Luring Back the Stork

 

First published in publichouse.sg on August 2012

Minister Mentor Lee Kwan Yew is right. Singapore needs more babies. As he warned in his speech at the Tanjong Pagar-Tiong Bahru National Day celebration dinner on 11 Aug, Singapore could ‘fold up’ because natural citizens are far from replacing ourselves, with the birthrate for Chinese and Indians at about equal, 1.08 and 1.09, respectively; and the Malay community faring better at 1.64.

 

This is in spite of the generous Baby Bonus scheme, tax rebates for parents, extended maternity leave and various inter-ministerial committees set up specifically to address this issue like the Tripartite Committee on Work-Life Strategy and before that The Working Committee on Marriage and Procreation.

 

So the government continues to crack it brains to devise new ways to urge the island’s married couples to reproduce. It is forming the new Ministry of Social and Family Development in November, which will be headed by current MCYS Minister Mr Chan Chun Sing, who has said that he will be seeking feedback from various and varied sources over how to tackle this worrying trend.

 

For our birthrate to go up, Singapore must be a place where people want to have babies and raise families. And right now it just isn’t.

 

At risk of launching into a litany already well rehearsed—the reasons for that are many and well known. The cost of providing a child with just a basic standard of living is too high for the average wage earner; our welfare-adverse model means that much of this pressure falls on the shoulders of the parents; space is a premium, many couples live in flats barely big enough for themselves never mind a family; education is stressful and work-life balance is an uphill battle.

 

Like an animal that disappears as its habitat is under threat, the stork has fled town.

 

In a society with more options for career and lifestyle options than before, it’s easy to choose not to have children—or delay having them, which means having fewer or none at all, if the delay is left too long.

 

 

This is really where our government can take the lead. There are many, many family-friendly work practices that can be implemented viably in dozens of roles and that still keep a workforce strong, such as part-time work, working from home, flexi-time and job sharing, which make it much easier for parents to balance working with raising a family. Seeing as the civil service is Singapore’s single largest employer, if it started to adopt this work culture—make it acceptable, a norm—it helps chip away at one more obstacle between couples and babies.

 

The exorbitant cost of owning even a basic car also needs to be reassessed as the only feasible way of controlling congestion. High COE prices means that while the young adult son or daughter of a wealthy family can zoom around town in a fancy sports car, the parent of a family with three young kids and grandparents struggles to own even a normal saloon. Good public transportation helps, but when you have a family in tow, with your assortment of barang barang and a pressing need to get to school, doctors, run errands or even just enjoy a day out, a vehicle is less of a luxury and more of a tool.

 

One alternative to COE is to curb car ownership—which will reduce demand and lower prices—and get rid of the bidding war. It’s been argued that this will not sit well with those who don’t see why they can’t have as many cars as their money can buy, but can I ask the government which is more important—ensuring that someone can buy multiple Ferraris or that your regular Joe can get his family around?

 

And the list goes on.

 

These problems—and their solutions—are nothing new. It’s all be said before. What we need now is the political will to make some of these changes; at a deep, cultural level. Not a lecture on how people need to change their attitudes towards marriage and parenthood, and have babies to serve their nation—because no one on earth will have a baby for that reason.

 

Our government needs to recognise, prioritise and respect the real needs of everyday Singaporeans. We can go on and on about being a world-class country, but we need to start by believing that our own people deserve an accessible, world-class standard of living.

 

And then, it’s more likely, the stork will come back to roost.

 

 

To reverse this, or at least some of this, Singapore needs an overhaul. Not another scheme or policy or committee, but a total makeover—of how we are run as a country, our priorities and the way we live. This encompasses a multitude of things, from schools to health to housing to transport to work ethic.

 

For families to grow in Singapore, we need to be not just a prosperous place, but a better place to live on an everyday level—for our own citizens. Our leaders need to prioritise this as much as they prioritise our GDP. Make it a collective goal. To be honest, if making Singapore a more livable place for families had been of as much importance as being successful, if the government had invested the same drive and focus on this as they do on creating wealth and achievements, we might we faced with a very different scenario.

 

For a start, I would seriously look at the housing situation. There is a terrible lack of adequate family-size housing in Singapore. HDB flats are well built but they are generally meant for very small households—or built against old standards of living that we have long outgrown. Private property for the most part is built for maximum yield and not for families to make long-term homes in; profit not livability is the goal—and so we have squishy condos with ridiculous layouts, and equally ridiculous price tags. Good-sized, good quality accommodation is rare, and none of it is affordable.

 

I would also take even more of the weight of educating children off the backs of parents—both the material and mental weight. Fewer high-stakes exams, less streaming, more room for each child to develop at their own pace; makes school less daunting, reduces the pressure to spend thousands of dollars on tuition, and contributes to making raising children here a more balanced experience.

 

Singaporeans workers put in a lot of hours. Many companies expect that employees regularly go beyond the call of duty and be a good soldier that does whatever needs to be done, whether during or after hours. Fear of losing one’s job or falling out of favour with one’s employer if one does not fully comply is a real factor. You can’t blame the employers; they have to remain competitive and get as much out of their staff as they can. Needless to say, this mode of working is not compatible with raising a family.