Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Babies: Quietly does it

Sep 3, 2008

To encourage more births, the less talk the better, studies show

By Susan Long

A FRIEND of mine is expecting her third child. Every time she mentions that she's expecting No. 3, she gets two predictable responses: 'Thanks for doing my share' or 'Was it planned or an accident?'

It shows just how sharply social norms have shifted here such that most Singaporeans cannot conceive of having more than one or at most two children.

And unfortunately, every time the Government brings up the tumbling Total Fertility Rate (TFR) and forms yet another high-powered national committee to tackle the problem, it reinforces the normalcy of having no kids or just one.

By lamenting that the TFR is well below two, it ends up furnishing more social proof that this is the new norm. And it unwittingly shapes social norms in exactly the wrong direction.

Social psychologists say that the last thing governments should do if they want to change behaviour is to jaw on about how it has become more prevalent.

For example, one of the last things the authorities in the United States should do to increase voter turnout is to lament how few people go to the polls any more. And instead of increasing compliance, telling people not to litter may in fact induce more littering than telling people nothing at all.

So, if the Government wants to see more babies, perhaps the best thing it can do is: Stop talking about it.

Going forward, with an increasingly sophisticated populace, the nanny state has its work cut out for it. Subtlety has never been its strong suit.

But it needs to cut its apron strings in bedroom matters, step back and let its policies and provisions do the talking instead - the same way it has for boardroom matters with a lighter financial regulatory touch.

It could for example let burgeoning civil society groups like I Love Children, aLife, Focus On the Family and Centre for Fathering lead the pro-family discourse in Singapore.

That does not relegate the Government to a retiring role. Just that instead of direct and didactic state intervention, it should serve as behind-the-scenes enabler - actively identifying needs, marshalling resources, building pro-family infrastructure and helping where help is needed, for example by increasing infant care and flexiwork options.

There are good reasons why the Government should let its actions speak louder than words, chief of which is that it is possibly its own worst advocate in this matter.

Its vacillating track record in fertility policy and sharp about-turns over the past four decades have led to mixed messaging and much cynicism.

In the record time of a decade, the Government achieved a replacement rate TFR through a 'market approach' of financial incentives and disincentives by 1975. Slogans like 'Small families have more to eat' and 'We have attained a high standard of living. Let's keep it' reduced the emotional matter of procreation to a hard-nosed economic calculation.

By the mid-80s, when it tried to reverse the falling TFR among higher-income families, it found that the cost-benefit framework of looking at family size - reinforced by economic development and social changes - was ineradicable.

In 1984, its Graduate Mother policy, to encourage better-educated women to produce more children by giving their children preference in primary school admission, caused such a groundswell of unhappiness that it was withdrawn 15 months later. That was followed by similarly tactless campaigns to prod people to have more children by instilling the fear of a lonely dotage.

All these fumbling efforts stuck in people's minds. They reinforce an unspoken ideology of elitism, pessimism and economic conservatism, instead of a sense of security, optimism and confidence - the very qualities needed to encourage a population to replace itself. Because with such a bleak world view, why bother to replace oneself?

To stoke the Singapore stork, the state needs to shift away from the rhetoric of competitiveness, much as it sees it as its key developmental struggle.

It must desist from speeches on how Singapore needs to increase its population from the current 4.5 million to 6.5 million by 2050, or else risk slower growth, a smaller economy and being overtaken by much larger neighbours.

Conversely, it needs to stop using financial incentives as its main policy tool in getting people to have more children. Even today, the main incentive is called an Enhanced Baby Bonus - which connotes a payment for a task performed.

It needs to get far away from the cost-benefit arguments of having children, which it cannot rationally hope to win.

So what's there left to say?

Not a whole lot.

But a useful reference here is the taciturn Nordic countries, which have the most enviable fertility rates and most generous pro-natal provisions in the developed world today.

Despite that, they have no explicit population policies. Their leaders assiduously refrain from public exhortations to go forth and multiply.

The Nordic countries' silent and supportive policy approach is to work diligently at providing a cosy bassinet of pro-natal benefits, packaged plainly as parent and child support measures, then leave people alone to decide how they want to live.

People do not feel they are being forced, but think they have decided what to do on their own, although their decisions are really enabled - and guided - by the government.

Quietly, as these countries show, does it.

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