Friday, February 4, 2011

Baby steps in procreation

Feb 3, 2011
By Ong Soh Chin, Senior Writer

AS A Singaporean who just managed to scrape past the post-65 demographic gate, I am old enough to remember vividly the Singapura before the economic miracle, yet young enough to have been able to enjoy all the spoils of my country's remarkable transformation.

And enjoy them, I have.

My peers and I have benefited from a good education and good career opportunities that have kept us engaged intellectually and socially, both at home and overseas. We have traversed the world for work and play, as one would catch a bus; while a generation ago, some of our parents regarded each plane trip as a rare pilgrimage. We have dined on food fit for emperors; while a generation ago, some of our parents regarded rice and soya sauce as luxuries. We have also pretty much missed the boat on having babies.

There are those who would sniff at my demographic - the single, older and childless woman - as an aberration of all that is good in nature. They say we are, among other things, selfish, self-centred and narcissistic.

I agree with them.

But who could blame us for being so? Mine was the first generation to really taste the first fruits of progress, and it has been a heady addiction that has fed the growth of the country. The fact that Singapore has so many successful and independent women, childless or not, married or otherwise, is a shining testament to Singapore Inc.

We could not have been luckier or more grateful. And we would not have had it any other way.

In the meantime, however, our country's birth rate has been falling as steadily as Raddy Avramovic's chances of winning a Coach Of The Year award.

My peers and I have watched - with varying degrees of disgruntlement over the years - the ongoing state policies of incentivising young, married couples to have more babies.

We have also watched - with emotions vacillating from despair, disaffection and smugness - as these policies have largely fallen on deaf wombs.

The usual reasons have been trotted out - the high cost of living, the pressure-cooker environment, the lack of time, the unaffordability of housing.

But, at the same time, there is a queasy realisation that these cannot be the real reasons. If so, people in impoverished countries would not be breeding at the rate they are. There is arguably no greater pressure than the realisation that you may not be able to feed and clothe your family.

Fear, however, can be a powerful demotivator and disincentive to procreate. I don't mean fear of the 'will I be able to afford my child's education?' variety. But the giant psychical fear existing in the subconscious that we may not be here for very long.

As a barely post-65 Singaporean, it is deeply embedded in my DNA that our nation has been a miraculous freak of nature, coming into being by sheer force of will, riding perilously, but deftly, on the tsunami waves of change rippling across the region.

It is a chord that is still being sounded today. We must not take Singapore for granted. All that we have today may not be here tomorrow. We have enemies that are just waiting for us to fail. We are an 80-storey building on marshy land.

These are hard truths. And Singaporeans, being ever the pragmatic kiasi lot, may have imbibed them a little too enthusiastically on the conscious, as well as subconscious, level. If all that we know and love may not even be here tomorrow, why bother having children today?

[Interesting new take. Or not. It's LKY's fault! Again! :-)
Seriously, I don't think the writer is serious. No one thinks that pessimistically. The reason why LKY harps on the "miracle" that is modern Singapore is our tendency to forget that it is a miracle. But good attempt to contemporarise the issue.]

There is one demographic that appears to be bucking the trend, however. Recently, The Straits Times featured several graduate couples who were choosing to have big families of as many as seven children. Their one unifying thread? Religious values. Religion promises life eternal and a greater reward for believers and their issue after they have shrugged off this mortal passport.

But are Singaporeans who choose to keep the faith in other ways doomed to extinction? In the interests of public morale, and as a responsible, law-abiding, tax-paying, agnostic and ultimately hopeful citizen, I say no. Because there are other avenues that have yet to be explored.

Some of my peers - single and married - would love to become mothers, now that they are financially stable and emotionally mature. But they may not be able to do it the natural way.

Singapore has never failed to rise to the challenge, even if it has meant making tough decisions. Its population may be ageing, but it is also healthier and living longer than ever before.

If we are being encouraged to work past the current retirement age of 62 - it will be 65 in January next year and possibly up to 68 later on - who is to say that older women cannot be fit and able mothers?

The only thing against us, really, is biology. And a certain measure of public resistance, perhaps, to unconventional solutions that explore, encourage and support adoption and surrogacy options.

We may or may not be looking at an opportunity to reverse the trend. But at the very least, it may be worth a shot.

After all, the obstacles to solving our baby problem may not just be nature, but our own man-made inflexibilities.

[Her real agenda is to push for flexibility to consider other alternatives, such as adoption and surrogacy. Again, adoption is not new. The problem is a lack of babies. One source is all those abortions - about 20,000 a year apparently. Surrogacy is not legal in Singapore. So maybe that should change.

If we really believe in meritocracy, we should try to save some of the 20,000 abortions. Scholarships to complete basic local tertiary education for carrying the babies to full term and putting up for adoption? Some academic criteria to qualify and some perinatal tests so we don't pay for dumb or disabled babies.

The problem is that the biology and career in a woman's life coincide and forces women to choose between them and often career comes first. Maybe science (and a bit of social flexibility) can help.

If well established career women in their late 40s (and her husband) would engage a young lady freshly graduated and with a hefty student loan to be the surrogate mother for their child, and in return pay for the whole pregnancy from implantation to delivery (including an allowance), and for the extraction of the surrogate's eggs for storage, plus a reasonable fee, the older couple would be have their child, and the young lady would have a headstart on her career with the seed money from her surrogacy fee. Then 20 years down the road when it is her turn, she can "return the favour" by paying another young lady in turn to surrogate her child with the eggs extracted from her when she was younger.]

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