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Mother-to-be ponders on General Election

Julian Lim

I’m a post-65er. My generation is known as the one that didn’t have to suffer. We grew up in a meritocratic society, went through the education system, and are lucky enough to enter working life in a country that is prosperous and well-organised.

Fast forward to 2011.

Soon a mother-to-be, I have just started to learn about my maternity benefits and also started to think long and hard about the problems I will face in raising a child while holding down a full time job. Like every parent, I hope to provide my child with good care (facilitated by time from parents) and a good quality of life (facilitated by plain money). I am also waiting to sign on the dotted line that will put my husband and I in debt for almost half a million dollars in exchange for the keys to our 4 room flat next year. As the election draws near, the hot topics of expensive public housing, high cost of living and foreign talent policy have emerged and led me to think about how we Singaporeans got embroiled into such a situation today.

Fact: Singapore needs a skilled workforce to survive and to be the most competitive Asian country.

This has led to the Government’s policy of educating all men and women, upgrading of skills to ensure all men and women contribute to the workforce, and thus the economy. This further leads to an improved standard of living, but everyone needs to work doubly hard to maintain status quo.As a result there is a greater sense of aspiration, both men and women feeling that they have studied and worked so hard, so they deserve more in life, and want more out of life. However,  the strain of such a hectic working life leads to family units where husband and wife both work and toil to achieve more, yet end up with less time for childbearing or raising their kids. Many couples put off starting a family all together.

Fact: Low Fertility Rates

Our Total Fertility Rate declined from 1.6 in 2000 to 1.23 in 2009 and to 1.16 in 2010. The population needs a TFR of 2.1 to replace itself. To arrest the decline, the Singapore government started to import foreign labour, convert the suitable ones to PR and then eventually PRs to citizens to support the aging populace.

The government’s assurance to uneasy Singaporeans is that this is vital for our economy. You will also see a slew of content on press and on national television that propagates cultural diversity and harmony, integration of various cultures, and reminders that our forefathers were once immigrants too.

Fact: More Foreigners

In 2010, we have 5.076 million people, of which 3.230 million are citizens, 0.541 million are PRs, and 1.305 million are foreign residents. (Figures from Dept of Statistics, Singapore.)

This has given rise to a situation where Singaporeans feel threatened by foreigners but somewhat also accepting of the fact that it makes us more cosmopolitan and it keeps the economy running. If you’re a property agent, you welcome foreigners because they are a great source of agent commissions! If you’re a business owner, you welcome foreigners because they are just as skilled yet are less demanding about salaries! If you have colleagues and friends who are foreigners, you feel that hey they are just like you, ‘nice down-to-earth folks’ with the same drives, dreams and aspirations.

If I were a People’s Action Party (PAP) or an opposition candidate for an hour, and the press asked me the golden question: what issue would you look into if you were elected into Parliament, what would I say?

Well, I wouldn’t say lack of car park lots even though I do drive. And I wouldn’t be so clueless as to say everything that the PAP has done is fine so I don’t have anything to change. I wonder why Miss Tin Pei Ling, one of the new PAP candidates for the elections, even bothers to join the PAP if she really thinks there is nothing she can to do to value-add to the party. As a voter, I wonder why I should contribute my tax dollars to her salary when she doesn’t attempt to work her brains harder. And I’m not discriminating against my own gender.

I would say, simply because I’m a 30-something mother-to-be, that I think more can be done to encourage couples to start families and have children. I’m not against the “we welcome foreigners” policy. I’m saying that more can be done to solve the problem at the root than to treat the symptom of it. And I use the word ‘solve’ casually here - a better word would be ‘manage’. We can manage the problem so it becomes less critical. If you think about it, one out of every four people in Singapore are foreigners. Now, that’s a staggering statistic. But it does make sense why almost all cashiers I meet at Giant supermarket are PRC Chinese, and the sales lady helping me at the pharmacy is Filipino.  If we could get it to one out of every five or six people, the sentiment on the ground would be very different. We may be able to embrace the foreigners in our midst better than how we are doing now, attributing the tough competition for jobs and living spaces to foreign talents.

What can be done to encourage couples to start families and arrest the declining fertility rate? Their concerns about career and making a living as opposed to childbearing need to be addressed. Their concerns about providing quality care for their newborns and children need to be addressed. Their concerns about the effects on their quality of life with a child or children in tow need to be addressed.

A one-time cash incentive or cash payouts are a ‘nice gesture’ but not the decisive factor for a couple to have a baby. Paid maternity leave helps but in reality it helps only in the first four months of the entire eighteen years and some might argue, lifetime of parenthood. What is the working mother going to do with the baby after four months? The options are not cheap, not pretty and not much - hire a maid for approximately $600 a month, place the newborn in infant care for approximately $1500 a month, or entrust the child to grandparents, assuming they are not working themselves now that the retirement age is 62.

Many people do not realise how hard a decision it is for a woman climbing the career ladder to give up what she has achieved to start a family. Some women don’t even have the luxury of such a decision; a single income source is just not enough to pay for the flat, living expenses, and support parents from both sides. Many decide to continue working full time out of not having a choice, some simply as means to upward mobility. I also know women who forego careers for children only to regret it a few years later. It is all these considerations that make couples shelve family plans for now, till they feel they have achieved more in their careers, or till they feel they can afford it.

I wish Singapore could be as thoughtful as Sweden, Norway and the UK  - where they offer one year of paid maternity/ paternity leave. However, as an informed Singaporean well aware of the “hard truths”, a year of paid maternity leave places Singapore out of the competition as best Asian country to site a regional HQ or MNC arm in - if the government enforces such protective measures for its workforce, companies could easily shift to another country where they don’t have to deal with such rules.

Hence, I feel a more elegant solution would be to encourage an economy that offers part-time jobs for mothers - so they can juggle the dual responsibilities of child-minding and making an income to upkeep the family in a Singapore that’s become increasingly expensive to live in. Not only should part-time jobs be available, it must be looked upon as an important mechanism for the economy. Companies could modify parts of its operation so that part-time workers can contribute meaningfully, and also provide a career progression path for such part-time workers.

Overall, the business environment needs to embrace part-time workers, which the government could encourage through incentives. It will be money well spent if it can achieve better fertility rates while keeping a good percentage of Singaporeans in the workforce. It also means a less lax foreign talent policy, and less disgruntled Singaporeans.

Part-time jobs give mothers a choice. It allows a mother to continue her career, albeit at a slower pace. Most of all, now she can find time for her child, while continue to make money to ensure a reasonable quality of life for the child. The decision to start a family is not so difficult now. Yes, we would like to have our cake and eat it. If it’s possible, well, why not? This goes to serve the big picture which is summed up earlier in this writing - women can continue to be part of a skilled workforce and contribute to the daily grind of the grand machine called Singapore.