A question of fairness

~ By Ghui ~

The mantra that we are not producing enough babies is one that the government is consistently repeating. This incessant rhetoric has been used to justify the need for more foreigners. Indeed one poor girl was even publicly shamed by former minister Lee Kuan Yew for her singlehood in the name of 'Singaporeans not producing enough children' ("Former PM Lee to PhD student: Do you have a boyfriend?", The New Paper, 6 Sep 2011).

Applying this logic, it would appear that the Singapore government is desperate for babies. This would also explain why there are a slew of benefits to encourage Singaporeans to have children. Given that the government is frequently lamenting our low birth-rate, it might be high time we examine the implications of some of the government’s policies vis-à-vis the birth-rate.

From the “Stop at Two” policy to the “Graduate Mother Scheme”, Singapore is certainly no stranger to trying to reshape our birth-rate patterns. However has any of it worked? On the face of it, it would seem not. The “Stop at Two” policy has contributed to our low birth-rates while the “Graduate Mother Scheme” was seen as elitist social engineering. However, have we learnt from this?

System that is prejudiced against unmarried mothers

Going back to first principles, the government’s intention is presumably to encourage Singaporeans who can support a family adequately to have children. Why is it then that children born to single (unmarried) women do not get the same benefits as those who are born to married parents? Perhaps there is a perception that single (unmarried) mothers will be a burden to the state? However, that misconception does not hold weight because Singapore is not a welfare state! Besides, why the assumption that single mothers are not financially stable?

Another common assumption is that children without a “complete” family would somehow be less functional than one from a so called “complete” family. However, how can we define “complete”? Surely a loving home is what shapes the well being of all children and a single parent home can be just as loving as the home of a “complete” family.

Unmarried women do not qualify for Parenthood Tax Rebates, nor do they qualify for HDB flats (see Eligibility to buy new HDB flats). HDB has deemed it fit to restrict the family nucleus to the narrow confines of spouse, parents and siblings and children under the applicant’s legal custody, care and control (for widowed/ divorced). Are children born out of wedlock not fit to be family such that they do not even deserve to be a part of the family nucleus?

Proponents of the status quo might argue that the government cannot be seen to encourage children born out of wedlock but this logic is flawed because something can only be an incentive if it betters a particular group’s position over another’s. The government will only be encouraging children born out of wedlock if it gives unwed mothers more benefits than other mothers.

Same tax paid but different benefits received

Tax rebates and HDB flats are funded by our collective taxes. As such, any tax payer should be given equal access to such benefits. The government might be morally against the idea of illegitimate children but there has to be a distinction between subjective morality and the secular administration of the state.

The running of the state has to be objective. Singapore wants Singaporeans who have the means to have children. It is therefore a question of fact and not a question of subjective moral inclinations. If a working unmarried tax paying Singaporean mother has a child, she must be eligible for the same benefits as a married, divorced or widowed working tax paying mother.

Before repeating the oft cited blanket excuse of morality, let’s take a step back and examine what morality really means in this instance. What problem are we trying to solve? Is it to punish unmarried mothers and their offspring or is it to prevent a floodgate of unmarried mothers that will “erode the social fabric of Singapore”? If it is the latter, the reasoning is flawed at best because women will only be “encouraged” to have children out of wedlock if they are getting extra benefits for doing so. I think we are in no danger of that!

Even the “punishment” argument is flawed for it comes from the standpoint that unmarried mothers are “fallen” women who have dared to have premarital sex. What generation do we live in? Do we really believe that people do not engage in premarital sex? Besides, what about the men? Why do they get off scot-free?

So, people have sex and the result of that is that sometimes, women fall pregnant. At times, people will get married as a result of that pregnancy and at other times, for diverse reasons, they do not. By denying unmarried mothers the same benefits accorded to their married counterparts, are we suggesting that these women have abortions then? What kind of hypocritical morality is that? Despite being pro-choice, I can see that the sanctity of life trumps the illusionary niceties of picture perfect family units.

Only the children suffer as a result

The point is, children born out of wedlock is a factual occurrence which we cannot ignore. Whatever our subjective moral inclinations, is it right to punish the children born out of wedlock for their mother’s supposed “sins”? Is it for society to distinguish between legitimate and illegitimate children as if somehow legitimate children are superior? In actuality, that is the end result of our current laws - to stigmatise illegitimate children when all children are supposed to be born on a clean slate, untainted.

Mothers (whether  they are married or not) and their children must be treated equally. This is not an issue about morality but of fairness. If you pay tax, you deserve the benefits that come with the taxes. I am not suggesting that tax paying unmarried mothers get more, merely that they get the same as their tax paying counterparts.

Headline photo courtesy of Examiner.com