The government will offer another package this month to tempt Singaporeans to work harder in their matrimonial bed – not outside it. By Seah Chiang Nee
Jan 5, 2013
(Synopsis: Singaporeans faced with a worsening rat race are largely unmoved by the government’s sense of urgency for them to go forth and multiply.)
SINGAPORE is starting 2013 with another attempt to produce what the nation’s rising wealth cannot give – more babies.
The fundamental dilemma, which has led to a much-disliked era of mass immigration, is beginning to split the country.
The current poor birthrate, one of the world’s lowest, is worrying the government a lot more than the bulk of the citizenry.
For the public, the prospect of losing jobs to new arrivals is far more threatening than the prospective population decline in the coming decades.
Together with an ageing population, the poor procreation is very real and threatens Singapore’s future prosperity, if nothing is done.
So why are so few Singaporeans moved by the government’s sense of urgency?
There may be a rationale for it.
Firstly, the general lethargy towards the issue could be due to the frequent government explanation that employers badly need foreign workers.
To many, it gives the impression that the population issue is less important than economic targets.
Secondly, many people seem to perceive it as government propaganda to justify bringing in more foreign workers – rather than as prevention of long-term decline of Singapore.
All this dates back to the tough-minded Lee Kuan Yew regime, which had always believed in fast action and damned public consultation.
True to tradition, the People’s Action Party (PAP) government has been largely following this do-first-talk-later tradition in resolving the population dilemma.
It could be due to a confidence that today – like decades ago – the government would always have the ability to talk its people into accepting unpopular decisions.
On immigration as with a few other matters, it has been proven wrong – something Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong may be trying to put right.
In his New Year message, Lee admitted that it is necessary to seek consensus on the population issue – after his government had already admitted two million foreigners into Singapore.
It is possible that had the PAP government consulted first with its people on the magnitude of the population problem and gained their understanding before acting, the dilemma would be less serious.
The understanding could not possibly have involved a floodgate opening, but a controlled immigration just enough to resolve a babies shortfall – not a big population hike.
After all, the rationale for replacement was quite urgent; but instead of persuading first, it began mass importation of foreigners.
Instead of replacement, it went for a large population expansion.
This had the effect of making subsequent action seem a little irrelevant.
It appears that the Prime Minister, by calling for a national consensus on population, is playing catch-up on something the government ought to have done much earlier.
Singaporeans, it had been proven many times, are a pragmatic people, who – if given a clear rationale of a national problem – would, I believe, have joined the government in finding a solution.
I want to give the problem a new airing later this month.
The Prime Minister will unveil a new help package in Parliament to boost Singapore’s birthrate that will cover housing and childcare.
At the same time, the government will issue a White Paper on population.
In his National Day Rally last year, Lee outlined some of the possible measures to encourage parenthood.
They included giving couples with young children higher priority for Housing Board flats, a Medisave (for healthcare) account for each newborn and allowing fathers to take paternity leave.
Low- and middle-income families could get more help for infant care and childcare.
There have already been a series of pro-marriage and procreation measures in the past decade.
Previous attempts have failed to reverse the trend, with handouts of as much as S$18,000 per child, extended maternity leave and tax breaks not very successful to get Singaporeans to produce more babies.
Singapore’s birth rate dropped last year to 1.26 babies per woman of childbearing age, a record low – compared with a rate of 5.8 in the 1960s.
The problem facing the country is that more people are staying single or marrying late.
Those who are married are having their first child later and have fewer babies.
Older Singaporeans say the low fertility rate is evident on Singapore’s streets.
A 72-year-old retiree recalled seeing pregnant women “everywhere he went in Singapore” in the late 60s. “As a pre-teen, I would see them in Chinatown, in Queenstown, at marketplaces and so on.
“Today, as I bicycle all over the island, it would be rare to see a single one,” he added.
That was before the launch of the Stop at Two campaign by the then Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew in 1970 to slow down the post-war baby boom.
Parents of third babies and large families were financially penalised.
Top priority in top-tier primary schools would be given only to children whose parents had been sterilised before the age of 40.
Today, an average of only 40,000 babies are born a year. Reversing the trend is proving to be a lot tougher than raising the country’s gross domestic product.
A public survey by Channel News Asia showed some 94% of people believed the impending measures would not encourage more Singaporeans to have babies.
Critics say there need to be a dramatic change from the “rat race” environment – cheaper cost of living, especially housing, better job security, more living space – before more babies appear.
But there was the other side of the story.
The Economist ranked Singapore as the sixth best country for a baby to be born in, a creditworthy achievement – if only parents truly believe it.
This was first published in The Star).