September 4th, 2012

Dreaming of a truly inclusive Singapore

The national conversation should not be dominated by fertility rate. Focus instead on the kind of Singapore we want.

By Corinna Lim & Vivienne Wee

In his National Day Rally speech, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong envisioned Singapore as ‘a home with hope and heart’.

As members of the Association of Women for Action and Research (AWARE), we are encouraged that the rally focused on social priorities and values of mutual respect and inclusiveness. We agree that all Singaporeans should participate in the national conversation to create an inclusive Singapore, with that national conversation encompassing issues of concern to different citizens – rich and poor, young and old, male and female, majority and minority, and so on.

We are glad that Singapore is moving towards greater equality between mothers and fathers by introducing paternity leave. Paternity leave would recognize men’s role as co-parents with the right to be part of family life beyond just being breadwinners. However, we must ensure proper implementation, not mere tokenism. Paternity or shared parental leave must genuinely encourage men to participate in the care of their children. An idea worth looking into is to deduct from a man’s reservist duties the days of parenting leave he takes.

While this proposed move has provoked some negative comments from those who have benefitted from gender disparity, we welcome the positive responses also expressed. We agree with the Chair of the Centre for Fathering and National Family Council that reservist training is a good precedent to follow, as employers now take this into account in their planning. Employers who do not support the parenting leave of male and female employees actively contribute to the anti-family ethos of the Singaporean workplace.

We are also glad that the Government is looking into whether singles will be eligible to buy flats directly from HDB. We strongly recommend this policy change so that singles are given parity of treatment, and are no longer discriminated against on the basis of marital status. Affordable housing for all Singaporeans is necessary. The inclusive national conversation must also include single parents who cannot afford preschool education for their children who are citizens of the future.

Although the National Day Rally did not focus on Singapore’s rising inequality between rich and poor, this is nevertheless the context for the falling Total Fertility Rate (TFR) issue. According to the UN, Singapore’s Gini coefficient of 0.473 in 2011 is second highest among 38 countries with very high human development. Thirty percent of Singapore’s working households struggle to make ends meet, with hardly any discretionary savings. It would be unconscionable to ask such households to increase their fertility rate.

In Parliament in October 2011, the PM admitted that “income inequality is starker than before” and that “at the lower end, incomes have risen too slowly, far too slowly”.

Middle-class families in Singapore are also stressed by the high cost of healthcare and caregiving. Singaporeans are paying 55% – 64% of healthcare expenditure as out of pocket costs, compared to only 30% in Japan, Hong Kong, Korea and Taiwan, Province of China. It is unsurprising that they should make a rational choice by not burdening themselves with more dependents than they have already. Research shows that retirees currently depend on their children for most of their living expenses – as much as 75%, while receiving only 12% from CPF.

Can policies to increase the TFR address these everyday problems? Singaporeans trying to meet their immediate needs are unlikely to want more children to solve projected problems of future society.

The emphasis on TFR seems misplaced. A demographic study by the Institute of Policy Studies (IPS) in 2011 showed that even if TFR were to increase to 1.85, a highly ambitious target, from the current 1.24, this by itself would not significantly reduce the dependency ratio or increase the support ratio significantly. In other words, this is not the solution to a shrinking or ageing workforce.

AWARE suggests the national conversation should not be dominated by TFR. Focus instead on questions about the kind of Singapore we want. For example, how many people can live sustainably on our small island with a desirable quality of life?  Comparison with other developed countries suggests we should aim for sustainable labour growth with high productivity growth, rather than just focusing on increasing population and TFR.  Economists have argued that if we keep population increases to the minimum to compensate for a shrinking population, we can nevertheless enjoy a growth rate of 3 – 4%.

We dream of a Singapore where all are able to maximize their potential; where people don’t have to work 18 hours or more a day to the point of total exhaustion just to cope with family needs, where productivity increases because people are doing what they care about, where people are treated fairly as equal citizens regardless of race, language, religion or marital status, where they can enjoy a quality of life that makes life itself meaningful to them. Only then would we have a home where children are welcome, not just to be workers providing for the old, but as citizens who will inherit that home.

Corinna Lim is the Executive Director of AWARE and Dr Vivienne Wee is an anthropologist and Research & Advocacy Director at AWARE.

This article was first published in The Straits Times on Sept 4, 2012.


  1. Commentator

    Could you write an article which includes singles too?

    Singles have the time and energy to work overtime. They also have to cover their married colleagues’ duties when they are on maternity or paternity leave. They contribute more to Singapore, yet receive less in terms of benefits.

    Sure, you may say why not get married? But not everyone is so lucky. Not everyone is so asthetically pleasing. Not everyone is young and desirable. You know the saying, “women past 30…”

    You have to know, maternity and paternity leave puts pressure on singles. Is this fair to them?