Baby-making push in Singapore – Asia Times/RTÉ World Report


radio – radio report here. Broadcast Feb. 17 2013

SINGAPORE – Although Singapore’s population is on course to rise from around 5 million to almost 7 million by 2030, an influx of foreign workers has spurred the government to prod its brood-shy citizens into having more children.

"Floating baby" sculpture at Singapore's Gardens by the Bay (Photo: Simon Roughneen)

Almost half the country’s population could be made up of foreigners in 2030 if Singaporeans fail to boost their fertility rate, which by certain rankings is currently among the world’s lowest at 0.7.

Singaporeans have not had enough children to stave off population decline since 1976, back when national founder and former prime minister Lee Kuan Yew told citizens to “stop at two”. He feared that the country’s one-time world-record birthrates would overcrowd the then-developing city-state.

The situation has since come full circle with Singaporeans among the region’s most reluctant to start families. The week before a closely watched January 26 by-election, the government announced an upgrade to an existing baby-making incentive program, posting new goodies on offer on a policy-promoting website called “Hey Baby”.

Though the government pledged to boost its annual budget on marriage and parenthood to S$2 billion (US$1.6 billion) from S$1.6 billion – with more money for state-sponsored dating games, housing grants, subsidized childcare and cash gifts for babies – Singaporeans seem to be of two minds about the incentives.

Speaking outside the count center in the Punggol East constituency on election day, 38-year-old mother of two Joy Koh said that “the focus on the one-time payments misses the point; raising a child is a long-term thing.”

The governing People’s Action Party (PAP) lost the recent by-election, its second consecutive loss since sweeping a 2011 general election. Three days later, the government published a White Paper on Singapore’s demographic outlook through 2030, predicting among other things that almost 7 million people could by then live in the 700 square kilometer archipelago. Singapore is already the world’s second-most densely populated country, trailing only Monaco.

In response, the government said on January 31 that it hopes to add nearly 8% to the current land area of the city-state by 2030, through land reclamation projects and conversion of some of the island’s 18 golf courses into residential areas. But Singaporeans will need to get used to a more cramped country, as the government says that increased numbers are needed to drive hoped-for economic growth of 3% to 4% up to 2020, and 2% to 3% the decade after.

“If we do too little to address the demographic challenge, we risk becoming a steadily graying society, losing vitality and verve, with our young people leaving for opportunities elsewhere,” said the government statement on the White Paper’s release.

The government has other schemes in mind to support a hoped-for population boom, including plans to build 700,000 new homes and double the national rail network to 360 kilometers of track by 2030. Despite usually efficient and notably modern infrastructure, Singaporeans are swift to complain about waiting lists for public housing and overcrowded public transport.

Still, the government’s baby-making incentives are not expected to offset the falling birthrates any time soon. Mahdavi Manicka, a clerical staffer at Raffles Hospital and a mother of two boys, said the government’s “Hey Baby” package, though useful, is incomplete. “They are thinking of money costs but there are other things they don’t think of,” she said.

Singaporean Joy Koh gave birth to her second child ten months ago, five years after her first. She said many young couples – if they have more than one child – opt for a similar lagged timeframe. “It is difficult to have two children close together: it costs up to S$8,000 for good private care, for example. A lot of couples have a four- or five-year gap between kids.”

To keep the population from shrinking, Singapore will need 15,000 to 25,000 new citizens each year, assuming the current total fertility rate holds. Singapore’s non-resident population jumped from 797,900 in 2005 to 1,494,200 in 2012, as the country’s economy grew over 6% on average each year. Overall, the population increased by 1.1 million in the last decade, reaching 5.3 million in 2012.

But the foreign influx has prompted resentment among many Singaporeans, some of whom say the newcomers depress wages while inflating the cost of living. Singapore does not have a minimum wage standard, which some fear could reduce competitiveness in Southeast Asia, where Singapore ranks as a costly place to live and work and where lower-cost markets are close by.

Stung by two recent by-election losses that some have interpreted as a show of popular resentment over policies aimed at attracting foreign workers, the PAP-led government acknowledged as much in its new population paper. It said that “We must rely less on foreign labor, use our resources better, and redouble efforts to improve productivity.”

That assessment came with the caveat that foreign workers must “complement” the local workforce, particularly since the government does not expect an improvement in Singapore’s birth rate anytime soon.

In another dilemma, Singapore’s trade-oriented economy has been hit by slackening global demand for electronics and been hampered by the strong Singapore dollar and government measures that have made it more difficult for companies to hire low-wage foreign workers.

On January 31, the Singapore government said local employment growth rose by 59,200 workers in 2012, up from a 37,900 increase in the previous year. In contrast, the growth in foreign employment dropped to 70,400 in 2012, down from 84,800 in 2011.

At a PAP party rally before the January 26 by-election, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong posed related questions to the crowd, telling them that they cannot have it both ways. “Do we want faster growth or fewer foreign workers? Do we want more leisure or do we [want to] work harder for more money?” he asked.

To some, the premier’s jeremiads had a ring of truth. One of those listening, Calvin Ang, believes that Singaporeans are too materialistic – another factor in why couples choose to have so few children. Singaporeans are lampooned, often by themselves, for an apparent fondness for the “Five C’s ” – cash, car, credit card, condo and country club membership – meaning that for many Singaporeans, B (for baby) doesn’t come before C.

“The scheme is generous but I am not sure it will work, ” said Ang. “A lot of people like to live outside their means and spend on things they cannot afford.”

Similarly, hospital staffer Manicka said decisions about having children come down to lifestyle choices. “Nowadays young parents seem to want to have their old single life, not be burdened with kids. That’s a big reason why the birthrate is low.”

But an October survey conducted by OCBC Bank could offer some hope yet for the government. Implying that the “Five C’s” are fast-becoming a C of another sort – a cliche – the independent research showed that many Singaporeans find solace in family, travel and health – all of which were deemed more important than owning a flash car or hobnobbing in a country club.

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