Despite the government's desperate attempts to coax Singaporeans into getting married and having kids, the birth rate is as low as it's ever been. If a generous Baby Bonus and a slew of exhortations to local companies to be more family-friendly aren't working, what exactly needs to change to get Singaporeans to shift their focus from diamonds to diapers?
Here are a couple of things that might actually nudge them in the baby-making direction.
Less competitive childhood environment
The Marina Bay Sands laser fountain display can feature as many frolicking children as it wants, but the sad fact is that a Singaporean childhood is looking less and less enjoyable and more and more like some kind of job from hell. Kids are shuttled from school to soul-killing tuition sessions, followed by ballet/piano/swimming/fencing/golf/karate, before coming home only to have to finish piles of homework before bedtime. More than one third of primary school students have been found to be suffering from lack of sleep.
What turns off lots of would-be parents is the fact that raising children is becoming more and more like some kind of sick competition. Other parents stop at one kid so they can channel all their resources into pushing their existing kid to the top of the totem pole. If only things were less competitive, more parents might think of childrearing as a joy rather than a burden.
Lower cost of living
While the baby bonus is generally thought of as quite generous, would-be parents are still paralysed by the fear of not having enough money. While attitudes towards spending and material acquisition definitely have something to do with it, so has the skyrocketing cost of living over the past decade. If things are expensive now, everyone expects them to get even crazier a couple of years down the road.
In a fantasy world, potential parents would have the assurance that the cost of living would not spiral out of control. The price of key items like homes and cars would not keep going deeper and deeper into insane territory. Until things stop going nuts around here, the Baby Bonus will never have much of an impact.
Property sizes would stop shrinking
While property prices are a lot higher than they used to be, the average family has a smaller square footage to occupy than before. HDB flats are shrinking due to the need to maximise land space, and you only need to compare living rooms and condo bedrooms in developments built in the 1980s to those in new developments to realise just how much smaller property is these days.
While it is certainly humanly possible to live in even smaller quarters than we have today, the shrinking state of Singapore property could be contributing to young couples' reluctance to have more kids. Parent or not, everyone needs some personal space. And if your living room is the size of a broom closet and the master bedroom a jail cell, having more kids, as well as a maid to look after them when you're at work, sounds like an even bigger sacrifice.
No matter what the government says, the general consensus is that the average Singaporean workplace is still pretty damn family-unfriendly. In a 2013 survey, a whopping 77 per cent of the respondents said their workplaces weren't family-friendly enough, while a disturbing 36 per cent said outright that their workplaces were not supportive of family-friendly practices.
Employers harassing mothers on maternity leave with work-related emails and phone calls, expecting unreasonable amounts of face-time, not wanting to offer flexibility and penalising employees for leaving work to handle their kids are commonplace in these parts. If young parents could go to work without freaking out that their careers would be a shambles if they had kids, perhaps more would be willing to procreate.
This article first appeared in MoneySmart at http://blog.moneysmart.sg/opinion/4-changes-that-would-actually-encourage-singaporeans-to-have-kids/
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