(Delivered in Parliament on 9 May 2016)
Madam Speaker, the birth rate in Singapore seems to be recovering from record lows. In 2010, we hit our lowest number of citizen births at just over 30,000 babies born. In 2012, in the Chinese zodiac Year of the Dragon, citizen births increased to over 33,000 babies. The good news is that citizen births in the last two years have matched the auspicious Year of the Dragon. In fact, last year citizen births almost hit 34,000 babies, the highest in a decade. The Total Fertility Rate or TFR is hovering around 1.25, off the low of 1.16 in 2010.
There is some hope that we have turned the corner with regards to falling birth rates. However, it is still too early to tell whether the increased birth rate is a trend or a temporary rise due to positive sentiments brought out by the SG50 jubilee celebrations. I think we can be cautiously optimistic. I will touch on the optimistic part first.
Addressing Structural Obstacles to Higher Birth Rates
I am optimistic because I believe the Government has been addressing the structural obstacles to higher birth rates. In 2013, The Workers’ Party, in response to the Government’s Population White Paper, published its own population policy paper after the White Paper debate in this House. In The Workers’ Party’s paper, we elaborated on seven obstacles that stood in the way of higher birth rates.
One, lack of work-life balance. Two, escalating housing costs. Three, income inequality. Four, stressful education system. Five, gender inequality in the family with regards to housework and childcare. Six, pro-birth policies favouring higher income families. Seven, discrimination towards single parent families.
The Government has been addressing some of these issues in the last few years. With this Bill, the Government is further enhancing paternity leave and is also addressing the last two structural obstacles that we have brought up: discrimination towards single parent families and pro-birth policies favouring higher income families.
We have been arguing that, while having children inside of marriage should continue to be encouraged, the children born to unwed parents should not be denied the benefits that children of married parents received. We believe no children deserve to be disadvantaged and psychologically damaged for the norms their parents break.
Clause 2(b) of this Bill expands the eligibility of the Child Development Account co-savings scheme to “any other child” without amending the purpose of the Act, which is to “encourage married women to have more children”. This amendment achieves the dual goals of encouraging births within marriage without discriminating against the children of unwed parents that we have called for.
We have also argued that the CDA scheme privileges higher income families with the spare cash to put away into the CDA. Middle income families just managing to make ends meet to support three children would need to lock up $24,000 in the CDA to reap the full benefits of dollar-for-dollar matching from the Government. Furthermore, as the quantum increases from $6,000 for each of the first two children, to $12,000 each for the third and fourth child, and $18,000 each for the fifth child and beyond, this encourages higher income couples who could make the larger savings to have more children.
The new CDA First Step grant of $3,000 addresses this issue of inequality we have highlighted by establishing baseline savings for all children regardless of household income background. It is a good first step by the Government in addressing the inequalities facing families seeking to have children. Because equality matters.
Lessons of Caution
While there are reasons to be optimistic because of the Government’s policy reversals and advancement, we should be very cautious in our optimism. We have the benefit of hindsight in the struggle against low birth rates for nearly 30 years now. Singapore’s TFR fell below the replacement level of 2.1 in 1976 and reached the first low of 1.4 in 1986. In 1987, the Government’s policy reversal from promoting birth control to encouraging Singaporeans to have more children helped push up the birth rate in the following years. Many of the young couples having children today were born during that mini-baby boom caused by the policy reversal. However, the TFR resumed its gradual decline in the 1990’s to hit the low of 1.4 in 2001 again. In reaction to the plunging TFR, the Government launched the Baby Bonus scheme, which slowed the decline. But the decline continued through the 2000’s till TFR reached the lowest in 2010.
What are the lessons here? First, the Government’s pro-birth policy is important and can be effective in halting or slowing down birth rate declines. However, most of the pro-birth policy changes have been reactive rather than proactive. The 1987 reversal reacting to the low in 1986, the Baby Bonus scheme reacting to the low in 2001, and the enhancements in the last few years reacting to the lowest in 2010. This reactiveness limits the effectiveness of pro-birth policies.
Instead of reacting to plunges and new lows in birth rates, I believe the Government should set a target of achieving a TFR of 1.4 in 2020 and a TFR of 1.7 by 2030. This will change the tone of the issue from being marked as a demographic problem to be struggled with to a performance target to be achieved, on par with many of the Government’s socio-economic policies. After all, the TFR is as much a socio-economic issue as it is a demographic issue.
The other lesson to be had here is that policies need to go beyond the carrot-and-stick approach and take a whole-of-government approach to be effective over the long run. In this respect, there is one dot that the Government has not connected to the birth rate issue and it should. One major reason why pro-birth policies seem to be swimming against the tide in the 1990’s and 2000’s was because Singaporeans experienced growing socio-economic inequality and lingering gender inequality in those two decades. Equality matters for increasing birth rates. This has been shown in many studies in other developed countries. On this issue, I would like to make three points.
First, gender equality matters a whole lot. As more fathers take on more responsibility in childcare, pro-birth policies such as those promoting flexi-work arrangements should adapt to help fathers realise their parenting aspirations. As employer and management mindsets start to change due to the Government’s promotion of flexi-work arrangements through the Work-Life Grant, it would be important to help mould the new mindsets to emphasize flexi-work arrangements are not meant only or mainly for working mothers, but should be made as accessible to working fathers too.
In this respect, the Government will need to change its own mindset that establishes a hard association between mothers and child care. The Additional Child Care Subsidy for working mothers should be made gender-neutral and extended to working fathers, so that lower-income female homemakers with several children or elderly dependents are not denied the subsidy and could provide better care to the dependents.
The Government should also consider rewording Section 3, Subsection 1(a), which I quoted earlier, to “encourage married couples to have more children”, instead of “married women”. This is so as to emphasise in our laws that the State does not place the burden of birth rates and thus the blame of low births solely on the motivations of women but recognise that the decision to have children and the raising of children is the shared responsibility of both spouses. The wording of the Child Development Co-Savings Act should be thoroughly looked at to emphasise this shared responsibility to have and raise more children.
Also, since the Act has expanded beyond the original monetary co-savings carrot, the Government could also consider renaming the Act to reflect the contents more accurately and better symbolically, perhaps as the Family Life Promotion Act.
Second, we should extend the equality of benefits to all men and women who are parents of Singaporean children as far as possible. This includes single unwed parents and also the non-citizen spouses of Singaporeans. This may not seem related to the birth rates of married citizen couples at first glance. But we are all social beings living in communities of shared interests in the first instance, not detached individuals with selfish interests. As we have seen in this House, members from across the political spectrum have strongly empathised with single unwed mothers. There is something universal in this sentiment, as those of us who have or aspire to have children cannot bear to see other children suffer through no fault of their own. Extending equality to all parents of Singaporean children cultivates positive sentiment for having babies and raising children.
Extending eligibility for the CDA co-savings grant to the children of single unwed parents is a good first step. The next step is to consider extending the Baby Bonus Cash Gift to the same children, but perhaps to be deposited into the CDA so that the grant may be locked up for the sole benefit of the children.
It is also a good time to look at the housing needs of children of single unwed parents. As it is, this group of single parents is prevented from buying a new or resale HDB flat until they are 35 years old to go under the Single Singapore Citizen Scheme. This creates an unacceptable inequality where permanent residents benefit more from HDB home ownership than a group of citizens. More importantly, the children are denied a stable physical and social environment to grow up in to focus on their schooling and playing.
The empathy for suffering Singaporean children and their parents also extends to non-citizen spouses who struggle with residential security due to the need to constantly renew visit passes. The Government should alleviate the stress and separation anxieties faced by the Singaporean spouses and children in such situations. I reiterate The Workers’ Party’s call for foreign spouses of Singaporean citizens be given priority for citizenship naturalisation after five years on the Long Term Visit Pass Plus.
Third, socio-economic equality matters. Singaporeans are economically rational and both short-term and long-term financial security affects their decisions to have more babies. The CDA First Step grant is a welcome move towards narrowing the gap in child development resources between low-income and high-income households. The Government should bring this policy move to its logical conclusion by automatically allocating to the CDA a standardised $10,000 for each child. It is then up to the parents to match the grant by topping up the CDA up to another $10,000 to earn higher interest and earmark savings for the child’s education and well-being. The Government could create incentives for parents to make the additional savings by making the savings eligible for income tax reliefs.
The reason we are calling for a standardised grant for each child instead of the stepwise $6,000, $12,000 and $18,000 formula for the CDA grants is because short-term financial security is a factor, especially for low-income and middle-income households. The stepwise formula is meant to be carrots to entice parents to have three babies or more. But it ignores the fact that the immediate stress and cost of raising existing children would put off parents from deciding on a third baby. Giving a bigger grant for the existing children would alleviate the immediate stress, encourage a healthy family life and persuade parents that it is worth the while to have a third child and more.
Equalising the grants would also remove an artificial inequality within the family created by the policy. With the current policy, the third and fourth child could receive up to $12,000 more savings and grants compared to the first and second child, and the fifth child onwards could received up to $24,000 more. This means that the older children would have less funds benefitting their education and well-being compared to the younger children.
Madam Speaker, I am cautiously optimistic that we are at the crossroads of turning around our declining birth rates. I am cautiously optimistic that the Government has finally found the verve after three decades to stop blaming Singaporeans for not choosing to have babies and to start addressing the structural obstacles to enable Singaporeans to have more babies. As the lessons of three decades show, the Government cannot be reactive towards lower birth rates and should be proactive to aim for higher birth rates. And as the Government seeks to enable and empower Singaporeans to have more babies, please remember these two words as a key principle to guide pro-birth policy: equality matters. On this note, I support the Bill.