Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong is cranking up a national debate on babies this month, with proposals to Parliament that would attempt to stem the country’s slumping birthrate. Penelope Sim isn’t listening.
“My mother-in-law hates me and she says I’m selfish, but I don’t really care,” Sim, a human resources consultant who’s been married for six years, said as she shopped for MAC lipstick and eye liner, a brand of Estee Lauder Cos. “Everything’s crazy expensive and life’s already stressful enough here without kids. If there’s no one to carry on the family name, then so be it.”
Sim, 33, embodies Lee’s challenge to convince Singaporeans to wed younger and procreate more, four decades after concern about overcrowding prompted his father to urge citizens to delay nuptials and have smaller families. The younger Lee is caught between a rock and a hard place. While the birthrate was about 1.3 children per woman in 2012 -- barely enough to replace one parent -- a backlash against soaring immigration forced the government to curb the influx of foreigners, leading to labor shortages and slower economic growth.
Measures since 1987 to reverse declining fertility, including handouts of as much as S$18,000 ($14,600) and extended maternity leave, haven’t worked. The nation’s birthrate in 2010 and 2011 were the lowest in 47 years of independence. About 36,000 babies were born to residents in 2011, compared with nearly 50,000 in 1990.
The failure to encourage more births means the country will have to contend with a shrinking pool of workers and consumers, a deterrent to future investment. It will also increase the burden on younger employees to pay for an aging population. Lee has said higher taxes will be needed in the next two decades as the government boosts social spending to support the elderly.
Singapore’s first cohort of baby boomers turned 65 last year, and its number of elderly will triple to 900,000 by 2030, according to the National Population and Talent Division. The nation defines baby boomers as those born between 1947 and 1964.
The city state isn’t alone in struggling with falling birthrates. The level in the U.S. hit a record low in 2011, while Japan’s population is forecast to drop by almost a third by 2060 from 128 million in 2010. China’s three-decade-old, one-child policy is accelerating declines in its workforce, and Germany’s birthrate is among the lowest in Europe even as it spends billions of euros to encourage women to have more children.
Singapore resorted to immigration in recent years to raise numbers. The population has increased by 1.1 million in the past decade to 5.3 million. At the height of the influx, in the year through June 2008, the nation added 251,000 people.
In a package of measures released yesterday on a government website called “Hey Baby,” Singapore said it will boost its annual budget on marriage and parenthood to S$2 billion from S$1.6 billion, including spending on matchmaking, housing grants, subsidized childcare and fertility treatments and cash gifts for babies. In 2001, the budget was S$500 million.
The prime minister, who has four children, is encouraging couples to start a family earlier by giving priority public housing to those with kids below 16. With some of the most expensive real estate in Asia, government-subsidized homes are the only affordable option for most young couples, and waiting lists for new apartments can extend years.
The government will make a S$3,000 contribution to childhood medical expenses and will announce measures tomorrow to make childcare more affordable. Singapore aims to raise the total fertility rate to 1.4 or 1.5 in coming years, Deputy Prime Minister Teo Chee Hean said yesterday.
Social-policy experts aren’t optimistic that the measures will reverse the trend.
“No pronatalist policy can bring the fertility rate back to replacement level,” said Theresa W. Devasahayam, a researcher at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies in Singapore, who has published papers on gender, aging and labor policies in the city state. “The government is in a fix. For the moment, it has little choice but to keep importing labor and keep the country’s doors open to foreigners.”
The new measures come before a Jan. 26 by-election in which all four candidates for the Punggol East parliamentary seat have highlighted the cost or availability of childcare.
Singapore, smaller in size than New York City, has few natural resources, and the government relies on a skilled workforce to sustain growth. The economy has expanded for all but four years since independence in 1965, bringing million-dollar high-rise apartments and shopping malls in place of pig farms and fishing villages.
Singapore’s home ownership rate is about 89 percent and the Boston Consulting Group estimates there were 188,000 millionaire households in the city state in 2011. The Economist Intelligence Unit declared Singapore to be the best place in Asia to be born in 2013. Gross domestic product per capita climbed to $50,123 in 2011, from $516 in 1965.
Back then, the country boasted a fertility rate of 4.7 and so many women gave birth in the national maternity hospital in 1966 that it entered the Guinness Book of World Records.
The so-called birthquake raised concern that the fledgling economy would be overburdened, and Lee’s father, Lee Kuan Yew, promoted family planning, legalized abortion and encouraged sterilization. A “Stop at Two” campaign in the 1970s and the natural decline in childbirth as the economy developed brought the fertility rate down to 1.82 by the end of the decade.
Last August, Lee Kuan Yew lamented that the number of births in the city has halved since he came to power in 1959, even with twice as many people.
“If we go on like that, this place would fold up because there will be no original citizens left to form the majority,” Lee, 89, said in a speech published in the Straits Times newspaper. “We’ve got to persuade people to understand that getting married is important, having children is important.”
Singaporean men and women are delaying getting married in part because they want to “concentrate fully” on their jobs or studies, a government survey of 2,120 singles showed this month. The median age for grooms has risen to 30.1 in 2011, from 26.9 in 1970. For brides, it has climbed to 28, from 23.1.
“We have to find effective ways to encourage Singaporeans to have more babies,” the younger Lee said in his New Year message. “We are not impersonal, calculating robots, mindlessly pursuing economic growth and material wealth.”
Pursuit of possessions may be partly to blame. Singaporean women are more materialistic than their American counterparts, which could explain a smaller desire for children, according to a 2010 study by researchers at the Singapore Management University and the Northern Illinois University.
In the 1990s, success in Singapore was measured by the attainment of the so-called five Cs -- cash, car, credit card, condominium and country club membership. Now, there are 9.3 million credit cards in circulation on the island, private property prices are at a record, and a Volkswagen Golf can cost more than the median price of an existing U.S. home.
The role of women in the economy may also have contributed to the falling birth rate. They made up 44 percent of the resident labor pool last year as the government encouraged greater participation and offered larger tax breaks to working mothers. In 2010, female graduates outnumbered males in three of the five most common fields, including business and administration.
A survey by I Love Children, an organization that promotes a “children-plenty” Singapore, showed couples cited money as the top factor for not having babies. It costs at least S$340,000 to raise a child in Singapore from infancy to the age of 21, the Asian Parent website estimated last year. A middle-income U.S. family may spend $234,900 to raise a child born in 2011 to the age of 18, a government report last year showed.
“A lot of women in my generation feel torn between work and family,” said Farah Azmi, a 34-year-old accountant for a pharmaceutical company who married her boyfriend of four years in 2011. “I definitely want to have kids but I won’t be able to be there for them like my mum was there for me and my brothers. What’s the point of having kids if they’re going to be brought up by an outsider, by your maid?”
As Lee tries to push for bigger families, his father’s “Stop at Two” campaign may come back to haunt him. Small families are happy, own more, have more to eat, and enjoy better health and education, posters from the 1970s extolled.
“I’m stopping at one,” said Corinne Chia, who is six months pregnant with a baby boy she plans to name Jeremy. She said the cost of bringing up a child is the main reason she doesn’t intend to have more. “He’s not even born yet and I joke to my friends that I’m already broke.”