Friday 24 August 2012

You, I and us: The politics of birth

by Devadas Krishnadas, Published TODAY, 23 Aug 2012

Mr Lee Kuan Yew recently commented that Singapore would "fold up" if we did not raise the birth rate.

Mr Lee's remarks were made against the backdrop of an announcement that the Government would conduct another review of the Marriage and Procreation policy.

First off, whatever value judgements Singaporeans may make about his interpretation, no one can argue with the demographic facts.

We do have an abysmal birth rate, consequently we are dependent on population augmentation, and this does have undesirable and uncomfortable consequences; but if we do not reverse the first and if we reject the second, we will face population decline within a generation. There should be no dispute here.

Predictably, however, Mr Lee's point of view provoked a volley of comments from Singaporeans. I have categorised the protestations into three buckets.


The first bucket contains two strands of criticisms. One, that the Government is being hypocritical because of the culpability of its "stop at two" policy in causing the low birth rates.

Proponents of this view do not dispute the legitimacy of the argument that the birth rate needs to increase, but absolve themselves of the responsibility of doing anything about it because they view themselves as victims of a past policy decision.

The second criticism is that the Government's emphasis on growth has shaped a mental model of prioritising careers over family. The proponents of this school of thinking are convinced that if the Government reduces the priority it places on economic growth, the problem would remedy itself over time.

The second bucket is made up of the interesting critique that the exhortation to increase the birth rate constitutes an intrusion into the private space of individuals.

Quite rightly, birth is an intimate and personal decision. But it is a logical stretch to use this truism as a basis to detect an authoritarian intent to conscript the bodies of women to the national cause. This school of thinking perceives the case for individual autonomy as trumping any call for collective burden sharing. Although not fully embracing the idea of population augmentation, the proponents of this view, by logical default, accept it as a necessary evil.

While not offering any solutions, this view does move the discussion beyond finger pointing to the tensions between individual choice and national interest.

The third bucket of criticism is from those who feel that high costs and inequality are the impediments to procreation. They call for a more redistributive social model as a response, not only to falling birth rates but also to close the inequality gap.
The virtuous amongst this group even pre-emptively volunteer to pay higher taxes. Only proponents of this perspective recognise the systemic nature of the problem and propose a systemic response. Now let us take a closer look at these buckets.


I think of the first bucket as the "You" people. "You", because their criticisms typically commence with that word, meaning the Government or some Minister of the same. However sincere the motivating angst, there are several problems with the case of the "You" people.

First, even if and where policy was misjudged, was there malicious intent and what effect did the policy really have? The "stop at two" policy was driven out of a fear that the population was growing faster than economically viable. It reflects the sober and conservative expectations for future economic performance in the midst of the global economic shocks of the 1970s.

It is hardly fair to indict past decision makers with the benefit of 20-20 hindsight. Did the policy makers in the past miscalculate? Perhaps, but not in the way the "you" people think.

A close study of the correlations between our birth rates and level of economic development reveals that we followed a well-established pattern of inverse correlation.

In other words, even without the "stop at two" policy, we should have expected to see the birth rate fall as it did, as we became more affluent and our people, particularly women, became better educated. So the argument for policy hypocrisy is debatable.

Second, the view that the emphasis on growth is a major causation is a weak argument. It is too much to suggest that an economy of our size and nature can function independently of global economic events.

Quite the opposite, we are almost wholly dependent on these events to dictate our economic performance.

The Government can only use policy to best position our economy for growth and to cushion it when growth is absent. Notions such as "growth calibration" are misguided. (A more valid criticism within this bucket is that the Government has been quick to credit itself for growth but attributes to global conditions the causation for its lack.)

Further, this bucket presents a too simplistic picture which casts the Government in the role of the antagonist while the people are cast as helpless victims absolved of responsibility for their future.

Perhaps the most limiting quality of this bucket is that it offers no ideas on what to do next. So while the "you" bucket makes the most noise in social media, it is probably because it conforms to the old axiom about empty vessels.


The "I" people, in the second bucket, think about themselves as almost wholly distinct from the collective.

Admittedly, the tension point between individual and the collective space would seem an important determination. But while no one can deny that the decision to procreate is a personal one, this does not make it mutually exclusive with a discussion of aggregate procreation.

The State cannot force the individual course in the matter of procreation. What is clear, after more than a decade of affirmative policy action, is that promoting procreation with targeted policies has proved to be spectacularly ineffective.

We have also reason to suspect that the targeted policies to limit procreation were probably less effectual than is commonly assumed.


The third bucket is composed of the "Us" people, those who believe in social models having determinative power over individual action. Of all the buckets, only the "Us" people think in system terms.

Their main idea is that a different social safety net model would influence personal behaviour. There have been many eloquent advocates in favour of changing to a "Nordic" model characterised by higher taxation, a more interventionist and deliberate redistributive model and greater State presence in the social space.

The motivations for promoting such advocacy range from a desire for less inequality, more inclusiveness and belief that if the costs of child rearing were socialised, then the individual proclivities could be positively influenced in favour of procreation.

The problem is that we will never know for sure whether moving in this direction will work until we try it. But trying it has a very long tail, for we will need at least a generation to judge the effects.

The fiscal costs of the "Nordic" model should not be underestimated. But neither should these cost projections be considered sufficient argument not to go in this direction. The matter is ultimately not one of whether we can afford it, but whether we want to afford it. What is required is a deliberate, protracted and participatory discussion as to the full meaning and potential implications of such a systemic move.

Given the importance of the issue, the conversation should take place over a substantial period of public and parliamentary debate which should include as many voices as possible. The general public and civic groups should activate themselves to participate as stakeholders in Singapore society. There need not be a rush to consensus, we should take the time to get this right.


We need to move the debate forward, and out of the state of policy stasis. All parties should be open to possible different futures. How do we do this?

First: Confront the facts.

Second: Distinguish between the fatuous and the fair criticisms.

Third: Recognise that targeted policies have not worked, thus leaving us with the implication that only a systemic adjustment would be of the scale and dimension to match the nature of the problem.

Fourth: Accept that individual choices have a collectivised expression, but also that a collectivised decision may well ultimately stand the best chance of influencing individual choice.

Fifth: The process of arriving at a decision on a social model is important to the legitimacy of that decision. And by social model, I mean more than a system of redistribution but also a reconsideration of traditional notions of family and the legitimacy of single mothers. A mark of social maturity is the acceptance that while one may not adopt, or even approve, a social choice, this does not give us the right to deny that choice to another.

It is an unsettling truth that we will not, for a long time, be certain of the outcome of any decision to change. But this should be contrasted with the more disturbing certainty of knowing the result of continuing as we are.

We need to enter into a national conversation about the kind of future we want, and commit ourselves to the price to be paid for the choice that we as a people make, and which the Government then should implement, not the other way around.

Devadas Krishnadas is Director and Principal Consultant for Future-Moves, a foresight consultancy. He has extensive policy and operational public sector experience in Singapore and, as a Fulbright Scholar, read for a Masters of Law and Diplomacy at the Fletcher School, Tufts University.

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