Baby I’m a-want you

Is there any country where women are less likely to have babies than Singapore? A worried prime minister Lee Hsien Loong  slipped in a word of advice in his  Chinese New Year message. Procreate, he urged his fellow citizens.

“Last year, our total fertility rate fell to 1.16, an all-time low,” said the father of four. “It could have been because of the Year of the Tiger, or perhaps the economic uncertainties the year before, in 2009. Whatever the reasons, I hope more couples will start or add to their families in the Year of the Rabbit.”

The total fertility rate is the number of babies a woman is expected to have. Nowhere is it lower than Singapore except Hong Kong and Macao, according to the CIA World Factbook.

Singapore can expect to have more babies in the Year of the Dragon, which comes next year, than the 37,000 born in the Year of the Tiger, which ended this month. The dragon represents good fortune in Chinese astrology.  But couples are being urged to hop to it and have babies now to keep Singapore Singaporean. “We need immigrants to reinforce our ranks, but we must maintain a clear majority of local-born Singaporeans who set the tone of our society, and uphold our core values and ethos,” said PM Lee. “We need Singaporeans to produce enough babies to replace ourselves.”  There will be fewer Singaporeans in the years to come unless the fertility rate goes up to two babies per woman. Singapore’s population has gone up from four million to five million in the last decade, but a quarter of it is now made up by foreigners.

The Singapore government not only plays Cupid with its Social Development Unit bringing couples together; it also has a Baby Bonus scheme, encouraging them to have children. The scheme gives parents a cash gift of up to S$4,000 (over Rs 1.43 lakh) each for the first and second child and S$6,000 each for the third and fourth child. The government also matches dollar-for-dollar parents’ contributions to their Children Development Accounts up to S$6,000 for the first and second child, up to S$12,000 for the third and fourth child and up to S$18,000 for the fifth and each subsequent child. Married women also get 16 weeks of maternity leave – and single mothers, 12 weeks.

The government gave out S$230 million in Baby Bonus payments in 2009, but it’s still not enough, say some. The cash gift of S$4,000 to S$6,000 does not cover even a year’s expenses on a child, griped a reader in a letter to Today newspaper.  He urged low-interest government housing loans for families with two or more children to buy bigger flats and higher medical subsidies to encourage couples to have more children.

If that’s a tall order, consider the benefits enjoyed by a Singaporean on maternity leave in Finland.  Ashley Chang, in a letter to The Straits Times, wrote she would receive up to 80 per cent of her salary for the next eight months and, even if she chose to stay at home to raise her child, she won’t lose her job for three years. Fathers are given up to three weeks of paternity leave, she added. What’s more, a “child allowance of €200 (S$350) is also paid monthly until the child grows well into his teens”.  Several other Western countries also offer generous benefits.

Nevertheless, birth rates are declining in the West. Finland’s total fertility rate, at 1.73, though higher than Singapore’s, is still below the replacement rate of two babies per woman. Clearly, then, oodles of cash don’t translate into bundles of joy. Poorer countries tend to have faster growing populations than richer countries though there are exceptions. America has a higher fertility rate (2.06) than China (1.54) but lower than India (2.65). Could it be due to culture or genes? Why, then, is  the fertility rate much lower among Indian Singaporeans (1.14), who are nevertheless more “creative” than Chinese Singaporeans (1.08)?

One reason for Singapore’s falling birth rate is that people are marrying later. Over 30 per cent of the women and 43 per cent of the men remain unmarried in their early thirties, according to the 2010 census.  Half the first-time mothers are over the age of 29. About 20 per cent of the married women remain childless in their 30s, up from 14 per cent a decade ago. Two children continue to be the norm for married women in their 40s though nearly 20 per cent have only one child, up from 15 per cent in 2000.

Worried about the falling birth rate, the government will review its decade-old Baby Bonus scheme. “We should look beyond current schemes, to see what else can be done,” said a ruling party legislator. Is it time for a “C change”?  Singaporeans are said to hanker for the five Cs – cash, car, credit card, condominium and country club membership. None of the coveted Cs, significantly, stands for a child.

Not that the kids I see going to school or kindergarten early in the morning look neglected or unloved. Maids, mums and grandmas hover anxiously around the local preschool, waiting for their little ones. Seesaws, slides, jungle gyms and other play equipment dot the parks in housing estates. But growing up is no child’s play in Singapore. A boy I know is already feeling the pressure in primary school. After coming home late in the afternoon, he has to do his homework and go for tuitions. Sometimes, late in the evening, he plays badminton with his parents or friends at the playground outside his flat. “I wish I had more time to play,” he says. In hustling, bustling Singapore, that’s asking for the moon – or wanting more babies.

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