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OPINION | S’poreans are not having babies; besides high cost of living, can a child’s future be truly free from stresses beyond reasonable?

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"Fertility rates in the US, Western Europe, and Japan have been declining for the longest time, and now places like South Korea, Singapore, and China are following suit." — Tang Li, OPINION

Singapore’s government has been in a jam in the last few decades. Singapore is getting older, and people are not having babies. On Friday, 24 Feb 2023, it was announced that our fertility rate had hit an all-time low, so low that it even became the topic of international news.

The government has been desperately trying to address the decline in the fertility rate for the longest time. We had a budget day before the announcement of the record-low fertility rate. In that budget, our Prime Minister-In- Waiting, Mr Lawrence Wong, announced that he was throwing even more money at couples if they had more children. The logic behind Mr Wong’s announcement was simple – since we, the people, say that having kids is expensive, the government will make it less expensive and so we should jolly well start reproducing.

Unfortunately, Mr Wong’s solution to the problem isn’t new. If anything, it’s the definition of insanity is trying the same thing over and over again but expecting different results. The government has been throwing subsidies at couples to have babies, yet our fertility rates keep declining.

The good news is the decline in fertility rates isn’t unique to Singapore. It’s something that is happening in just about every advanced economy on the planet. Fertility rates in the US, Western Europe, and Japan have been declining for the longest time, and now places like South Korea, Singapore, and China are following suit.

It’s this simple. As economies grow, they need more workers. Hence, women who were once expected to stay at home are given opportunities to join the workforce. In cases like Singapore, they’re expected to fully participate in the workforce (my grandfather would not tolerate the idea of my grandmother working – I will stay away from a girl who won’t work).

As women discover greater opportunities in the workforce, they are less likely to want to stay home and become baby-making machines. Look at the fact that a woman is most fertile (the twenties to mid-thirties) at the best time for building a career and having a life.

So, if one is serious about wanting to make babies, particularly the right type of babies (in Singapore, it specifically refers to babies from graduate Chinese mothers), one has to start by asking the people equipped to have babies why they’re not making babies in the first place.

Women have been fairly clear. Things like flexible hours at work and more childcare facilities have been examples of what has been asked for. However, Singapore’s government remains obsessed with the work culture that led to the problem in the first place. Instead of using Covid to restructure the economy, we rushed back to an industrial-age form on work, doing our best to get people back to the office or factory for eight hours a day. The interest of the landlords has thus far proven greater than the need of the productive population.

Then, there’s the reality of children. I’m speaking as a guy who loves babies. I’ve always been fascinated by small people; after a point, I got involved with single mothers. Also ended up liking their kids more than I liked the mothers. Looking at the chubby baby gives me a shoot of joy – it’s like having an overdose of Prozac.

Given that I have a soft spot for chubby cute things, one has to question why someone like me has not started a family filled with babies.

The answer lies in my mother’s question: “Are you bringing them up in a world that will be better than the one you were brought up in?” I adopted the Evil Teen in 2014, so I am a parent, and her existence in my life looks at my mother’s question. Is she growing up in a world that is better than the one I grew up in?

Unfortunately, I don’t think the answer is yes. Sure, new generations have opportunities that older ones don’t have. I, for example, have more access to information at a click of a button than my parents and grandparents had from access to physical libraries. If the Evil Teen has kids, my grandkids will probably have tools that make Google old-fashioned.

However, it seems that opportunities are becoming harder to get by. Dad’s older brother once said all you needed to know was how to read and write, and paper qualifications didn’t matter. However, he spoke on a day when having O-Levels was a big deal. These days, a bachelor’s degree is the basic entry-level requirement to get a job, and who is to say that one may need a master’s degree to clean toilets in future?

In Singapore, we take a perverse pride in having a demanding education system, where kids must spend further hours on tuition on top of basic school to pass exams. I used to hate parent-teacher meetings because the only solution the teachers ever seemed to propose was “more tuition.” Surely, there must be something wrong with the system if a child needs more teaching on top of the teaching that’s already being provided.

You could argue that the regime we put our kids through is worth it if it prepares them for life. Unfortunately, despite all the rigorous training, we put them through at school, that doesn’t seem to be the case. We are told that “foreign talent” is essential to do the future jobs created by the economy. Here’s the question that nobody seems to ask – if our education system is so good, why can’t the locals do the jobs that the economy is creating?

Then, there’s the fact that wages don’t seem to be rising along with cost, and we’re told that we need to be “more productive” if we want more money.

When looking at all these factors, it’s easy to see why nobody wants to have babies. The lack of babies is far greater than the cost of the maternity ward. Subsidising the maternity ward is like subsidizing the cost of a car. There’s the cost of bringing the child into adulthood, and just as there’s the cost of running a car. Then, there’s the question of the end goal. Will that child have a better life than you, or will he or she have a life filled with stresses beyond reasonable?

A version of this article first appeared at beautifullyincoherent.blogspot.com

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