Appalled by Paulin Straughan’s poorly-developed and myopic views on fertility trends in Singapore

Dr Robin Chee Ming Feng

I am appalled by Paulin Straughan’s poorly-developed and myopic views on fertility trends in Singapore (“Let’s not condemn Singaporeans to extension”, A24, ST 17-11-2017). I find it disturbing as a Sociologist myself that she would denounce the focus on growing a “quality” Singapore and champion a largely economically pragmatic approach without considering other social and cultural factors.

She labels those who choose not to participate in enhancing Singapore’s population growth as irresponsible but wouldn’t it be irresponsible for her to encourage individuals to have children at the expense of their personal preferences and more importantly, for certain individuals, their aptitude and ability to be good parents?

Her theory that an ageing population would lead to a less competitive workforce only paints half the picture as even with an enormous surge in population, the workforce would not be more competitive if it remains unproductive and missteps are repeatedly made in identifying the wrong group of industries to develop.

She also claims that solving the labour shortage through an in-flow of immigrants would “aggravate social tensions and jeopardise racial harmony”. It seems from this declaration that she is not very confident of the state’s existing efforts to promote ethnic harmony between Singaporeans and foreign migrants even though there isn’t enough evidence yet to support such a bleak outlook.

Her hopeful projection that Singapore could emulate other developed cities such as Paris in reversing their Total Fertility Rate is also misguided as these cities are economically and culturally different from Singapore and their citizens may adhere to different social aspirations from Singaporeans.

While she has listed numerous advantages to having children for each family, she has neglected to exemplify and elaborate on the very real consequences of having more children. This include limiting resources to each child for a large working-class family, lack of energy and time to dedicate to each child leading to the loss of crucial bonding time and postponing retirement as a result of having more children.

In addition, she proclaims that Singapore has shown that it is capable of crafting pro-family policies and that 70% of respondents in a survey affirmed that such policies helped to make it more conducive to have children. However, it is not clear how many respondents feel that these existing policies (though obviously helpful) are actually adequate and what are their main bugbears of these policies.

She also declares that existing policies to correct work-life imbalance would shift norms on this issue but in reality, it would take a lot more to change these norms as reflected in a recent survey which states that many workers are reluctant to make use of these schemes due to the fear of giving negative impression (“Few workers make use of flexible hours” Straits Times July 21, 2014).

She has also not highlighted other more pertinent reasons for Singaporeans not to have children other than a lack of work-life balance and the costs of living and that include the desire not to have children in a country which expose children to academic stress even at a young age and the inability to escape from an economically pragmatic culture, amongst other reasons.

According to Dr Chee, this letter was first sent to the Straits Times to voice out against the statements made by former NMP Paulin Straughan in a recent feature published in the Straits Times which he finds to be misguided and flawed but was not published.

However, Dr Chee noted that he was not surprised that it wasn’t published.

Prof Straughan is currently a dean at Singapore Management University (SMU) and previously taught at the National University of Singapore (NUS) Sociology department.

Dr Chee noted that he feels that her comments are mostly one-sided and did not sufficiently take into account the plight of Singaporeans, especially those in the lower-income bracket.