Demography, not immigration, part 2

See also Part 1 and Part 3.

One thing that struck me from the report by the National Population Secretariat is how it frames the issue of precipitously low birthrate through the question of (opposite-sex) marriage. All over, data about births is interwoven with data about marriage. There appears to be an assumption that you cannot divorce one consideration from the other. I accept that the present reality is that they are closely linked, but a radical thinker will say they do not have to be. To try to solve the problem of low birthrate only within the confines of low marriage rate is to make things doubly hard for ourselves. It becomes  a problem within a conundrum.

Lots of people can be good parents, raising children, even if they are not heterosexually married. Why not encourage them to be without first demanding that they should hit the jackpot of finding a Mr or Mrs Right?

Failing to acknowledge this, resources are expended on matters that are tangential to the problem of low birthrate, e.g. the government getting into the matchmaking business and launching campaigns (yes, more campaigns, as if we’re not sick of them) like Romancing Singapore. But every effort put into a tangential factor means less put into directly addressing the problem. Efficiency in problem solving is reduced.

* * * * *

The thing about biology is that you don’t need to be married to make babies. But the thing about today’s lifestyle is that even when you are married, a lot of other considerations come in before you decide to have a baby. A thousand more factors have to be thought through before you have a second . . .  and we need 2.1 babies from every adult womb in a population to replace ourselves. If we insist on moral disapproval of single parenthood and only want married women to bear children, then with the going rate of only 70 percent of citizen females married by age 30, we’re expecting each of these women to bear 3.0 children in order to achieve replacement rate. Very tall order.

Wouldn’t it be easier to spread the burden, to aim for everyone, male or female, to raise one child? That means a spousal couple will raise two children but singles raise one each. Of course it means getting rid of prejudice against single-parenthood, and along the way, shouldn’t we also get rid of prejudice against same-sex couples?

On this note, let me highlight a study recently published in the peer-reviewed journal Pediatrics with a summary web-published in New Scientist:

Children of lesbian parents do better than their peers

08 June 2010 by Jim Giles

The children of lesbian parents outscore their peers on academic and social tests, according to results from the longest-running study of same-sex families.

The researchers behind the National Longitudinal Lesbian Family Study say the results should change attitudes to adoption of children by gay and lesbian couples, which is prohibited in some parts of the US.

The finding is based on 78 children who were all born to lesbian couples who used donor insemination to become pregnant and were interviewed and tested at age 17.

The new tests have left no doubt as to the success of these couples as parents, says Nanette Gartrell at the University of California, San Francisco, who has worked on the study since it began in 1986.

Well-adapted children

Compared with a group of control adolescents born to heterosexual parents with similar educational and financial backgrounds, the children of lesbian couples scored better on academic and social tests and lower on measures of rule-breaking and aggression.

A previous study of same-sex parenting, based on long-term health data, also found no difference in the health of children in either group.

“This confirms what most developmental scientists have suspected,” says Stephen Russell, a sociologist at the University of Arizona in Tucson. “Kids growing up with same-sex parents fare just as well as other kids.”

Adoption rights

The results should be considered by those who oppose the right of gay and lesbian couples to adopt children, adds Gartrell. A handful of states, including Florida, prohibit same-sex or unmarried couples from adopting, although many of the state laws are being challenged in the courts.

“It’s a great tragedy in this country,” says Gartrell. “There are so many children who are available for adoption but cannot be adopted by same-sex couples.”

Over 100,000 children are awaiting adoption in the US, says the Evan B. Donaldson Adoption Institute, a research and advocacy organisation based in New York. The institute estimates that just 4 per cent of all adopted children – around 65,000 – live with gay or lesbian parents, despite research suggesting that same-sex couples may be more willing than heterosexual couples to adopt.

Journal reference: Pediatrics, DOI: 10.1542/peds.2009-3153

How are singles going to raise a child when it is difficult enough for a couple? you might ask. Fair question, which I will come back to later.

And what are the implications of permitting, nay, encouraging singles to raise children? Well, for the women, it means a massive enlargement of sperm banks. For men, it means ovum banks, advances in in-vitro fertilisation and developing a proper framework (legal, medical, social oversight, etc)  for surrogate pregnancy (which may involve women from other countries). For both men and women, it means an expansion of adoption procedures, involving abandoned kids from other countries if need be.

(Consider this: We have something like 12,000 abortions every year [source] a high number compared to citizen births of only about 30,000. And when Member of Parliament Christopher de Souza asked the Minister for Health on or around 27 August 2008 what would have been the effect on our population had these abortions been avoided, the minister waltzed around the question, providing no numbers.)

And not least, it means a massive overhaul of taxation and child support policies to level the playing field for different kinds of parents: single, same-sex married and opposite-sex married. Everybody should be encouraged to do his part, and everybody gets the same benefits.

Every one of these ideas will surely meet with plenty of people saying “it’s out of the question” for any number of reasons;  or “it’s too radical”. But a non-radical approach is not solving the demographic problem. We do need to be radical, and being radical means cutting through the thicket of customary “impossible to contemplate” barriers.

* * * * *

As I mentioned in Part 1, there are two broad dimensions to the problem: People must want to have children; people must be able to afford the time and have the income to raise children.

Let’s deal with the question of wanting children first. Actually, I don’t think this is a big problem. I believe it is latent in humans to want children. We can tweak it by nudging our culture in ways that make it hip for 30-year-olds to be pushing a pram or having a toddler in hand, but I don’t think it is an uphill struggle to plant the thought of having children into people. It’s in our DNA.

The problem is that we hold back that expression of our DNA due to rational calculations of time and money. Instead, we direct what time and money we have into status projects — a bigger flat, flashier car, distant holidays, ever larger television set, now with 3D. We demand of employees ever longer hours at work, so that the bottom line is blacker and the head-office building can be more sumptuously fitted out.

One of these days, we are going to realise the folly of all that. We are figuratively eating our children to feed today’s consumerism and vanity. As a society, we are sacrificing our future sustainability for a present-day ego fix.

The solution therefore has to be at the level of culture change. We have to begin seeing status-driven consumption as vulgar and raising children as noble and socially expected.  Grand condominiums, fine dining, designer clothes — all these should be viewed for what they are: a last hurrah before the ship sinks.  We have to learn to live humbly so that time and money can be set aside as investment in another generation, an investment that will have payback at both the economic and emotional levels.

A huge number of policy revisions will be needed to nudge and support such a  culture change, from home design to job design, from expanding childcare facilities to instituting various penalties for conspicuous consumption. It’s a complete overhaul of the role of government from one of making people feel good/rich now (so you’ll vote us back into office, thank you very much) to one of encouraging demographic sustainability just like how we now think it important to work towards environmental sustainability.

* * * * *

How will singles ever be able to raise children by themselves? was the question I left dangling earlier. Here again, some radical thinking is called for.

Most singles in their twenties and thirties have a huge resource at hand: their parents, in their fifties, sixties and even seventies, who are in good health, beneficiaries of our public health success over the years. Their increasing longevity has somehow been turned into a fiscal problem, the desired solution to which is to get them to stay in the workforce to age 67. Many people actually hate the idea.

I say: Let them retire when they want. Let them, if they so choose, be happy grandparents helping their unmarried sons or daughters raise children. The social payback (without even considering the future economic payback) is many times better than keeping them at the drudgery of work.

What about the money angle? We have to accept that there is no easy solution. We can keep people at work for long hours and long years in pursuit of income and ever-higher “living standards”, but the social cost is fewer children, and aging population (with nightmarish cost burdens) and an uncertain future for us as a society, or we can be frugal today for a more assured future tomorrow. Whether singles or couples, until the new badge of honour is living frugally but with a child in hand, we”ll never close our demographic deficit.

See also Part 1 and Part 3.

5 Responses to “Demography, not immigration, part 2”

  1. 1 KiWeTO 30 June 2010 at 19:47


    all ties in to what kind of Singapore we want to see for our future citizens, imported or produced locally.

    Now that we have achieved economic comfort (abeit temporarily), do we now spend time thinking about what kind of world we want to live in (like the Scandinavian countries) ?

    The risks are many, including uneven economic progress in the years that it takes for a new vision of SINGAPORE to become reality. Are the rewards plenty? That sadly, depends on those who think/believe that what they own is truly theirs and not awarded by society.

    We all demand from the society we live in – safety, food, water, status, and a near endless list of recognitivies. Without a society that ‘agrees’ to such, each individual has nothing.

    Capitalism as we know it today is the exact opposite – what’s mine is mine, what’s society’s is mine to acquire, and my costs are jettisoned onto externalities whenever possible; others-that-are-not-me will all think do the same, and the invisible hand will even it all out.

    Unfortunately, we are now entering an era where the recognition of externalities and the damage they do to our futures is becoming more visible and attributable to the individual. Yet, the costs are still not ‘fairly’ allocated (and perhaps they will never be, egos being what they are.)

    Can Singapore look to be the Scandinavia/Switzerland of the East? A self-renewing society that does not put ego before sense?

    Can we metaphorically plant a tree for each tree we cut down as an individual? Is that possible at the societal level?

    Can we evolve society to be more supportive of child rearers? Or is the easier route of importing other people (read as regional neighbours’ best and brightest) the easier path for any self-serving government to take?

    Let others bear the externalities of raising kids and the costs to economic efficiency that engenders. We just run lean and mean.

    Soulless economic engines SG has become. Not a society that cares for its own members first.


  2. 2 Chris 30 June 2010 at 23:30

    I’d like to talk about a couple of points. First is the “high” abortion rate. Now the “pro-life” people would have us believe that this is a bad thing and we should couple the low birth rate with the high abortion rate and make abortion more difficult. There are many sides to this question but not all religions or moral systems feel that abortion itself is always morally wrong. I think that it would be morally wrong to bring up 10,000 children a year who were born to women who, for whatever reason, did not want them. And I doubt that, without allowing for single-person or same-sex-couple adoption, any proportion of those children could be absorbed into the adoption “mill” at all. Even with the widest availability of adoption to all sorts of couples, 10,000 a year is a tall order. Can the adoption agencies there, or the government, handle them all? (Yes, I know that you didn’t make the point that abortion rates are too high, but others will, believe me.)

    Second, I wonder how a society can make having babies and adopting babies attractive to women and couples and single men who are not doing that right at the moment. Here in the UK, I have seen figures for the amount of money it takes to raise a child and I believe it’s in the region of £150,000. As many people who do not have jobs do have babies, my tax money is going to raise these children (and of course, once the child is born I don’t begrudge it–it’s not the child’s fault that it was born). There is not currently a good social welfare net in Singapore, I believe. When you start making it “trendy” to have children and more women go on to actually do it, the number of mothers who have children and then discover that that little bundle of joy is actually a needy little person who is insatiably hungry at one end and very messy at the other, as well as being rather loud, is going to be non-trivial. These children will (at best) be trundled off to a doting grandma somewhere and (at worst) end up being wards of the state or worse.

    Third, the idea that having children is innate in people. That’s as may be–I have never had the slightest inclination to have any progeny whatsoever. And I believe this is more widespread than you might believe. Coming to grips with the fact that some people feel no urge (for whatever reason) to procreate means that you will always have to fight the urge for the state to mandate having children in various ways (through skewing the tax system, or giving large grants to people or couples who are having children). This will create social instability and unrest among those who, even after all the incentives to have children are taken into account, just Do Not Want To Have Kids Full Stop. They will resent the pressure put on them by their families and the State to have children and they will also resent friends who have kids and are getting this largess from the State while they themselves are paying in and getting little or nothing back.

    This urge not to have children can also be protective of children. Some women are not convinced that they would be good mothers, again for a variety of reasons. Perhaps they have emotional or psychological difficulties stemming from their own upbringing such as abuse issues. Perhaps their spouse is not fit to parent a child for the same sorts of reasons. To try to coerce such people into bearing children would be a further abuse not only of the children but of the mother as well.

    Some people are naturally infertile. Would the state intrude on their domestic life by insisting that the couple should come in for fertility tests? Roman Catholics would object strenuously to this (remember how sperm samples are produced…) Would couples where the male is infertile be encouraged to find a sperm donor and where the female is infertile be encouraged to find an egg donor?

    Some people have hereditary conditions like some forms of breast cancer or Huntington’s Chorea. Should these people be forced to either adopt unrelated children for the good of the country, or have children anyway, knowing that genetically some of their children are likely to fall ill and die?

    I could not begin to estimate how many potential parents fall into any of these categories. But I believe the percentage would be non-trivial.

    Now I don’t expect a point-by-point rebuttal of (or agreement with) this (much too long, sorry!) reply. However, let’s not go into such a fraught subject as creating and nurturing a new human life by being obsessed with mere numbers of births. It is not about more Singaporean bums on seats. Singapore already has a perfectly good way of populating itself that will, in time, make all this obsolete. It’s called “Immigration”. Have the government start thinking of better ways to integrate the new arrivals and help the native population understand why immigration is good for society and for the country as a whole. In a heterogenous country like the United Kingdom or the United States immigration is a very fraught subject, and it has been difficult for people to come to terms with it. That does not mean Singapore shouldn’t try. The economic and cultural benefits of migration should be pointed out to native Singaporeans and PRs, while the intense desire for economic betterment on the part of immigrants should be harnessed to encourage them to fit in better with Singaporean culture. After all, if you go back far enough, every Singaporean, even every Malay Singaporean, is descended from an immigrant.

    Finally (I can hear everyone sighing with relief!), I apologise if anyone thinks that I, as a non-Singaporean, am intruding on an internal affair. My partner is Singaporean, I have been to Singapore many times, I have many Singaporean friends, and I find a lot to admire in Singapore culture and recent history. The answers to the population question will have a lot to do with how other countries in the region thrive, as well as point the way towards solving the population difficulties in other societies that are facing declining birthrates, not excepting my own.

  3. 3 Alan Wong 3 July 2010 at 20:37

    Frankly, I think the PAP govt has no choice but to increase the numbers by immigration. It’s the only chance it had take to ensure its political survival. All this talk about foreign talent is just bullshit. You do not really need new citizens or PRs to open coffee shops, foodstalls, massage parlours, souvenir shops, etc.

    I suppose it will compensate for the low birth rates at this moment. But even now the govt is admitting that these new immigrants are not propagating enough. That is probably why the immigration gates have been wide open for the last 2 or 3 years, only to slow down a bit when the local Singaporeans voiced out their dispproval in horror.

    But is the new immigrants a solution ? In a decade or two, these new citizens will in turn be in their late 40 to 50s and will be joining the ranks of those who are living longer. Then will the young generation of that time be able to support the older generation ? Are we not instead going to compound the problems of an aged population ?

    As it is now, it already takes several months to queue before some of our medical problems will be attended to at our public subsidised hospitals. Will this turn for the worst in the years ahead ?

    And I seriously think our Govt does not have a ready solution for these problems ahead. What matters most is their immediate political survival ?

  4. 4 xtrocious 7 July 2010 at 20:17

    But why aren’t the new immigrants producing enough babies?

    Could it be the same reason why Singaporeans do not produce enough babies?

    Or has it become so fricking expensive that people can’t afford to have more than one or not even one baby?

  5. 5 axe 10 July 2010 at 17:13

    we can count on more foreign talent to breed like rabbits because they hail from a value system which actually prides themselves with having broods of offspring to uphold their legacy. in our country, this is fast becoming an anomaly.

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