Education Minister Heng Swee Keat and 1,700 students and faculty members had gathered in NTU’s main auditorium to hear Mr Lee Kuan Yew give his take on the way forward for Singapore (see HERE).
Singaporean Joan Sim, a PhD student at Nanyang Technological University’s (NTU) School of Biological Sciences posed the following question to Mr Lee:
“Given the big influx of immigrants here in a short time, and a dilution of the national identity, what can we do to create a sense of belonging and foster social cohesiveness?”
She had expected Mr Lee to ask her questions as well but the questions he asked her took her by surprise.
He wanted to know how old she was. When she replied that she was twenty-seven, he asked if she was married. In response to her reply in the negative, he asked when she would finish her PHD and calculated that she would be twenty-nine when done.
He then proceeded to ask if she had a boyfriend. Her negative answer led Mr Lee to draw the crowd’s attention to the female biological clock and a woman’s child-bearing years stating that after 35, the dangers of having children with Down syndrome rises.
He concluded their question and answer session with advising her not to waste time and wishing her well in both her PHD and getting a boyfriend.
While the issues of a declining birth rate and immigration are linked, I am not sure that one is a direct causation or effect of the other. In that sense, Mr Lee totally evaded Ms Sim's question. The government has defended its policy on immigration by stating that foreigners are needed to boost the declining birthrates but is that a long term solution?
Secondly, Ms Sim was not questioning the policy of using immigration to boost declining birth rates; she was merely asking how to build social cohesiveness. There was simply no need to embarrass her by pointing out that she was single in front of an audience. Besides, it almost seems like he is blaming her and all other singletons for the need for immigration!
There are many reasons for Singapore’s declining birth rate. It cannot be simplified into young people wasting time and not getting married.
In our increasingly busy lives, the business of finding a suitable partner is a complex one. Finding time to meet people is a problem that should not be underestimated. One may argue that we should learn to prioritise but that is so much easier said than done.
The cost of living in Singapore is increasing and people need to work hard to ensure that they are not left behind. Working hours are long and bosses do not necessarily understand the concept of work life balance.
When you are low in the packing order, you tend not to be the first one out of the door so suffice to say, you will spend most of your twenties in the office.
Even if people have partners and get married, they may not have children until they are in their 30s for the same reasons cited above. So in reality, the root causes of the problem are the need for greater work life balance and policies aimed at reducing the costs of living in Singapore.
Using immigrants to boost declining birthrates is but a short term measure that does not deal with the problem head on. Immigrants may not stay and even if they do, immigrants will age as well. It is therefore not sustainable.
At best, immigration can be used as a potential tool for slowing — as opposed to overcoming — population ageing.
The issues of marriage and family are deeply personal ones. For Ms Sim to have been asked these personal questions in front of a crowded room by a well-known politician, who is credited by many to be the architect of modern Singapore, must have been extremely uncomfortable. I feel for her.
Her question to Mr Lee was a fairly straight forward one which deserved a direct answer without bringing in her marital status. Ms Sim’s marital status has absolutely no bearing on fostering social cohesiveness. Nor is it her fault for not having a boyfriend or not being married. These are but side issues to the bigger problems of a declining birthrate due to increasing costs of living and longer working hours.
Singling her out is irrelevant to her question. It is also below the belt and had the dual effect of evading a direct question and shaming her for being brave enough to ask a valid question.