October 3rd, 2012

Baby Talk: Let’s get this straight…

By Kirsten Han

“Our educated men and women must decide whether to replace themselves in the next generation. At the moment, 31 per cent of women and 44 per cent of men are opting out. Not leaving a next generation. So, just ponder over it and you will know the solution is not simple. But we’ve got to persuade people to understand that getting married is important, having children is important. Do we want to replace ourselves or do we want to shrink and get older and be replaced by migrants and work permit holders? That’s the simple question.”

– Former Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew

He said it, and a nation sprang into action. Everyone’s talking about babies (or lack thereof) these days. How can we increase the birth rate?  Why aren’t couples having kids? How can we get them married, settled and punching out the wee bairns ASAP? What can be done to persuade women to have babies, or have them younger?


There have been roadshows where ladies have been encouraged to “know their eggs”. A forum letter-writer wondered if Malay men are more “persuasive” when it comes to convincing their wives to have children. Another suggested that it is because women are becoming too individualistic and that Singaporeans have become too “selfish and stubborn” to “sacrifice for the nation”. Some people feel that there should be “lucky draws with prizes such as landed homes and scholarships to entice parents.” On the I Love Children website, a contest has been launched:

So, you pledge that you’re going to have a baby. And if you are among the first 100 couples to fall pregnant, you get to redeem a gift of milk powder! Oh WOW!

But before we get all carried away and trample each other in our haste to promise we’ll start making babies, there are some things that we need to look at…


Having a baby is A Big Deal. It’s not a weekend holiday in Malacca. It’s a responsibility for another human being. Your financial obligation to this human being may stretch for about two decades or more, but the sense of responsibility is lifelong. Parents don’t stop being parents – caring, worrying, fretting – when their children move out of the house.

Having a baby is really expensive these days. The Asian Parent estimates that the cost of raising a child from birth to 21 years of age is about S$340,000, not taking into account “domestic help, rent, furniture and medical treatment for your children”. This amount of money is made even more scary when you consider anxieties over job security, property prices, interest rates, global economic instability, etc.

Having a baby also takes a lot of time. When my friends first have kids, they tend to drop off the radar for some time. Life becomes about waking up every two hours, feeding the baby, changing the baby. And then it becomes about shuttling the kid to school, homework, studying for exams, etc. You don’t just feed a kid and then leave them alone. Children need attention, and time, and care. Add to that the fact that in 2010 Singapore had the longest work hours in the world.

If we can understand what goes into having a child – i.e. it’s no picnic – then it really isn’t that hard to figure out that no one is going to have a baby just “for the nation”. No one is going to go, “Lee Kuan Yew is worried about the birth rate! Let’s have a baby now so he’ll feel better!” It would be incredibly worrying if people did that, because it would indicate that they’ve not actually thought about the gravity of having to care for another human being.

I mean, wouldn’t you be worried if the promise of some free milk powder was all it took to convince a couple to have kids?


Yes, Singapore has an incredibly low birth rate. But no, we’re not the only ones in the world facing this problem. Many other countries have encountered this. Just recently I was watching a segment on HuffPost Live discussing the falling birth rate in the USA. An economic professor at Tohoku University was quoted as saying that there would only be one Japanese child left in 3011 if the birth rate in Japan continues declining in this way. (Seems pretty extreme, but okay.) Fertility has also declined in countries like Oman, Morocco, Syria, Saudi Arabia, Iran, Russia and China.

This whole situation has been summed up as a demographic-economic paradox, where “the higher the degree of education and GDP per capita of a human population, subpopulation or social stratum, the fewer children are born in any industrialised country.”

As countries develop and people gain education, wealth and choice, people tend to choose to have fewer children. They no longer see a need for huge families; people often come to realise that the fewer children they have, the more resources they can spend on each child. Or they just decide that they don’t want kids.

So, this isn’t a new problem to the world. But no one’s actually imploded yet. We’re not going to run out of people in the world any time soon. If you haven’t heard, we hit seven billion last year.


In the quote above Former MM Lee said, “Do we want to replace ourselves or do we want to shrink and get older and be replaced by migrants and work permit holders?” He also warns that we “cannot have new citizens, new PRs to settle our social ethos, our social spirit, our social norms.”

What an interesting stick-and-carrot situation. Have more babies, or we’re going to keep bringing in foreigners who cannot “settle”! What a way to play on the anti-foreigner sentiment in Singapore. But once again, it misses the point. Honestly, do we really think that we’re going to find a couple who will say, “Oh, we started having kids because we just didn’t want any more foreigners to come into Singapore!”

Not to mention the fact that the stick-that-should-not-have-been-used-as-a-stick is not even a real stick. It is the way we have imported foreigners – without ramping up infrastructure at a similar rate – that is causing unhappiness, and not necessarily the foreigners themselves. Singapore, like all other developing, globalising cities, needs foreigners. We need the movement, the confluence of cultures, languages, ideas, skills, experiences. Having foreigners here is not actually a bad thing at all.

Also, the claim that new citizens and PRs cannot adjust to our “ethos, spirit, norms” is disingenuous. It assumes that the “ethos, spirit, norms” that we have in Singapore are set in stone and can never change. But the truth is that social norms and values are ever-evolving; the ethos, spirit and norms of the Singapore in our grandparents’ time is very different from us, and I’ll venture to say that they will be different again in 10 to 20 years’ time.

The idea of foreigners trying to “fit” into our social ethos is silly, because the very existence of foreigners in our society changes the ethos. Just as we are now trying to define for ourselves what it means to be Singaporean or living in Singapore, future generations will do the same. If Singaporeans stop replacing ourselves and the solution is to have foreigners and new citizens, then people will simply redefine once again what it means to belong to this country. It’s not new; the history of migration is full of stories about redefining belonging and identity.

AND, surely it’s time to find alternative ways to sustain growth and development? We can’t be growing our population forever. Singapore already has one of the highest population densities in the world. Are we sure constant population growth is the answer?


While we’re doing all we can to get certain Singaporeans to hook up, get it on and push kids out, we’re handing out cash incentives to others to get vasectomies and ligation procedures done. Am I the only one who thinks this doesn’t make sense? If we’re really so desperate for babies that we would set up a roadshow in Raffles Place at lunchtime to beg women to “know their eggs” and “strike while the iron is hot”, why are we handing out money to other Singaporeans to stop having children?

We really really really want babies, but are some babies somehow more “baby” than others?

If we really want to have more Singaporean babies, perhaps we should look at way we can help and support children from low-income families, rather than giving their parents money to not have them. With the proper support structures in place, there is no reason why these children cannot go on to achieve as much as the children of the Raffles Place white-collar crowd we are begging to procreate. It makes no sense. In fact, it’s downright disgusting.


I’m Chinese. I’m young. I’m educated. I’m also unmarried (without a boyfriend). I like kids, but I don’t really want any right now. Even if I were happily married I’m not sure I would want any yet.

The thing is, I really enjoy my life as it is. I enjoy the relative freedom: I don’t have to worry about a tiny person, I don’t have to wake up in the middle of the night to feed or change diapers or soothe cries. I enjoy the choices and options: I can travel wherever and whenever I want, I can go on crazy adventures, I can stay out as late as I want/need to. I enjoy being able to go out with my friends and eat where we like, go to shows or go shopping if we want to, because our money is ours to spend. I enjoy not having to worry about mortgages, or the price of milk powder, or kindergarten fees.

I love kids. I just don’t really want one of my own yet. I couldn’t even trust myself to commit to cat-sit for my friend.

Of course, I’m sure having a child is a wonderful experience. I’m sure it’s extremely rewarding and life-changing. I’m sure it is a great thing that gives new parents many epiphanies and revelations about the meaning of life each and every day. I’m not saying it’s not a desirable experience. It’s just not desirable to me right now. And I’m not sorry.

For those who may paint my decision as stubborn or selfish (like that TODAY letter-writer may do), I simply don’t see why that’s so. Saying that it’s selfish implies that I am somehow letting someone/something down by prioritising my own wishes. Who am I letting down, then? I can’t let down a baby who hasn’t even been conceived, much less born. And I certainly don’t oweanyone a baby.

The choice to have a child is a deeply personal one. Whether I “know my eggs” or not is really no one’s concern. This is true for all other women out there, which is why it is so misguided to keep hammering on the women to have babies, have babies, have babies. Or to try to “bribe” couples with lucky draws and milk powder redemption.

If we really want to address this issue it’s time to look for different answers. What needs to change so that couples who want kids feel like they can do so? And if they don’t want to have kids, how else can we sustain our country?

We got many problems in this country, but my empty uterus ain’t one.

The writer is a journalist, blogger, and activist who has written for The Huffington Post, Asian Correspondent, and The Online Citizen. This piece was first published on her blog and is re-posted here with her kind permission. 


  1. Sureesh

    There are other reasons why some people would not want to have children. Take me for example. Born with a learning difficulty and related developmental problem, I had it tough in Singapore, in the school system and in the army serving National Service. In the army one officer had loaded his rifle and threatened me with it because I could perform well in a particular exercise. It didn’t do much for my self-esteem. I am in late forties now. I wouldn’t want to have children in this country.

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