Singapore Seeks Answers for Failing Fertility Levels

Birthrate continues to fall despite government’s best efforts

Except where religion intervenes, lowering fertility rates around most of the world has proved remarkably easy. Average global fertility, the number of children born to a woman during her lifetime, has dropped from 5.0 in 1960 to 2.45 in 60 years. But increasing it again is proving a huge challenge that so far has outwitted the country that has tried harder than any to achieve it: Singapore.

A populace normally open to official suasion and with a government with many tools and much money to promote it has singularly failed. Fertility hit a new low of 1.16 in 2018, barely over half the 2.1 replacement level. The latest number is another steep decline since 2008 when it was 1.41.

It is now below Japan and vies with Taiwan, South Korea, and Moldova for the world’s lowest in spite of a series of fertility promotion measures dating back to 2001. In many cases, these measures mirrored social welfare practices in western European countries such as the UK, France, and Scandinavia, where fertility rates have roughly stabilized in the 1.7-1.9 range.

Now, Assistant Professor Poh Lin Tan of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy in Singapore, writing in the IMF publication Finance and Development, has suggested an interesting possible cause: that Singapore has been too successful in some other respects leading to over-expectation and fear of failure deterring child-bearing.

When Lee Kuan Yew and his PAP came to power, Singapore had a fertility rate of 5.7, an alarming figure for the government. Official measures and general social and economic development had reduced it to 2.0 by 1975.

But it kept on falling and the government began to be concerned, at least at the unwillingness of the educated women to marry and start a family.

Policy to reverse the trend began with state-sponsored efforts to promote dating, marriage and child-bearing among an increasingly well-educated population for whom there were good jobs and social choices for young women in particular. In 2003 the government’s Social Development Unit, or SDU, launched fertility seminars accompanied by a boat cruise and a night at a holiday resort. The plan acquired a certain amount of derision and the title “the love boat” after a popular television series. Pranksters insisted the initials stood for “single, desperate and ugly.”

When that failed to meet the desired response, the government turned to specific incentive programs rolled out over a number of years. In addition to tax breaks and cash handouts it progressively introduced paid maternity leave and subsidized child-care services to encourage women to have children but then still be able to work. The government also provided up to 75 percent of the cost of in-vitro fertilization and other reproductive techniques to help childless couples, in particular those who had delayed childbearing past the prime age for it. Overconfidence in technology may also have encouraged delay by couples not fully recognizing the higher risk of complications and birth defects.

Despite all these efforts, plus the additional availability for many families of cheap domestic support provided by Indonesian and Philippine helpers not available in most rich countries, the rate continued to fall. Most notable in the data compared with advanced northern Europe was that in the latter lower birth rates for those in their 20s were to a significant extent compensated by higher rates for those in their 30s. But the same did not happen in Singapore

One cause might be lack of gender equality at home, placing most of the child-rearing burden on the women regardless of other factors. Patriarchal and paternalist attitudes in traditional Chinese culture may be frustrating official policy by preventing men from burden-sharing.

However, Poh suggests another factor: the institutionalized pressure for success as defined by local norms leaves inadequate space for child-rearing. Marriage may be delayed as acquiring more qualifications or focusing on promotion take precedence. Those who have married and in principle would like children worry about their ability to rear them for success in a society focused on enhancing human capital through education. More children not only raises the financial cost and opportunity cost of child-rearing. It adds to pressure for success and fear of failure in a system which, says Poh, “heavily rewards achievement and penalizes lack of ambition.”

Although he doesn’t say as much, two things may emerge from Poh’s analysis: first the stratified nature of Singapore’s education system, which has produced a society in which the successful are too busy to procreate and the others feel little incentive. The second is that reliance on cheap foreign labor for unskilled and low-skilled jobs (non-citizens are 30 percent of the workforce) which demeans these essential jobs and leaves no space for a Singapore whose citizens reflect the whole economic and social spectrum, not just the top two-thirds. Meritocracy which disdains manual labor is inherently as unsustainable as a 1.16 fertility rate.