With Birthrate Falling, Singapore Targets ‘Lifestyle Impotency’

Ellen Nakashima, Washington Post, Sep. 11

SINGAPORE—Sarah Wee and James Ng are the quintessential career couple. Married only a year, the sparkly Wee is a media executive at a large ad agency. Ng, clean-cut in a blue button-down, is an asset manager with a property investment firm. They own a condo, a $42,000 car and two dogs, a Maltese and a Shih Tzu.

They have a bright future, a future that includes children—but not just yet.

That is the quandary Singapore faces as it tries to boost its anemic birthrate. The government, fearing that the tiny, prosperous city-state will shrink into oblivion, has recently adopted a series of incentives to encourage people to have not just one or two but three or more children.

Officialdom here once rewarded parents who voluntarily sterilized themselves. Now it’s offering three-month paid maternity leaves, up to several thousand dollars in graduated baby bonuses and co-savings plans, and tax breaks for nannies and grandparents who take care of children.

Those incentives may nudge couples such as Wee and Ng. Wee, 28, had been thinking of having one or two babies. But with the new policy, she said, maybe she will have more.

“It seems a bit easier to have children,” she said over dinner at a restaurant in a glittering downtown shopping mall. But, she added, “I don’t want to quit my job and stay at home.”

Singapore’s birthrate has sunk to an all-time low of 1.25 babies per woman. Raising it has become a national cause, as significant as the fight against terrorism. If the birthrate continues to wane, officials warn, the workforce will shrink. There will be fewer people to support a growing elderly population and to sustain the military that protects this 400-square-mile island sandwiched between Indonesia and Malaysia. Singapore’s vaunted tiger economy will whimper.

The government is loosening immigration rules, too. But a premium will always be placed on native-born Singaporean citizens, officials said.

“This is a matter of values, not of incentives,” the new prime minister, Lee Hsien Loong, said in a recent National Day speech. “We want people to have babies because you want them and you love them. It’s part of a happy family life. “

“Singapore. A Great Place for Families,” declared a two-page color spread in the Straits Times newspaper promoting the baby perks. The paper also brimmed with articles about new measures to encourage a “balanced family life,” including a shorter workweek for government employees—five days instead of five and a half—and guidelines for ending discrimination against working women who want babies.

A government parenthood hotline has logged about 1,000 calls a day since it was set up last month. A parenthood Web site has drawn about 80,000 hits.

To succeed, the government must remake the social attitudes that come with greater affluence, as well as the resistance to having children that the state itself fostered a generation ago.

In the 1960s, when Singapore had just gained its independence from Britain, having six children was common. In the 1970s, worried that the population was growing too fast, the government began a “Stop At Two” policy, using tax and other incentives to curb family growth.

The birthrate started to drop, mainly among educated women.

Realizing the birth pattern was becoming socially lopsided, the government reversed itself, trying to encourage educated women to have more babies. But by 1987, the overall birthrate was still falling, so the state introduced its “Have three or more if you can afford it” policy and, more recently, cash bonuses for second and third babies. But births continued to dwindle.

A major reason for the decline, sociologists and doctors say, is stress. Singaporeans are so focused on work that they have less sex than people in other countries and therefore fewer babies, said Victor Goh, an obstetrician and fertility expert at National University Hospital who conducted a study on sexual habits in 2002.

Goh calls this condition “lifestyle impotency.” People had “nothing wrong with the mechanics of sex but were just too stressed out in life” to mate, he said.

Stress is the byproduct of the government’s push to keep the economy growing, noted Chua Beng Huat, a sociology professor at the National University of Singapore. “One of the most radical things you can do in Singapore is be contented with your life,” he said. “That means you won’t compete like hell for the next dollar. The ability of the government to maintain its competitive edge economically will collapse.”

So, he said, people have been conditioned to excel. In a state known for banning chewing gum (recently relaxed to exclude medicinal gum) and spitting in public, people have bought into the work ethic almost as a national duty.

Wee landed a job at Saatchi & Saatchi, a leading advertising agency, when she was 21, then went to Murdoch University in Perth, Australia, to earn a mass communications degree. When she came back, she returned to the advertising world and now is what is known as a “media palette” executive with Dentsu Singapore, helping clients target audiences by choosing appropriate media. If she takes time off now to have a baby, she said, her career will suffer.

“In Singapore, when you are older, job opportunities are not really there for you,” she said as her husband, sitting next to her, nodded. “When you hit your late thirties, it’s more difficult. Your demand is not there anymore.”

Ng, 31, obtained an engineering degree at the University of Glasgow. Then he returned to Singapore, found a job, and studied nights, often until 2 a.m., to earn a master’s degree in real estate from the National University of Singapore. Now, he works for Mapletree Investments, doing financial modeling to figure what development mix will make a property profitable. “So it’s pretty stressful at work,” he said.

The couple eat out every weeknight because they can afford to and because Wee is often at her desk until 9 or 10 p.m., make dining at home difficult. They have cell phones and broadband Internet service at home. At some point, they want a full-fledged Chinese wedding with a big banquet, because their original wedding was a civil ceremony.

“We are so used to a double income,” Ng said. “When she becomes a full-time mother, we will become a single-income family. I don’t know whether we’re prepared for that.”

According to Goh, if the government wants to boost birthrates, it must get people to have children earlier. A woman’s fertility peaks in her late teens and early twenties, he said. “It’s already a bit late,” conceded Wee, who turns 29 in October. But rather than rush into having a child, she said, “we want everything to be perfect.”

Ng and Wee, a teasingly playful couple who met through their church, voiced another concern that makes them think twice about having children: the stress placed on children in Singapore’s exam-focused schools, what Ng called a “rat race.” He bemoaned the way parents compete to see whose child has more spelling worksheets in nursery school and how parents take part in lotteries to get their children into the best grade schools.

“If they don’t get a place for their child, they actually cry,” Wee chimed in.

In the end, that concern might delay, but not prevent them from having children, Ng said.

Wee and Ng are one step ahead in at least one respect. They are married. To raise its birthrate, the state is also trying to get more singles to pair off. Through its Social Development Unit—whose initials, goes the joke, stand for Single, Desperate and Ugly—the government tries to match singles using speed dating and Chinese zodiac dates. Its Web site, www.lovebyte.org.sg, offers dates via cell-phone text messaging, as well as information on the baby bonuses.

The government is not alone in pushing parenthood. A Singapore doctor, Wei Siang Yu, known as Dr. Love, is producing a reality television show for the Asia-Pacific region in which couples compete to be the first to conceive.

In the end, who knows if all these efforts will bear fruit?

“We’ll just let nature take its course,” Wee said.

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