Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Heed 'one for country' call

Aug 28, 2009

Worshipping wealth and work above all else is a big hurdle to baby quest
By Radha Basu

IN AUSTRALIA'S 2004 Budget, then Treasurer Peter Costello announced a baby-bonus scheme to boost the country's flagging birth rate. In a stirring speech, the politician exhorted couples to have 'one for Mum, one for Dad and one for the country'.

In return, the Government would pay parents A$3,000 (S$3,500) for the birth of each child.

It was a modest sum, compared to the bonus privileges Singaporean parents enjoy today. But thousands of Australians heeded the patriotic call to procreate. By 2006, the number of Australian births soared to 265,922, the second highest figure since 1911 and the highest in 30 years.

Singapore too has a Baby Bonus Scheme. But the scheme here netted a gain of only 129 citizen births last year compared to 2003. Abortions too are on the rise.

It is premature, though, to write Singapore's scheme off as a failure. In the five years between 1998 and 2003, Singaporean births shrank by a whopping 7,000 from 39,214 to 32,294, before climbing last year to 32,423. If there had been no Baby Bonus, we might have had 7,000 fewer Singaporean babies last year compared to 2003, instead of 129 more.

Another bright spot is the fact that more Singaporeans are having their first child - from 13,969 in 2003 to 15,129 last year.

But these patches of brightness do little to alter an otherwise dark picture: our total fertility rate (TFR) - or the average number of children a woman is likely to have - is just 1.28. A TFR of less than 1.3 signifies demographic doom. At that rate, a population becomes becomes half its original size in a mere 45 years.

The Government's response to the crisis has been two-pronged. First, it has been doling out generous baby perks in the hope that money and pro-family measures will make more babies. And second, it has allowed in more immigrants. While more immigrants may avert a decline in population, they will not prevent the nation from ageing rapidly. For that, we need more babies.

So what more can be done to increase citizen births here?

The Government could look at increasing paid parental leave for working Singaporeans. Four months of maternity leave, while more than what many countries have, are a far cry from the 18 months Norwegian and Swedish parents enjoy.

If following the examples of high-tax Nordic economies is inadvisable, we could emulate the examples of the United States and Britain, which have extensive flexi-work options. About a third of employees in both countries have embraced these options, largely to meet childcare demands.

In Singapore, fewer than one in 10 employees were on similar schedules last year. Small and medium-sized firms find it difficult to offer flexi-work arrangements.

A 40-year-old former regional sales manager of a local consumer goods firm wrote to me recently, saying she had been forced to resign from her job during her pregnancy after her female boss said that her condition made her unable to 'handle work well'.

She said that before she became pregnant, she was regarded as a stellar employee. Her child is now 18 months old and she still has not found a full-time job.

'I wish there was a way for the Government to help educate more local SMEs on work-life balance and maybe even extend financial benefits to them to help new mothers keep their jobs,' she said.

More organisations here are in fact offering flexi-work options. Ministry of Manpower figures show that aside from the Government, close to 30 per cent of all private companies offer flexi-work options, up from 19 per cent in 2000. But take-up rates are languishing.

Finance firm American Express, for example, has been offering a variety of flexible work options for the past five years. But only about one in four of the firm's married female employees - they make up close to half the firm's staff strength here - have taken up the offers.

Clearly, public and private initiatives can only go so far if individual attitudes remain cast in stone. The desire to have babies is personal, possibly even cultural. I suspect that the biggest barrier to procreation here is a culture that worships wealth and work above all.

For many parents, their children embody happiness, hope and purpose. But despite these rich returns, both marriage and parenthood require sacrifices - of money, time, ambitions, even expectations, a price not too many Singaporeans seem willing to pay.

Thus a growing number seem content to remain single, either by choice or because no living person matched up to the soulmate of their dreams.

Then there are those who are married, enjoy stable dual incomes, sometimes even fancy homes and cars, yet say they are 'not ready' to have children. Instead, they choose to work hard, party hard, travel the world - and grumble that the 'work culture' here is not conducive to families. Some feel intimidated by the myriad demands of parenthood.

That's a pity - and an irony. Singapore provides the best neonatal care in the world. School education is practically free and the clean and crime-free environment makes it one of the best places in the world to have children.

Indeed, these attributes are precisely the ones that have made Singapore a magnet for foreign couples who have young children and plan to have more. But alas, Singapore has too few children to call its own.

At his National Day Rally speech recently, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong chronicled the great economic strides this nation has taken in a mere 50 years. Perhaps it is time for the generation reaping the harvests of this spectacular success to pay it forward.

They could start by finding mates, marrying and heeding Mr Costello's cry - to have 'one for the country'. And, oh yes, if they have 'one for Mum and one for Dad', it would be a big bonus for the country too.

No comments: