“The dismal situation could have reached a stage where cultural and mindset shifts – especially at the workplace – are required to turn things around” (Incentives ‘Not Enough’ To Nudge Singaporeans To Marry, Have Children, Joy Fang and Louisa Tang).
The findings by the Institute of Policy Studies (IPS) – that “despite greater awareness of the enhancements to the Marriage and Parenthood Package in 2013, the slew of incentives were deemed to be less conducive in nudging Singaporeans to tie the knot and have more children” (TODAY, Jul. 7) – brings to mind the remarks made by the late Mr. Lee Kuan Yew in 2013. In his book “One Man’s View of the World”, Mr. Lee spoke of the intent to introduce a huge baby bonus not to boost the low fertility rates, but to “prove that super-sized monetary incentives would only have a marginal effect on [these rates]”, and that the low birth rates in Singapore “have nothing to do with economic or financial factors”.
And in this vein, the results of the IPS survey are an affirmation of sorts. After a certain point couples stop responding to these incentives, and it is a problem which plagues the more economically developed countries too. In May this year, a study by German auditing firm BDO and the Hamburg Institute of International Economics reported that Germany has the lowest birth rate in the world, even after years of government investments in monetary benefits and childcare support. Likewise in Singapore – as IPS research fellow Christopher Gee pointed out – while annual spending on the Baby Bonus has increased substantially from S$500 million to S$2 billion, there is little to show for”.
Nevertheless, Mr. Gee believes that there will be a pick-up in the birth rate, as women who are born after a “pro-natalist policy stance” in Singapore are now heading into their 30s. Although beyond that, closer attention can be paid to the long-term (opportunity) costs of raising a child. The implications of rising costs of living notwithstanding, childcare services could be made more affordable and accessible, thereby allowing parents to balance work and family. Mindset shifts at the workplace should also involve discussions about work culture, or arrangements which discourage couples from having children.
Antiquated gender stereotypes remain entrenched. A plethora of anecdotes allude to unfair expectations and about-turns in attitudes or promotion opportunities, and perhaps a more rigorous study could detail the difficulties faced by mothers at the workplace.
Throwing money at the persisting problem has not worked, and besides these material incentives considerations such as social benefits and long-term parental support should be part of the discourse. For instance, the effectiveness of paternity leave has not been ascertained yet. We could “invest resources to help the younger generations see the innate joy of parenthood”, but fundamentally most young Singaporeans like myself are pragmatic, and unless we are confident of giving out children a good life, we will not take the plunge.