Monday, February 18, 2013

Baby maybe

It seems like babies is always topmost of the government's mind. After the last National Day Rally, new goodies were added to the Baby Bonus and in the recent White Paper on population, once again the recurring issue is our low fertility rate and how we need to sustain our population. Just yesterday, PM again urged couples to have children.

I don't want to touch on the hot potato that is the White Paper since a deluge of views has already exploded online. Rather, I want to share my views on some of the baby issues and why we haven't seemed to progress in this area. While some of my opinions are rooted in what I studied in sociology, much of it is based on my own conjectures and common sense, so feel free to correct me if I'm wrong.

The Paradox of Wealth vs Fertility Rate

First, the sociological bit - we need to understand that declining birth rate is a developed world problem and is certainly not unique to Singapore.  You can sometimes hear this comment, "Some families so rich, can afford, dowan to have kids. Others so poor, can barely feed themselves, wanna have so many kids. What's wrong with people?"

There's actually a simple explanation for this and it's not because poor families are stupid. It's the treatment of the child as asset vs liability.  Poor families, especially in rural, underdeveloped countries, tend to have more kids because the kids are seen as assets. When the kids grow up, they either become much needed hands on the farm or work to bring in extra dough. They are considered future wealth.  In fact, for many poor families, having children is the only avenue out of poverty, so the more, the merrier.

Whereas in developed countries where individualism is emphasised, kids are liabilities - they sap rather than contribute to family wealth. Hence, the focus shifts from the benefits of having children to the costs. The primary motivation to have a child then, would be the emotional one - to have a child to love, to have a mini me, in some sense.  For most people, one or two would be enough to fulfil this personal need, hence the trend towards small families. In other words, the infamous Stop at Two policy, which has often been blamed for our low fertility rate, merely sped up the inevitable. It's not the real cause of declining family sizes in Singapore.

One analogy would be deciding to own a cat because you have rats in your house vs deciding to own one purely for companionship. The first places an intrinsic value on the cat, the second is intangible.  (Note, it doesn't necessarily mean the former owner loves the cat less, it just means there's a pragmatic incentive tied to the ownership).

What this implies is that looking to improve the fertility rate in Singapore purely from the cost aspect has its limitations. Folks who want to have kids will tend to still have kids, even if it's expensive. People who don't want to have kids see kids as a real liability - cramping lifestyles, creating inconvenience and chalking up enormous expenses. Reducing costs is unlikely to change their minds as it's still less costly NOT to have kids than to have one.
It's like a travel agency trying to sell you a holiday package, saying they'll give you substantial rebates. But here's the rub: no matter how much discount you give me, I'll still have more money if I don't go on a holiday to begin with. And that's the limitation with the Baby Bonus and all other monetary incentives.  If I consider having kids an unnecessary expense, no amount of monetary incentives will make me have one. (In fact, we should have serious misgivings about anyone who would have a child simply because of money).  Meanwhile, the ones who have already decided to have kids are happily pocketing the savings, thank you very much. 

Persuading couples who don't want kids to have them is an uphill battle.  The trouble is, the joy of having children is understood only by those who already have them.  It's something that can only be experienced, not fully communicable via words. For many parents, their kids are the best things that ever happened to them. You cannot realise the extent to which you can love another human being, until your kid comes along.  It explains why so many level-headed people turn into irrational beings when it comes to their children.

Preaching to the Converted

So if we can't convince childless couples to have kids, is there any other solution? Instead of trying to throw pebbles at a brick wall, maybe the authorities should instead focus on existing parents - those who already have at least one child. To me, encouraging couples who already have kids to have more kids, is a much easier task as you're preaching to the converted.  Having 3 children is not 3 times the work or costs as having 1 child.  If it's attractive enough and not too inconvenient, I'm sure many would give it serious consideration.

Take my own example. Kenneth and I wanted kids for sure. In fact, we had both our kids before there were any Baby Bonuses (Andre was born a few months shy of the introduction of the Baby Bonus, which I was always a little miffed about). We decided not to have a third child for various reasons:

1) 2 kids were already quite a handful and we were both working. I had to go back to work after 2 months of maternity leave and even though my understanding boss gave me a flexi work-from-home arrangement, it was stressful trying to run a household and head a department remotely at the same time.

2) My kids were already sharing a bedroom, adding another child to our apartment would be a squeeze.

3) When Andre was 2 years old, I started my own business and was running it solo. What many people don't realise is that entrepreneurs don't enjoy maternity leave. We have to take our own time off and suffer a loss of income. Worse, if we disappear for 2 months or more, we might end up losing all our clients. It was not tenable. Having another kid then would have killed my business.

Could I have been persuaded to have another child though? Maybe. If costs were reduced and I had better home and business arrangements, that would have helped.

In my opinion though, a big obstacle to having babies is that Singapore has become a very stressful place to raise kids and parents feel that keenly. To succeed in our baby policies, we need to create an environment that allows parents to raise their kids in a way that meshes with our worldview and lifestyle. While we have improved on things like flexi-work arrangements, maternity/paternity leave, greater subsidies for childcare, etc, I find that one of the biggest stressors of parents in Singapore have remained unresolved - education. 

The Education Baggage

I'm not sure if there has been any in-depth study on the link between education and fertility. But intuitively, we know that education is an enormous part of a child's life, consuming the bulk of his waking hours.  You may think, when a couple decides to have a child, won't their considerations be based on short-term issues, like will we be able to afford this child? Who will look after this child? etc.  In the past, probably.  However, in today's Singapore, education is no longer a distant consideration - with kids going to classes and getting enrichment younger, from as young as age 2, people are feeling the heat earlier. 

I've heard anecdotal stories of parents trying to book a place in a popular childcare centre before their child was even born. I once met a new father who said, as he was cradling his weeks-old twin daughters, "I'm wondering whether I should volunteer in a primary school so they can get entry."  I've also  received emails from parents of toddlers asking my advice on reading habits and primary schools.

What all these point to is that education is very much top of mind when a couple is deciding to have more kids... and currently, it is a huge deterrent.  I know many parents who simply hate the idea of having to send their kids into our education system.  I remember when Andre was 6, I so dreaded the thought of having him start primary 1 because I was sure that he would lose his carefree spirit to the system. Last year when he was going through his PSLE, my recurring thought was, "Thank God I don't have another child cos I can't go through this a third time."

It's about having your child shaped by a system that's not in sync with your own worldview, and knowing that you don't have a choice in the matter.  I imagine the idyllic family image in our heads is something like parents and children sitting around the coffee table, chatting and laughing. I'm pretty sure it's not hassled mum hovering over anxious kid doing homework and dad ferrying other kid to tuition centre. When both parents and children are stressed out, it's hard to create a well balanced and wholesome family life. 

Incidentally, education has also become one of the biggest costs in a family budget.  As Mr Yeoh Lam Keong, former GIC chief economist said in an interview, the Singapore education is seemingly cheap on the surface. School fees are very affordable ($11 a month for primary school, $21 for secondary school) and even university fees are subsidised.  But in actual fact, majority of primary and secondary school kids have tuition just to keep up with school. This jacks the real cost of education up to $1,000 a month or more. You can read the interview here (second half of the article, under the sub-head "The real cost of education").

In other words, without quite intending it, the education system in Singapore may actually be systematically disincentivising Singaporeans from having more children.  As long as education - a big part of child-rearing - is perceived as a burden that diminishes the quality of life rather than enhances it, it's not a long shot to suggest that it can influence a couple's decision to have children or subsequent children.

So here's a thought: instead of just continually throwing new handouts to couples, maybe the authorities should also re-examine this long-standing baggage we call education and better align it with parents' dreams for their kids. 

Note: I didn't touch on why parents are invariably stressed by our education system in this post since I've already written about it previously in Education stress - whose fault?


Anonymous said...

Such a thoughtful article. And practical. In this short blog, I can already see so many useful, practical steps that the govt can take to REALLY get the baby machine going. C
d most parents do not want hand outs? They just want meaningful help to create a constructive life for family and friends. Taking a baby bonus is like begging. They should work with people like you for solutions. Singapore does have talents..

monlim said...

Anon: Thanks for the compliment. Not sure I deserve your accolade as I don't have solutions to offer either. But I fully agree with you that parents would appreciate most help to create a constructive life for their families. That for me, would be the biggest incentive to have kids.

Anonymous said...

For a mother with 3 kids, your article merely echoes my thoughts and feelings - about having more kids vs the fear of raising them up in our current education system. The stress gets to both child and parent alke, if more more on the parent. Thanks for articulating it so well. But the battle with education will still wage on....and I dont see promising signs of relief there.

Anonymous said...

Perhaps a dose of the old medicine could still work as back in the ole days of the 50s. Legalize polygamy.

monlim said...

Anon: I empathise fully. I suspect any changes in the education system will be slow cos it has grown into such a monster that any alterations on one part will have repercussions on another.

I think it's probably too late for my kids but hopefully, they can reverse the stress in time for the next generation!

monlim said...

2nd Anon: Then you'll have to legalise murder cos many wives will be killing their husbands. Serious.

Anonymous said...

Dear Monica,
1. It is an insightful piece. Love the portion on education. It is so true. Many young couples see the older couples (esp those with pri sch kids) stressed out and it really scares them. More children ==> greater need to prop up the education ==> more time and money ==> more stressed out parents and children
Are we surprised that rational beings would think twice?

2. Polygamy - hmmm, would the men support women having multiple husbands as well? While we may have only one womb, we too want to maximise our chances of getting the 'best' sp***.


monlim said...

Grace: Just thinking about having to put my child through the current education system exhausts me and I'm sure I'm not the only parent who feels that way!

Haha, like your polygamy comment. It's nonsense lah, people having fewer babies is certainly not due to lack of opportunity. It's just some men trying to find an excuse to do what they wanna do.

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