Monday, 28 January 2013

Shifting focus from money to family

Ease up on rat race, spare a thought for well-being: Ex-chief statistician
By Cheong Suk-Wai, The Straits Times, 26 Jan 2013

SINGAPORE'S former chief statistician Paul Cheung has the long view on the Government's efforts to encourage married couples to have more children.

That is because he was in charge of reversing the Republic's Stop at Two policy to cap population growth, as director of the Ministry of Health's Population Planning Unit in 1986.

He continued to track efforts to promote procreation as head of the Department of Statistics from 1991 to 2004.

Hong Kong-born Professor Cheung, 59, was then recruited by the United Nations to be its chief statistician. After almost nine years in New York, he returned to teach at the National University of Singapore's Department of Social Work earlier this month.

In an interview this week, he gave his views on the baby boosters announced on Monday and government policy in this area over the years.
What surprises you about this latest round of baby-boosting measures?
I am not surprised at all by these. Since 1986, the Government's population policy has had two focal points: the first is that the family is central to Singapore and the second is that the Government must build enabling social infrastructure to support childbearing and parenting efforts. Over time, and systematically, this infrastructure has become more and more elaborate. It is about building a house and making it better and better.
How did the Government start building this house in 1986?
By aggressively generating childcare places as it wanted married couples to have larger families. But it did not touch maternity leave then because the timing was not right.
How has the design of this house changed, if at all?
The Government is still building on it because, ultimately, it is still constrained by its target, that is, women who are of childbearing age... What is new about these measures is the public housing priority for families with children who are 16 years or younger. This is a very sensitive topic and the Government had not dared touch that before. So this measure is a very strong signal from the Government about its commitment to helping young families. But I don't think the pool of people eligible for housing priority will be big because most couples register for HDB flats the moment they marry; also, I'd be very alarmed if you have a kid who is 16 and you still don't have your HDB flat.
How effective might 2013's baby-boosting measures be?
The problem is that all of these are incremental adjustments, such as making some allowances more generous. Singaporeans will appreciate that, but these are not measures that would trigger young couples here to have their first child earlier in life. They have two obstacles to overcome first - getting married and deciding to have children. We want them to have their first child early so that they can have a few more down the road.

These latest measures won't really be significant because the mindset of Singapore's childbearing population has changed. There are currently about 450,000 women who are aged between 25 and 40 years. If you count only those among them who are married, they number slightly more than 300,000. Now, 75 per cent of this target group have A-level qualifications or higher. Ten years ago, only 40 per cent of this target group were that well-educated.

At the same time, the census data shows that slightly more among these women are not getting married, and so are holding back on having their first child today, than those in their group 10 years ago. The question is: What will lead them to give birth earlier, and have more children? These well-educated women are probably not looking so much for income as they are for someone willing to share the burden of bringing up the baby.

It would be interesting to ask the present lot of women how high childbearing is on their list of life choices.
How did Singaporeans react to the reversal of Stop at Two?
There was a boom initially when we removed the lid in 1986. And then 1988 was a Dragon Year, which saw many more babies. What's interesting is that those 1988 babies are now of childbearing age, so we will likely see more babies in future. They were born after Stop at Two was stopped, and are also fully aware that we need a larger citizen core but the question is: Will they do it?

I don't know what the ideal family size in Singapore is these days; it used to be three kids at most.
Young couples say they now don't have time for even one baby.
This brings up a larger question: What is the essence of Singapore society? Women are now getting all the good things they had hoped for in the past, but ultimately, what shapes their decision-making process is the larger society. In New York City, where I was for nine years, people are not so hung up on money. But in Singapore, it is interesting that money seems a key driver of our lives. Can we move away from being so competitive to focus on our well-being, which would include stepping back and enjoying our families? This may be the most critical element in Singapore's discussion on procreation.
But when Singapore's only resource is its people, how can it ease off on the productivity pedal to produce babies?
It is about determination, and work-life balance is key. New Yorkers work hard but at the same time enjoy being with their kids. So the question for Singaporeans is: Why do some people not treasure family any more?
When Singapore began reversing Stop at Two in the late 1980s, it also began welcoming foreigners more aggressively. Was that to increase its citizen core?
From what I understand of the Government's policy, it was more a question of bringing talent in for Singapore to prosper than a population target. Immigration has never been a main anchor of population policy here; your citizen core should come from indigenous population growth. If we really wanted to jack up the citizenship numbers, Singapore could bring in many more new citizens, but how many among them will really have roots in Singapore?

On the other hand, we critically need a flow of foreign manpower for Singapore to prosper. But we should not confuse our critical need for this continued influx with the enlargement of our citizen core.

Foreigners are not necessarily immigrants. The question is: How should we manage this flow of foreigners? It's a topic ripe for the Singapore Conversation.


These well-educated women are probably not looking so much for income as they are for someone willing to share the burden of bringing up the baby.

It would be interesting to ask the present lot of women how high childbearing is on their list of life choices.

- Prof Cheung

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