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Singapore’s declining birth rate

family-2.jpgBy Epilogos

Incredible, but true. Singapore is too expensive a place to have a baby, so many young couples in Singapore think. This is in spite of the fact that in Singapore, both couple - husband and wife - are more likely to hold down a paid job. A new acronym, DINKS, has been invented to describe couples with jobs but no kids (Double Income No Kids).

This situation is not getting any better as more of the population ages. This will be a problem that our shrinking number of kids today will have to contend with in the years to come: support a greater number of aged people - people that are from baby boom generation of the 1950s and 1960s.

If after 41 years, we have arrived at a situation where it becomes too expensive to have even one child, then we need to question our priorities in life and the way organise ourselves. Is our national education system any good at all in producing better prospects for its citizens when it doesn't allow them to earn enough to even start a one child family? What do we mean by a better life? Is a double-income couple a desirable development for the long term? Are the pressures on performance at work putting undue pressure that inhibits procreation, in spite of the government's best effort and generous incentives?

Is the education system at fault?

I remember spending years towards getting a degree from a local university. The PSLEs were easy then but I worked my heart out for them nevertheless. I hear that it has become very stressful for parents of children sitting for the PSLE nowadays. The 'O' levels, 'A' levels and undergraduate studies took a lot out of me. Many in my generation also went through this grueling study mill.

But if after 15 years of continuous studies (6+4+2+3) and thereafter, finding a job that can't even pay for me to have and support a single baby, then I question the economic value that our education has brought us.

Yes, education trains the mind and uplifts the spirit, provides a skill that enables us to secure a job that feeds us and even obtain subsidised housing under the government's generous housing policies, but nothing else, it would seem. How then are we better off than our parents?

At the end of the day, our stress (no, we don't sweat anymore in our fully air-conditioned offices) and toil contributes to the nation's GDP growth rate while also enabling us to keep up with the Jones'. We feel a sense of pride that we made First World status in 40 years and we are happy when the year-end bonuses will be bigger.

Ironically, within such a First World country where the wealth of its people are the envy of many in the rest of the world, many young, working Singaporeans at their most re-productive periods feel that a baby is just too expensive to bear.

How did we get ourselves into such a ridiculous state?

Even the farmer can feed himself off the land without that 15-year study mill. He has the time and mood to reproduce himself far more extensively than a typical graduate in Singapore. Sure, life may not be as exciting on the farm as in the cities, although some farmers in Lim Chu Kang may disagree. Before modern science and technology alleviates some of the uncertainties, farmers were often at the mercy of nature and the markets.

It boils down to priorities in life

It boils down to a matter of priorities in life, does it not? We tend to live more for ourselves than anything else these days. Technology has given us the 'My' generation - MyDocuments, MySpace, MySQL, MyFiles, My*Everything*, except people don't want MyBaby. We want that car and that condo and that annual vacation (more won't harm) and that maid (whatever for when you don't have kids?) and ad nauseum. We want everything, and before we can attain all these material goodies, we have no money nor time for a baby.

People say that in Singapore, it costs upwards of $10,000 for a child, and I am not referring to adoption. But these same people think nothing of shelling out $60,000 for that car, even though the lifetime value of a child and a car are so vastly different, at least in Singapore.

Some people wonder how a family with a household income of $2,000 could raise 5 kids. Well, let me tell you that my Father never earned more than $500 a month and, together with my mother, raised 5 kids who are meaningfully employed today. Even adjusting for inflation and all, it will put people to shame nowadays who think that they do not have enough money.

I had a happy childhood even though I missed out on many material things. Toys were hand-me-downs, walking to school some distance away was a daily routine, though it did me good - figure-wise. Witness the many obese kids nowadays who have had one too many burgers, and chocolates and ice-creams and who are practically chaffeured from one place to another, leading largely sedentary lives.

Money is not the only problem

But money is not the only problem for young couples nowadays.

By its own admission, the government's special tax incentives such as the Baby Bonus scheme, that are aimed at encouraging couples to have children have not worked at all. In fact, I suggest that it was not the real problem to start out with.

The real problem is a biological/psychological one. If we want our birth rates to increase, then we must get people to marry earlier, and to start a family earlier. Waiting till one is over 30 to start a family will necessarily reduce the ability to sire more children, even if, more likely than not, money would not be a problem then.

Can we slow down a bit but not jeopardise our competitive edge? Can we consciously change the way we measure success and happiness or in other words, change our KPIs?

Some have suggested polygamy as a solution. It is conceivable that polygamous relationships where older men marry and support a younger wife or two may increase birth rates, but this comes with higher social costs and inequity that our womenfolk would not soon accept. It is a fact that from the procreation perspective, it just won't work the other way around. Women are necessarily 'out of action' for at least 9 months but the menfolk can 'keep at it'.

As Stephen Hawking famously said recently, 'I don't have the answers'. But what I suspect is that it requires a significant change in our attitude to life and love - the happiness thing, and a willingness to sacrifice other things for a baby which, in my opinion, is worth more than its weight in gold. Perhaps the immigrants that the government is encouraging can teach us a thing or two about having babies?

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About the author

Epilogos maintains a blog here.