In part 1 of this Supper Club interview, Minister in the Prime Minister's Office Grace Fu talks about staying optimistic about the abysmal birth rate and dealing with a national problem that no less than former Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew has given up on.
Q: Mr Lee said that he would offer a baby bonus of two years' average salary per kid, just to prove that monetary incentives won't work to lift the birth rate. Would you try it?
If you take an extreme case, and you offer $2 million for a child, the answer is yes, it would probably encourage some couples. But the Government's perspective is not to just throw money at the problem. We want the child to grow up in a nice, wholesome family, and the right parenting background is equally important. Personally, I don't believe that we should use money to incentivise childbirth. We want the right values, it has to come from within. ' I'm having this child, I believe in having this family.' With that as an inner motivation, then monetary incentives are to help lighten the burden. Going into this decision because there's money out there would be the wrong starting point.
Q: Some think that the Government's baby-boosting measures are half-hearted since it can rely on immigrants to top up the population.
But you see, in our Population White Paper, we have given certain commitments on the number of permanent residents (PRs) and new citizens, and we have to keep a Singapore core and make sure it remains strong. The more we are producing our own, the more we can reduce the reliance on immigration. In the White Paper, we have committed to the number of PRs and new citizens we can take (a steady pool of about 500,000 PRs and not more than 25,000 new citizens a year). That's limiting. We can't take anymore. Take the worst-case scenario of not having any babies at all, we can't make it up through immigration because we have already committed to a certain number.
Q: So even if the total fertility rate (TFR) plunges, we won't take more than this number of new citizens and PRs?
If it's really a very dire situation, we have to come back to Singaporeans and explain why we have to revisit the numbers. Before that, we have to try our best to improve the fertility equation.
Q: Has January's Marriage and Parenthood package, that included one week paternity leave and state-subsidised rental housing for young families, worked?
We have not had the (final) numbers yet but we are paying close attention. I am optimistic, there are some signs that it has moved up. But we would like to see it move up further and be a sustainable uptrend.
Q: Will the Government build on those measures?
I wouldn't rule out us extending paternity leave. We are always reviewing how effective the schemes are. Paternity leave was an important step that sent a strong signal. But we need to allow the businesses,companies HR manages and employees to adjust to it. It has to be done gingerly. We don't want to upset the whole manpower arrangement too drastically. I think some companies take time to get used to it. The fact that the Government provided financial support helped. It's important for us to send that message that we need the entire society to be supportive. The workplace has to be supportive. It's in the company's interest to consider the fertility impact on demographics. A market that's not growing is not in businesses' interests.
Q: Deputy PM Teo Chee Hean said in January that the Government is aiming for TFR of 1.5.
I think that's a very aggressive target. I think we will be happy if it goes up to 1.3 or 1.4, (as it was previously) on a declining trend. It's already not bad to stop the decline, primarily because it's not just a parenthood problem but a singlehood issue.
Many factors come into that. The options for young people are plentiful. People want to go overseas, undertake challenging, exciting options. I suppose their priority may not be settling down and getting married. We're trying to bring back family as a life goal, a priority. We like to remind young people that you can do all these exciting things, but spare a thought for what's important in life. It's actually easier to get married when you are younger. (Especially) for women, sometimes, opportunities slip by. It's a bit hard when you get older. For the men, it's always an option to marry someone younger. When you're 40, you don't mind marrying someone who's 25. But the reverse is difficult. It comes back to society norms again.