and what may well slow this maritime juggernaut – is demographics and more specifically the aspirations of the nation’s youth.

Goldman Sachs syndrome is how one shipping executive described the problem to me rather memorably; the blind pursuit of getting a job in finance above all else.

The fact is the republic is in danger of running out of enough qualified talent to fill its ever expanding maritime scene.

This was not lost on Patrick Phoon, president of the Singapore Shipping Association (SSA), who noted at SSA’s packed annual dinner last year, “Without the young the industry cannot grow.”

A look ahead suggests the ranks will get more difficult to fill based simply on demographics.

Despite the best efforts of the Singaporean government to encourage larger families the fertility rate still stands at just 1.2 berths per woman.

Higher education standards, a determination to forge a career in their 20s, and perhaps most pertinently sensationally expensive property prices have all played their part in this demographic timebomb.

“Salaries have not kept pace with the increase in the cost of living,” comments one of the close to 500 respondents who filled in our online poll on Singapore last year.

As a result of this jobs-first mentality, the population is ageing rapidly like a silver tsunami, forecast to hit a median age of 47 by 2030, up from the current 39. There’s also a noticeable decreasing growth in what still remains a sizeable foreign population.

Filling senior positions in shipping has become fraught with difficulty. We are regularly regaled with stories of frustration from firms looking to set up in Singapore but having to delay and delay as they wait to find the right people. Nevertheless, as befits the world’s most leading maritime centre, companies continue to flock here – as do thousands upon thousands for this week’s Singapore Maritime Week.

This article first appeared in our Singapore annual report. The 60-page magazine can be accessed online for free here.

Sam Chambers

Starting out with the Informa Group in 2000 in Hong Kong, Sam Chambers became editor of Maritime Asia magazine as well as East Asia Editor for the world’s oldest newspaper, Lloyd’s List. In 2005 he pursued a freelance career and wrote for a variety of titles including taking on the role of Asia Editor at Seatrade magazine and China correspondent for Supply Chain Asia. His work has also appeared in The Economist, The New York Times, The Sunday Times and The International Herald Tribune.
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