Singapore’s Total Fertility Rate (TFR) fell to a new record low of 1.16 in 2010. For a population to replace itself generation after generation, a TFR of 2.1 is needed. The present rate of 1.16 means that local-born Singaporeans will only be half as many next generation compared to the present one.
The minister in charge of population planning, Wong Kan Seng, told the Straits Times that policies to encourage more babies are likely to be reviewed in 2012. It was previously reviewed, with incentives enhanced, in 2004 and 2008, evidently to no effect. TFR fell further.
It is true that as a general rule, the empowerment of women and modern economic development lead to declining birth rates. However, some Western countries have managed to reverse the decline, albeit with rather generous social benefits. This is what Wong had to say about emulating their success: Cannot.
But the Nordic model may not work for Singapore, said Mr Wong.
Policymakers from Singapore’s National Population and Talent Division (NPTD) argue that in these countries, ‘fertility reversal is mainly due to the rise in children born outside of marriage’.
Data show that in Europe, 11 countries have reversed their birth rates. Eight of them saw the number of births outside marriage rising as a proportion of total births. Only Sweden, Britain and Iceland have bucked the trend in recent decades.
This calls for circumspection in adopting their measures, said Mr Wong.
While noting that about half of the couples with children in these European countries get married within five years, he said: ‘The fact (is) that we don’t have social acceptance of babies born not within a marriage – we’re quite different from Nordic countries.’
— Straits Times, 26 Feb 2011, Govt may review fertility schemes ‘as early as next year’
I would have thought that it’s far easier to cultivate social acceptance of children outside marriage than it is to nag people into getting married. So, if we really do want babies, why not take the easier road?
The government would cite census data to show that if only people got married, the baby bust problem would solve itself.
In analysing Singapore’s baby shortfall, NPTD concludes the main culprit is the increase in singles. They now make up 32.2 per cent of the resident population aged 15 and older, up from 30.5 per cent in 2000.
Meanwhile, married couples are ‘doing their part’. Last year, the average number of children that ever-married Singaporean women in their 40s have is 2.02, a dip from 2.2 in 2000.
‘NPTD’ stands for National Population and Talent Division, which Wong Kan Seng heads.
Despite the hopeful language, the government is working against two secular trends: (1) The marriage rate is declining cohort by cohort, and (2) among those married, the number of children born by the time the women is in her forties (roughly the end of her child-bearing years) is also gradually declining. But our government insists on fighting on both fronts. They want Singaporeans to get married AND to have at least two children.
It seems to me that the population bureau is confused over its mission, which probably explains its lack of success. It appears less interested in promoting births than it is in recreating 1950s America — father, mother, two kids, going to church every Sunday. The unstated morality objectives are undermining their efforts.
Wong will of course protest that it is not so. He will say that two parents make for more resources to take care of the child. Yet, even this defence belies their unstated vision of 1950s America. Firstly, why not allow two same-sex parents? Resource-wise, won’t they be the same? Why not completely open the field to artificial insemination so that lesbians are free to bear children should they be in a relationship? Why not create a legal framework and encourage surrogate pregnancy so that two gay men in a relationship too can raise children?
Secondly, the fact of the matter is that in this day and age, the only way we’re going to get more babies is if the State makes very generous provisions, including an array of childcare services. If that is the case, how critical is it anymore that there should be two parents? The resources in question aren’t going to come only from the two parents. Much is anyway going to come from the State. Why should everything hinge on marriage?
Indeed, resources (time, money) are usually what Singaporeans say as chief impediments to having children. However, Wong made an interesting point:
He also cited the Singapore civil service.
‘They are far more generous in many of these things, compared to private companies. Yet we don’t have more babies, and yet we don’t have more marriages.’
I’m not sure what is so generous about the civil service, but this hints at more complex issues.
* * * * *
Staying on the subject of resources, I wondered whether our high Gini Coefficient of household income is a factor. A high Gini means that income inequality is greater. In such a society, there is a larger section of the population with income resources more distant from the mean (either much richer or much poorer), compared to a low Gini country (i.e. a country with less inequality). A high-Gini implies a higher proportion of people who are economically stressed, and perhaps that means a higher proportion unable to afford children.
To test this hypothesis, I researched the TFRs and Gini Coefficients of the OECD countries. I managed to find data for thirty of them, and compared them to Singapore’s TFR and Gini Coefficient for the same years in question. Here is the data; the graph follows below.
Gini for OECD: http://www.oecd.org/dataoecd/52/13/43201528.pdf
Gini for Singapore: http://www.singstat.gov.sg/pubn/papers/people/pp-s17.pdf
TFR for OECD: http://www.oecd-ilibrary.org/economics/oecd-factbook-2010/total-fertility-rates-table_factbook-2010-table6-en
TFR for Singapore (2008): http://www.channelnewsasia.com/stories/singaporelocalnews/view/1105496/1/.html
GDP per capita for OECD: http://stats.oecd.org/Index.aspx?datasetcode=SNA_TABLE1
GDP per capita for Singapore: http://www.singstat.gov.sg/stats/themes/economy/hist/gdp.html
The only way to visualise the above data is by means of a graph:
There is no neat correlation between the Gini and TFR, nonetheless, you get the feeling that there is a pattern.
Except for Singapore, the developed countries (red and dark brown) seem to have Ginis under 0.36 and boast TFRs in the range of 1.40 to 2.15. I think we’d be quite happy to have a TFR that improves to something above 1.50. Is a Gini under 0.36 a necessary condition to achieve that, in a developed economy? By the looks of the graph, it may seem to be a Yes.
The other clue that I am getting from the graph is that despite our per capita GDP qualifying us for a red dot, we may be more similar to the orange dots. These are generally semi-developed countries, with relatively more traditional cultural practices. Almost all these countries have TFRs under 1.50 (New Zealand is the exception). Drawing from the science of ecology, reproduction failure is usually a sign of a population under stress.
Why are these “orange”countries under stress? What are their features?
I will postulate these:
1. These semi-developed countries are striving to be developed ones. In so doing, they tend to throw resources in, in order to obtain increasing output instead of improving productivity, which should yield improving output for the same investment of resources. Among resources poured in might be time. People may be working longer hours, or holding two jobs in order to better their lives.
2. The reason why productivity is much harder to improve in these societies may be cultural, for example, the persistence of one or both of these traits: (a) hierarchical social structures — this tends to mean that workers wait for orders rather than take the initiative; it means seniors are reluctant to delegate. Waiting for orders, shuffling matters upwards is an enormous waste of time; thus low productivity; (b) patriarchal social structures that limit the potential contribution of women and put the burden of household work and child-raising disproportionately on women — yet, in striving for economic development, these societies also want women in the workforce.
And this suggests why Wong Kan Seng’s policy unit is all at sea. They fail to realise that one can only have two of these attributes, not all three:
- Sustainable birthrate
- Modern, developed economy
- Traditional cultural attitudes and social models
We have to choose: