Andrew Loh / Deputy Editor
This article is inspired by what Mr Wang wrote on his blog – a very thought-provoking entry titled, “Human rights and the Government baby incentives, Part 1”.
It led me to wonder why exactly Singaporeans would want to have kids, if they are treated as merely an economic necessity.
Mr Wang argues that the Singapore Government’s motivation in wanting to raise the birth rate is “purely economic; the aim is to generate a steady stream of future workers for Singapore Inc” – if Singapore views human rights as an ‘invention of the West”, having no relevance to us in Asia. Mr Wang cites the UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) to illustrate an interesting perspective on how human rights actually can inform national policies.
I agree with what Mr Wang says.
In his first National Day Rally speech in 2004, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, said:
This is a matter of values, not of incentives… We want people to have babies because you want them and you love them. It’s part of a happy family life.
Despite those words from the prime minister, however, Singaporeans have become cynical about the Government’s reasons. “It’s not because having kids will provide a happy family life”, they might say. “It’s to bolster our economic competitiveness and indeed, our economic survival. After all, no babies means no workers for the future, right? No workers means our economy will be affected.” That’s how the thought process goes. That’s what the Government says all the time. It’s all about the economy. The sweet-saccharine citation of “a happy family life” is just packaging and PR.
This is further reinforced by ministers’ public statements and Government policies – such as allowing the influx of foreigners and immigrants. Two years after the PM said it was a “matter of values”, he admitted, in his 2006 National Day Rally speech:
We are short 14,000 babies… We have to bring in new immigrants. If our population shrinks, Singapore will face a very serious problem… To grow and flourish, we must welcome those who can help us to reach our goals… That is the way to build Singapore for Singaporeans.
And of course, we all know that the only goal that matters here in our tiny island is the economic one, above all else. Why? Because, according to Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew, “as long as we have a dynamic economy, we can solve our problems.” (Straits Times). Do you understand now the Government’s obsession with raising the birth rate? Think: Babies = future workers = economic growth = dynamic economy = solving problems. That’s also the Government’s and the People’s Action Party’s (PAP) political legitimacy and relevance – if you’re not able to solve problems, who would want to vote for you, right?
In a nutshell, if we have money (economic growth) “we can solve our problems”, and the PAP can stay in power.
Meaning lin life
Therein lies the conundrum; The Government sees Singaporeans as workers for the economy, while increasingly Singaporeans want something more out of life than just being feeders for the economy monster.
The result is a declining birth rate because Singaporeans do not see anything meaningful in slogging away all their lives on the economic front. It’s a seemingly-endless struggle and competition which makes them hesitate and then decide against having kids. After all, if you are tired from the struggle, why would you want to put your kids through it as well? Where is the meaning in life?
That’s the key phrase: meaning in life.
It is so often nowadays that I hear my friends wonder what their lives mean. It sounds almost like a crisis. “I work 15 hours a day and I still am not sure if I will be able to retire. So, why have kids? Just do what we can, eventually die, and that’s it,” one said to me. “Why should I worry about the survival of the economy and what-not when the Government sees us as just workers for the monster? Life should be about more than just work, work, work!” says another.
A Government as obsessed with economic performance as ours cannot understand such sentiments. But even if it does and tries to come up with the solution, it will be an economic one. Thus, we see all sorts of economic incentives being offered, including subsidies and all. They have all failed.
See Singaporeans as human beings. Period.
Perhaps what is needed to solve the problem of a declining birth rate is to see Singaporeans first and foremost and always as people, human beings – and treat them as such. It is, as the prime minister said, about values.
It is about how much we as a nation value Singaporeans as human beings. Period.
And if we do, we will include considerations of the value of human rights.
As Mr Wang said:
In fact, babies are very much like Temasek’s investment in Shin Corp or Merrill Lynch. One day, they might generate good returns, but that will have to be in the very, very distant future. Meanwhile, they are just a huge, constant and bleeding economic loss.
This is not an obstacle if you view babies and parents as humans, and by virtue of being human, automatically having human rights (like those under CEDAW).
Maybe then Singaporeans will see meaning in their lives and would want children with whom they can speak of the amazing wonder of the experience of Life.
At the very least, the Government should pause and think about things outside the economic and not dismiss things like human rights casually or because of political or hegemonic reasons.
I think Singapore has reached a point where it has a lot of economic success and now it has some surplus, and it’s time to start thinking about the more human element.
– Dr Angelique Chan, Sociologist, National University of Singapore. (Channel NewsAsia)
If we are going to emulate Swedish policies on raising the birth rate, shouldn’t we also consider the Swedish approach to human rights as well? As Mr Wang so eloquently argued, the two are not mutually exclusive.
Indeed, it could be what saves Singapore from oblivion.
Read also: “Foreigners bolstering Singapore‘s birth rate: report” by Reuters.
Cartoon by My Sketchbook.