Building Families With Bricks Not Straw

 

First published on publichouse.sg in November 2012

I love our big family. I can’t wait for number four, a girl, to be born.

 

Needless to say it’s not easy—our lives are decent, but we are not rich by any stretch of the imagination. We have to watch our budget very closely every month, juggle everybody’s schedule and workload, give everyone enough time and personal attention, and try and fit everybody into our family car! (No we don’t have an MPV.) Travel as a family is already challenging and it’s going to get even more challenging after the fourth child arrives. It might be drives to Malaysia or chalets in Singapore for a while.

 

But I wouldn’t trade any of this for the world.

 

Before any one hold us up as a poster family for boosting Singapore’s birth rate or congratulates me for doing ‘national service’, let me say that neither Singapore’s birth rate nor national service were remotely a motivation for having a large family. Nor were any of our government’s pro-family policies, like Baby Bonus.

 

In fact, this is where I think the government is totally barking up the wrong tree.

 

If they want people to have more kids, they need to come up with policies that make a difference in people’s lives. Not policies that so afraid of creating dependency they veer in the other direction—and end up being crumbs from our Treasury’s table that might get you through a little bit, but leave fundamental issues unresolved. Which, essentially, is what Baby Bonus does. It relies hugely on parents’ ability to contribute to the scheme, so the poorer the parents are the less they benefit from it. Ironic isn’t it, when the people who need Baby Bonus the most are the poorest parents.

 

People have long-term needs; families and children require cheap and sustainable support for basic things like housing, education, and healthcare, not just discounts for a fixed period. I know of parents, as I’m sure others do, who have children with special medical needs who could dearly, dearly use a ton of help for healthcare. Not Medisave, which again like Baby Bonus, depends on the parents’ ability to contribute, but just outright help based on the child’s needs.

 

 

To give credit where credit is due, IRAS’s child tax reliefs are generous—$4,000 per child and a further 15–25 percent off the income of working mothers. But again, the benefits have a backhanded side to them. Children of mothers who did not marry their father don’t qualify for child relief, and the working mothers’ child relief benefits women who are both high-income earners and have a large family, the most.

 

If you look at the examples IRAS uses on its website to illustrate this, that becomes clear. Example 1, says IRAS, talks about ‘Mrs Heng’ who has six children and earns $100,000 a year; and example 2, looks at ‘Mrs Lim’ who has eight children and earns $350,000 a year. Well. You’d be hard pressed to find women with that many children in Singapore (or anywhere these days, outside impoverished or religious communities that eschew birth control), and the ones that do are very, very unlikely to be making that amount of money. Why did IRAS come up with these slightly ridiculous examples then? Because it’s at that size of family and level of income that the working mothers’ child relief is optimal, which means that for the average earner, the tax savings isn’t very big.

 

I’m not complaining. In spite of not having a lot of security or assets, we have gone ahead with having a big family. We made have this and other life choices, and we are living with them, getting by every month, generally content and counting our blessings. We derive a tremendous amount of joy from our family and I wouldn’t have it any other way. The richness in our life is unquantifiable and non-material.

 

But I was not in the least spurred on by any government benefit or policy or rhetoric to have a large family. And I can see why people aren’t. Because what the government does is provide bundles of straw when you need bricks for a foundation. And unless the marriage and parenthood measures coming up provide more fundamental support, families are pretty much on their own, still.

 

 

 

And we need policies that don’t discriminate, that are not tied to social engineering or a national agenda. For instance, a working woman who has a baby and wants to carry on working afterwards needs maternity leave, needs maternity leave, needs maternity leave. That’s all there is to it. It’s not about whether she’s married or not. 

 

And, no, if the government extends maternity benefits to all women, not just married women, single women are not going to rush out and get pregnant just to take advantage of this. This is such a ridiculous and irrational fear to harbour, not to mention an insulting and damaging one on which to base government policies, I really don’t understand why our highly educated government entertains it in the first place.

 

For us, housing is the biggest challenge. Finding a home that can comfortably fit us all and that we can afford is proving to be quite a task! We would love a place that adequately meets the current needs of our family and allows some space for the children as they grow up. This means a four-bedroom property—which gives mum and dad one bedroom, two siblings a bedroom to share, and two other siblings each their own room. A proper four-bedroom property, not a shoebox home built for yield per square foot and not livability, where spaces the size of water closets are passed off as bedrooms—and then sold for sky-high prices. We don’t want or need anything fancy, we’d just like something livable and affordable. Needless to say, in Singapore, this is not easy to come by.

 

We could be persuaded to settle for less—if ‘less’ were actually more affordable, but it isn’t. Even ‘less’ in Singapore costs an arm and a leg! And we seem to have outgrown HDB flats; and even what HDB options remain for us—Jumbo flats or buying two adjacent units and merging them—are hard to pull off.

 

With our family’s current needs and our income, we have little if anything left over each month, which makes setting much cash aside for anything (down payment, COV, renovations, a car that can take us all etc.) a rarity. I would be bowled over if there were some government policy that could help here, but I don’t there is.