Monday 6 February 2012

7 things holding back the Singapore stork

The decline in Singapore's total fertility rate needs reversing. The Prime Minister said recently the focus is now on creating a supportive social climate and attitudes that encourage child-bearing. TohYong Chuan identifies seven attitudes that seem to stand in the way of couples having more babies.
The Straits Times, 3 Feb 2012

Kids too expensive

THERE are many things one can do with $190,000.

That sum of money can buy a Mercedes-Benz C class luxury car or make the down payment on a small condominium apartment.

It can also be used to raise a child from birth through to tertiary education.

That is according to a Straits Times survey in 2010, which estimated that it costs new parents between $190,000 and $700,000 to bring up a child here.

Tertiary education was the largest single cost. Other big ticket items included primary, secondary and pre-university education.

In terms of monthly cost, each child can cost parents between $800 and $3,000.

Weigh that against the median household income of $5,000 in 2010 and it is easy to understand why parents hold off having children, or have fewer of them, for fear they will break the bank.

But IT support engineer Eric Goh, 42, who works in a local bank, did not allow that fear to stand in the way of his and his wife's dream of having children.

The father of four school-going children aged between eight and 14 years old is the sole breadwinner and earns just below the median household income. His wife is a homemaker.

The family live in a three-room flat and are saving up for a larger place. They eat at home, the children walk to school and the family get around on public transport.

Mr Goh says it is all about living within one's means.

'Distinguish between wants and needs, make do with what you have, give what you can, but give the best to the kids,' he says.

The baby bonuses for the third and fourth child, as well as Edusave, provided some financial relief and helped pay for the children's education. But he stressed that the bonus played no part in their decision to have more children.

'It is something we wanted when we got married.'

His eyes light up when he talks about how his children are growing up.

'I see them becoming more dong shi, (sensible in Mandarin), and see them as they grow closer to one another with good, strong values. This is what parenting is about.'

No flat, no baby

MANY young couples blame their housing woes for stalling their marriage and baby plans.

Their cries for help have been heard.

National Development Minister Khaw Boon Wan has made meeting the housing needs of young couples a top priority. He said the Housing Board will ramp up the supply of new flats to help young couples own their homes as soon as possible, so they can start families.

Housing has become so tied to couples' decisions to procreate that economist Tilak Abeysinghe found a correlation between housing affordability and fertility.

He found that when housing affordability drops, fertility appears to also dip.

'It may be the case that young couples want to secure a roof over their heads before getting married and having children.

'When housing affordability drops, they will have to wait longer to secure a house and this may come at the expense of family size,' said Dr Abeysinghe, deputy director of the Singapore Centre for Applied and Policy Economics at the National University of Singapore.

A similar correlation has been observed in Hong Kong.

Even when couples own their own homes, they may choose to stop at one because of space constraints. They may prefer that each child has his own room.

Sociologist Paulin Tay Straughan sees it differently. She believes there are advantages to having children share rooms in their early years.

'It teaches them how to share resources, and build negotiation skills,' she says with a laugh.

One couple who went ahead to marry despite not having their own home are pharmacist Chen Woei Lee, 32 and writer Tang Li Jun, 30.

They tied the knot in 2009. Since then, they have been sharing a flat with Mr Chen's sister and hope to find their own home soon.

The couple tell Insight they are not letting their current situation put them off trying to have their first child.

For Ms Tang, the reason is simple: 'We love kids.'

Kids get in the way

WHEN company director Serena Ng, 37, agreed to meet Insight this week, she asked that the meeting be held at a cafeteria near her children's preschool.

She would drop her children off, then do the interview while waiting for them to finish so she could drive them home.

The 30-minute interview was interrupted twice by business calls, which Ms Ng took in fluent English and Mandarin.

She then apologised for not being able to chat longer as she had to meet some other people, at the same cafeteria, about a project to help deaf people.

The mother of five tells Insight her secret to juggling family, career and charity work.

'Discipline. I keep to a tight schedule, and I sleep only five hours a day, and I keep smiling,' she says with a laugh.

Sleep was one of the things the sprightly mother was prepared to give up for her children. What she was not prepared to give up, however, was her career.

This is how a typical day goes for her.

She heads to work early in the morning, then returns home just before lunch to ferry the children to preschool. She tries to get some work done while waiting for them to finish school. After dropping them off at home, she heads back to work in the afternoon.

She is home for dinner with her husband and children every evening.

Ms Ng's experience shows it is possible for a woman to have both career and children.

It is difficult to say for sure to what extent career concerns are hampering women's efforts to procreate.

What is clear from national statistics is that the number of married couples without children is on the rise.

Among the married women aged between 30 and 39, the share of those who are childless rose from 14 per cent in 2000 to 20 per cent in 2010.

The flip side of the problem is that many women who take time off to care for their children find it difficult to return to work. The resident labour force participation rate for women was 56.5 per cent in 2010, significantly lower than the 76.5 per cent for men.

Another worry is that children are all work and no fun, and will severely limit one's lifestyle options.

In 2007, the South West Community Development Council surveyed 270 women and found that many cited lifestyle changes as a key reason for putting off having babies.

But company executive Rudy Tan, 36, a father of three, disagrees that all children do is cramp one's lifestyle.

His first two children - a pair of twins - were born in 2006. Since then, he and his wife have not taken a holiday on their own. Mr Tan also gave up playing golf.

Still, they went on to have a third child.

For him, the simple joy of one's own family more than makes up for those lifestyle changes.

'The family now spends time at home or in the park nearby, and the children have fun playing with the dog. This is the joy of parenting,' he says.

Only the best will do

IT CAN start as early as pregnancy, when some mothers begin to feel anxious about breastfeeding. They ask themselves: Will I have enough milk, how long should I do it for, will it make my child smarter and stronger?

The next big headache might be securing a spot in the best preschool centre one can afford, followed by strategising to get the child into one's primary school of choice. The latter could involve buying property, or hours spent as a parent volunteer.

It is also not uncommon for mothers to take a whole year off work to help their children prepare for the PSLE, which most 12-year-olds here take.

Sociologist Paulin Tay Straughan says education has become a big source of stress for parents, and that is because 'it is the parents who are competing in the early formative years, not the children'.

She calls this approach to parenting the 'idealisation of the child', where parents believe that they have to give their children the very best head start in life.

While it is good for parents to be responsible for their children, she warns that 'there is a line somewhere where responsibility becomes an obsession'.

The danger is that in the long run, such an approach can cause parents to have fewer children so they can better focus their energy and resources. It can also scare the people around them and make them think twice about getting hitched and having children, says Dr Straughan, an associate professor at the National University of Singapore.

In 2009, the Economist magazine laid out the two extremes in people's approach to reproducing.

At one end are parents who churn out offspring in large numbers, turn them out into an uncaring world, and hope that one or two of them make it.

At the other are parents who have but a few progeny and 'dote on them, ensuring that they grow up with every possible advantage for the ensuing struggle with their peers for mates and resources'.

The latter approach seems to predominate in East Asian societies like South Korea, Japan and Singapore, where education is a national obsession and fertility has plummeted.

Even if parents want to change, they find it tough to break out of the norm.

Dr Straughan, a mother of two sons, has this advice for those with young children: 'Don't rob them of their childhood.'

And as a child grows up, there will come a point when parents have to let go and say it is not my race any more, she adds.

Dads don't get it

IN THE last decade, the length of maternity leave for mums has doubled.

Maternity leave was just eight weeks long in 2001. It went up to 12 weeks in 2004 and 16 weeks in 2008.

Employers pay staff for the first three months, while the Government picks up the tab for the fourth month.

Dads, however, do not enjoy the same privilege.

Among those who have been lobbying for paternity leave to be written into the law is National Family Council (NFC) chairman Lim Soon Hock.

In 2008, when the Government reviewed its fertility package, the NFC made a case for the fourth month of maternity leave to be made 'gender-neutral'. That would mean either mum or dad could take the leave, to care for their newborn.

Mr Lim says such a change 'would give more opportunities to men and send a strong signal of the shared responsibility of parenthood'.

But the Government was not persuaded.

In 2010, Dr Vivian Balakrishnan, then Minister for Community Development, Youth and Sports, said that the Government needed to 'study the implications of such a change on employers, the employability of workers, and the needs of mothers', before deciding on whether to legislate paternity leave.

The current situation is one in which some companies provide paternity leave of a couple of days. A Ministry of Manpower study in 2010 found that half of 3,400 companies surveyed did so.

The law also provides for six days of paid childcare leave a year for employees whose children are aged seven and below. These six days can be taken by either fathers or mothers.

Mr Lim, however, believes that if men are given more opportunities to be involved in raising children, that will encourage women to have more babies.

The push also comes from fathers who want to play a bigger role in bringing up children.

There are now at least three non-governmental groups centred on fatherhood: the Centre for Fathering set up in 2000, and the Dads for Life movement and Fathers Action Network, both launched in 2009.

They seek to strengthen families and improve children's lives by promoting active and responsible fatherhood.

Mr Jason Wong, a member of Dads for Life, says: 'Children from strong families today will want to get married and have children when they grow up. This will help bring more marriages and babies, but maybe one generation later.'

On his part, Mr Lim acknowledges that government moves alone will not be enough. Fathers themselves need to change their attitudes so they see success not just in terms of career, but also family and children.

Mothers too need to be less protective.

Mr Lim says 'gatekeeping mothers' - those who throw a protective ring around their children - can discourage fathers. That is an area that the Centre for Fathering plans to work on in the next five years.

Let singles be: Society

WHAT can society do about the growing number of singles?

Should it intervene?

Some unmarried or yet-to-be married people, like former Nominated MP Calvin Cheng, have made it clear they dislike social pressure to tie the knot.

During a debate in Parliament on this issue last March, he said: 'Although it is a good thing that the Government encourages singles to get married, I am concerned that the policy may make singlehood look like a crime. Being single is not a sin.'

Mrs Yu-Foo Yee Shoon, who was then Minister of State for Community Development, Youth and Sports, swiftly clarified that the Government sought only to support singles in their search for a life partner.

She said: 'We are only providing a platform; we are not pressuring the young. Some singles told me that they really need help.'

Still, the growing number of singles is a national concern. Among citizens aged 30 to 34, the proportion of male singles rose from 33 per cent in 2000 to 43 per cent in 2010. Female singles in that age group also rose from 22 per cent to 31 per cent.

Last year, Mr Wong Kan Seng, who was then Deputy Prime Minister and population czar, spoke frankly about singlehood standing in the way of the stork.

He pointed out that many of those who marry do have children.

'While the TFR of ever-married women has declined, they still have around two children per couple.

'The other contributing factor that has the greatest impact on our low TFR is that more Singaporeans are remaining single,' he said, referring to the total fertility rate (TFR).

A study by Associate Professor Norman Li of the Singapore Management University last year threw some light on the causes of singlehood.

His study found that the top criterion Singaporean women look for in a potential husband is social status, whereas men go for looks first.

There is thus a mismatch of expectations.

Mr Jackiey Kwek, co-founder of dating agency CliqueWise, believes the gap in expectations can be narrowed if singles keep an open mind about the people they meet.

They should also seize opportunities to widen their social circle.

His advice for singles is that they should not 'jump the gun' on the people they meet. Neither should they 'close the door on meeting other people'.

Your family is not my business: Employer

FOR some women who work, falling pregnant may be something they need to hide from their employer, at least for the first three months. That is because the law protects expectant mothers only for the six months up to their due date.

If a pregnant woman is sacked without sufficient cause during that period, her employer would have to pay her maternity benefits.

This clause in the Employment Act is needed because such discrimination remains a reality.

Every year, pregnant women file wrongful dismissal complaints with the Ministry of Manpower.

The number of such complaints rose from 72 in 2007 to 95 in 2008, before hitting a record 147 in 2009. In 2010, there were 84 complaints.

Most of the complaints were filed against small and medium-sized enterprises. These employers said their manpower constraints make it difficult for them to let a staff member go on maternity leave for four months. That is the main reason they end up letting their pregnant staff go.

The law also prohibits the employer from terminating a mother's services while she is on maternity leave. If he does, he will be liable to a fine and imprisonment.

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