Baby-shy Singapore to get new Ministry of Procreation
Young Singaporeans need to get down to it if they want to produce another generation before they grow old.
That was the message from the nation's own founding father, 88-year-old Lee Kuan Yew, who bemoaned the city-state's declining birth rate in his recent National Day address.
"If we go on like that, this place will fold up because there'll be no original citizens left to form the majority," he said.
Its birthrate per woman of 1.2 children is among the lowest in the world.
To perk up the fertility rate, the government is creating a Ministry of Social and Family Development in November.
The problem is not new, but previous government measures that included matchmaking, extending maternal leave and increasing financial support for expectant mothers have so far failed to make work for the nation's underemployed midwives.
"We are facing a rapidly ageing population and at the same time lots of young people don't marry or marry late," said Chan Chun Sing, minister for Community, Youth and Sports and a father of three.
"We must take this seriously and try to create an environment which invites young people to build families," the minister said.
Forty-four per cent of men aged 30 to 34 are single and 31 per cent of women in the same age group. In 2000, the figures stood at 33 per cent for both men and women.
Although the population increased from 4 million in 2000 to almost 5.2 million in 2011, the rise was mainly due to immigration.
The workforce is already dependent on immigrant labour, itself a politically contentious issue, and the population is set to start declining from 2025, according to the latest figures.
But a baby bonus of up to 10,000 Singapore dollars (7,990 US dollars) for a first child and up to 22,000 Singapore dollars for a third and further children has changed nothing.
"That is just not enough," said Genevieve Lee, 37, who like most Singaporeans asked that her real name not be used in a news report.
She has two sons, 5 and 7, who even at their tender age are receiving private tutoring every weekend, first to get them into a good school and then to be able to keep up with their schools' fast pace of instruction. Teachers expect it, she said. It costs 500 to 600 Singapore dollars per child per month.
"The pressure to achieve begins as early as kindergarten," the freelance public relations specialist said. "In Singapore, just being average is frowned upon. Everyone wants to be among the best."
Another hurdle to Singapore's initiative is that young women do not want to get married.
"I've devoted all my energy to my education and a good job," estate agent Mary Chan, 32, said. "I like buying expensive shoes and handbags, and I like travelling. I couldn't afford to do that with children."
"Many Singaporean men are looking for a woman for the home and to look after their parents," a woman who works in publishing said. "Thank you very much - that's not for me."
Potential parents have so far been unmoved by the state's efforts.
"If the government really wants more babies, more citizens, they should do more for us and not ask us to do more for them," said Noor, 34.
The government is trying to find out exactly what that "more" could be. Answers have so far been unforthcoming. But any initiative would have to work with Singapore's main cultures, all three of which - Chinese, Malay and Indian - frown on having children out of wedlock. So the state has been supporting matchmaking agencies.
Singaporeans are not shy about state involvement in their private lives. "They feel safe, they trust us and are willing to be taken care of," said Maggie Lim, who runs the government-sponsored My Perfect Link dating agency.
But social changes are stacking the odds against the state's fertility drive as fewer young women are inclined to set aside professional and lifestyle opportunities for children and marriage.
The perceived cost of child-rearing is increasingly a factor, said National University professor Tan Ern Ser.
"In the old days, price was less an issue, but it becomes more and more today," he said. "Parents have a tendency to put their offspring in focus. They will do everything for them to make sure they are a success, so they need more energy and resources to raise a child."
Ultimately, the problem is one of personal motivation, he said.
"Singaporeans know that the fertility rate has to go up, but it is an individual decision," he said. "What is good for the country might not necessarily be good for the individual or the family."