Sunday 15 September 2013

Left holding the baby problem

After the 2011 General Election, former ports chief Grace Fu became the highest-ranking woman in Government and was promptly put in charge of a national problem that no less than former Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew has given up on. Ms Fu, who oversees population issues in the Prime Minister's Office and is Second Minister for Foreign Affairs, talks to Rachel Chang about staying optimistic about the abysmal birth rate and why being a woman and a People's Action Party politician can sometimes be the worst of both worlds.
The Straits Times, 14 Sep 2013

Mr Lee said that he would offer a baby bonus of two years' average salary per kid, just to prove that monetary incentives won't work to lift the birth rate. Would you try it?

If you take an extreme case, and you offer $2 million for a child, the answer is yes, it would probably encourage some couples. But the Government's perspective is not to just throw money at the problem. We want the child to grow up in a nice, wholesome family, and the right parenting background is equally important. Personally, I don't believe that we should use money to incentivise childbirth. We want the right values, it has to come from within, that 'I'm having this child, I believe in having this family.' With that as an inner motivation, then monetary incentives are to help lighten the burden. Going into this decision because there's money out there would be the wrong starting point.

Some think that the Government's baby-boosting measures are half-hearted since it can rely on immigrants to top up the population.

But in our Population White Paper, we have given commitments on the number of permanent residents (PRs) and new citizens, and we have to keep a Singapore core and make sure it remains strong. The more we are producing our own, the more we can reduce the reliance on immigration. In the White Paper, we have committed to the number of PRs and new citizens we can take (a steady pool of about 500,000 PRs and not more than 25,000 new citizens a year). That's limiting. We can't take any more. Take the worst-case scenario of not having any babies at all. We can't make it up through immigration because we have already committed to a certain number.

So even if the total fertility rate (TFR) plunges, we won't take more than this number of new citizens and PRs?

If it's really very dire, we have to come back to Singaporeans and explain why we have to revisit the numbers. Before that, we have to try our best to improve the fertility equation.

Has January's Marriage and Parenthood package, which includes one week of paternity leave and state-subsidised rental housing for young families, worked?

We have not had the (final) numbers yet. I am optimistic, there are some signs that it has moved up. But we would like to see it move up further and be a sustainable uptrend.

DPM Teo Chee Hean said in January that the Government is aiming for TFR of 1.5.

That's a very aggressive target. I think we will be happy if it goes up to 1.3 or 1.4, (as it was previously) on a declining trend. It's already not bad to stop the decline, primarily because it's not just a parenthood problem but a singlehood issue.

Many factors come into that. The options for young people are plentiful. People want to go overseas, undertake challenging, exciting options. I suppose their priority may not be settling down and getting married. We're trying to bring back family as a life goal, a priority. We like to remind young people that you can do all these exciting things, but spare a thought for what's important in life. It's actually easier to get married when you are younger. (Especially) for women, sometimes, opportunities slip by. For the men, it's always an option to marry someone younger. When you're 40, you don't mind marrying someone who's 25. But the reverse is difficult. It comes back to society norms again.

Some women are reluctant to start families before a certain age because of their careers. How did you raise three boys and still have a high-flying career?

When my second son was very young, I was travelling a lot. I missed his first step. Before I left on my business trip, he was crawling. When I returned, he was walking. I told myself, I shouldn't be missing too many of his milestones. I quit, and initially it was fine. My husband and boys enjoyed having me at home.

But (after a while), I felt that my own potential was limited. There was a part of me that wasn't satisfied with just staying home. I decided after nine months to come back to the workplace, although initially I thought I would stop for a few years. The bank book was also telling me that it was not sustainable.

I took a conscious decision to take a discount on my pay and look for a job that's a bit more domestically focused, with less travelling. I joined port operator PSA Singapore, which was then a government agency and so had more family-friendly hours.

It's tough, but at least, I think, recognise that you're in a certain phase of your life (where) you just need to slow down on one part of it to allow that other part to be stabilised. We like to see employers as being fair-minded and give women a fair chance. But on the other hand, it's also important for the woman to recognise her choices. Take the decision of slowing down and be happy with it. Just recognise that that's something you have decided and for three to five years, you won't be progressing as quickly as your peers. When it's time for you to come back and be at full speed, give it your all.

How has politics changed since you entered the fray in 2006?

It's tougher to recruit any good candidates, men or women. First of all, expectations of an MP are just higher. In the past, someone who is intelligent and capable, people accept him even if he's not very communicative or extroverted. But these days, constituents also like you to be down-to-earth, friendly, communicative, able to inspire them.

On the other hand, the demands on the candidates in terms of the exposure, the loss of privacy, especially for the family, are more severe now. One MP mentioned that when his child did well and received a prize in school, his friends said, it's because you're an MP's child. It's now become very open, very public and apparent because of social media. Things get amplified and circulated much more easily.

Does this impact you in real life, or just on social media?

There are moments when certain policies are not taken well on the ground, I find my children being affected. Their friends will give them feedback, make comments, say that your mum is doing this silly thing again. I don't think it's a nice feeling for my children. I don't think you can totally isolate or protect them. I just have to tell them, take it in your stride.

What have you had to give up in this line of work?

Personal time. My privacy. It's part of being a public figure and I knew that when I was making the step to contest.

My vice was to take an afternoon off and go shopping. It can sometimes be misunderstood. Immediately after the (2011) elections, I had a meeting at 7pm, and I was in Raffles City before that, so I thought I can shop for two hours before my meeting. And a woman actually came up to me and said, 'Oh now you have time to shop, ah? At this hour?' Like (she was saying) after you're elected, you still have the time? I am a purposeful shopper now. Just go straight to the shop and get what I want. So I'm very outdated on what are the latest trends.

What's for supper

- Coffee shop at Block 221, Jurong East Street 21
- Sparking Oldenlandia Water and Milo: $1.30
- Xing Zhou bee hoon, garlic pork, and stir-fried lettuce with chilli: $20


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