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DECEMBER 1 , 2000 VOL. 26 NO. 47 | SEARCH ASIAWEEK


Munshi Ahmed for Asiaweek.
Most Singaporeans want to stop at two kids - absolute max.

Endangered Species
Singaporeans need to have more babies. But success breeds selfishness
By ROGER MITTON Singapore

Helen Chai, 32, and her husband Kenneth Mak, 33, are precisely the kind of dynamic, well-educated people the Singapore government wants to see have more babies. They both have PhDs, hold down good jobs, and own a condo, a car and a club membership. They know what they want: more success. And they know what they don't want: more children. Chai and Mak have a three-year-old son, and he's plenty enough for them, maybe even one too many. "Sometimes I wish I didn't have a child, especially when you have to work overtime or miss out on something," says Chai. "But a child can also be adorable. It's a conflict."

This conflict is bad news for Singapore's leaders. For the country's bean-counting officials, it is crisis time. The city-state is in danger of running short of Singaporeans. Its fertility rate has dropped to 1.5 children per woman of childbearing age — way below 2.1, the "regeneration rate" required to maintain the population. To boost the workforce, the government has allowed in large numbers of foreigners, who now make up nearly a fifth of the Lion City's 4 million residents. But it also wants Singaporeans to breed. As Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong recently declared: "We need more babies."

The government is not going to get them. Forty years ago, birthrates were high, raising concerns that Singapore could not advance as fast economically if the population was growing so rapidly. Those worries prompted founding father Lee Kuan Yew's ruling People's Action Party to urge citizens to have small families, even to stop at two children. The campaign was so successful that by the 1980s, the birthrate had plummeted to red-alert levels. So the government did a U-turn and began asking parents to have at least three children, in fact as many as they could afford. Lee, who has three children, practically threatened his charges to do their duty and procreate. He even had the audacity to suggest that the better educated should have more babies than those without degrees.

But these days, many young Singaporeans treat such exhortations with scorn. Today's Singapore is no longer Lee's Singapore. As the city-state has grown more affluent, its citizens have become more self-centered and less inclined to simply do what they are told. Even Prime Minister Goh (who has just two kids) admits as much. "I have no authority to order you to get married, or to decide how many children you should have," he said in a recent public speech. Even new financial incentives for potential parents — tax breaks and a bonus of up to about $5,100 for a second child and twice that for a third — are unlikely to work. Legislator Simon Tay, who has a son, is perplexed by the government's strategy: "What do they think we are? Pavlov's dogs?"

At any rate, the issue has less to do with money than attitude. Maggie Sim, a 32-year-old healthcare company manager with two boys, says the city-state's leaders just don't get it. "It's not the finances," she says. "It's the quality of the time you spend with the kids, having proper child healthcare and things like that. My husband and I are both working and wouldn't be able to give a third child enough quality time." Helen Chai's colleague Koh Joh Ting, mother of a single child, feels the same way. She worries that having another child would compromise her son's upbringing. "If my kid doesn't have a sane mother, he won't have an effective mother." And if work and home get too tough to handle, Koh says she would have to rely more on her in-laws or an expensive live-in maid for help — neither of which she wants to do.

The government should probably consider incentives other than just throwing money at people. Politician Tay suggests a shorter workweek. The old guard, especially Senior Minister Lee, fiercely oppose such a measure. But, in another sign of how Singapore is changing, last month state-owned DBS Bank, the nation's largest, announced it would adopt a five-day schedule. Says National University of Singapore economist Mukul Asher: "If you refuse to have a five-day workweek so parents can have two days with their children, then people see [the monetary incentives] as lip service."

For Chai and Mak, the debate over money and time was once irrelevant because even just one child wasn't on their radar screen. Chai was cruising along as a medical company product manager, traveling frequently, while Mak worked as a pharmaceutical researcher. "I enjoyed myself too much and became more materialistic," says Chai. "That's when we realized we didn't want children. When I got pregnant, we were shocked." The couple considered an abortion, but because they are Catholic, decided to see the pregnancy through. Three years later, they are resigned to the demands of parenthood. "We were really into golf and adventure tours," recalls Chai. "But that's not really possible with a child." She is adamant they won't have another kid — no matter what goodies the government may dangle. Chai plans to have her fallopian tubes tied when she turns 35.

As in other modern countries, the reluctance of many Singaporean mothers to go for more than one or two children is in large part due to the greater opportunities available to women. After earning a degree, most aren't interested in sitting at home changing diapers. Says novelist and political commentator Catherine Lim, who herself has two kids: "Today's woman is aware that the good life is her right, and children are a bit of a burden."

The government is not giving up easily, however. Since Goh's speech, Singapore's press have been serving a diet of titillating news-you-can-use articles. The Straits Times recently ran a feature on how best to have sex in your car, including tips on the most secluded parking spots and ways to cover up windows. But being amorous has never been a problem for Singaporeans. Despite enduring ridicule for "love-boat" junkets and ads encouraging young people to date, the official matchmaking units have been relatively successful. The hard part is getting those happy couples to have children. "People are never too tired to make love," notes Koh, "just too tired to rear a child."

Meanwhile, the government will continue topping up the falling population with foreign immigrants — about 15,000 a year. That's about a third the number of births recorded in Singapore annually. If the authorities want to boost the baby numbers, they might consider asking some of the reluctant mothers to speak out about the pleasures of raising children. "It's a lot of hard work and pain to start with, but when you see them grow up, it is satisfying," mother-of-two Sim concedes. Though, for many women, not rewarding enough to sacrifice a high-flying career.

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