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Singapore is a Southeast Asian city-state with a population of approximately 5.7 million. Over the past few decades, Singapore’s population demographics have been backward shifting as birth and mortality rates have been rapidly declining, leading to a great increase in the average age of her population. Since the 1970s, Singapore’s birth rate has been below a replacement rate of roughly two children per women over her childbearing years. For a small nation that relies largely on manpower as a major resource, the low replacement birth rate is a great cause of concern for both Singapore’s government and her people. Ultimately, falling fertility rates and rising singlehood have become a detrimental norm. The fertility rate is the main topic for this paper that analyse the state’s response to the population predicament and critically analyse the capability of these interventions.
Singapore has had its reputable record of sustained economic growth over the past five decades. From 1965-2000, Singapore’s per capita GDP rose on a high yearly average of 5.8 percent, making it to be one of the top countries to have the highest economic growth rates in the world. Undoubtedly, as Singapore thrived to be an economic powerhouse in Asia, her economic and social policy involved a high degree of government orchestration as it moulded the “every-day” life of Singaporeans. Progressing from a third-world nation to the first world, Singapore’s population trends strictly followed suit. Singapore’s post-independence period between the years of 1965 and 1975 saw the government heading towards urban renewal, socioeconomic planning and extensive industrialization. Unfortunately, at that time, the country was tormented with its large-scale unemployment, increase in population and shortage of urban housing.
As a solution to the country’s widespread unemployment, the government created economic opportunities through its expansion in manufacturing industries and the conversion of agricultural space to industrial parks. With more jobs created and high demand for a skilled labour force, formal education and vocational training was accessible to all – regardless of race or gender and were considered as the only means of social promotion to join the labour force. Women were trained, and soon became an indispensable part of the nation’s labour force. The participation rate of the female labour force rose steadily, from 28.2 percent in 1970 to 44.8 percent in 1984. Men and women alike found themselves with no choice but to adhere to the government’s anti-welfare philosophy.
Family policies implemented by the government were largely focused on population control. The government saw that it was imperative to restrict population growth in order to efficiently utilize its human resources on the country’s economic spreads. In their attempts to do so, the Family Planning and Population Board (FPPB) was formed in 1966, established to be responsible for decreasing Singapore’s birth and net reproduction rate, and in hopes of achieving the ultimate goal of zero-population growth for Singapore. Through the FPFB, a variety of family-planning events were launched and promoted to garner public support for the policy. Among the most prominent activities were the publicity movements that carried slogans such as “Small families, brighter future – Two is enough” and “The more you have, the less they get – Two is enough”. By convincing their people to have smaller families and lesser children, the government believed that it could effectively mitigate the problem of poor-health and overcrowding. In addition, financial incentives, such as free education and health care benefits, were introduced for smaller families whereas financial support stopped for those who had larger families. Singapore’s fertility rate in the years when population control policies were implemented can be seen to have steadily decreased, from 4.46 in 1966 to 2.35 in 1974, indicating that the family policies the government had implemented were successful and had shown fruitful results.
With the shortage of urban housing in Singapore, many were living in unhygienic slums and crowded squatter settlements. The futuristic government deemed it necessary to address the housing crisis as they saw its likelihood in harmfully influencing the people’s productivity. Therefore, in 1960, the Housing & Development Board (HDB) was set up and tasked to solve the housing predicament. HDB aimed to provide “modern homes that were fully equipped with amenities for all who needed them”. From 1964, the HDB began to offer the housing units for sale below their market prices, on a 99-year leasehold basis. Housing units were made affordable for households with lesser incomes and loans too made available to owners. With the attractive “Home Ownership for the People” scheme, many Singaporeans found themselves moving into the HDB flats and enjoying its positive returns of a hygienic and modern standard of living.
Social and cultural factors governing the nation-state at its period of development acted as catalysts for population control. The policies implemented were highly effective but devastating for the nation’s fertility trends. By 1975, replacement-level fertility was reached and by the earlier 1980s, the total fertility rate (TFR) had fallen to below-replacement level. For a small nation, a continuous decline in TFR would eventually translate to a shrinking population. The fall in marriage rates and TFR was most common among women with tertiary education. As a result, it was inevitable that the current population control polices had to be revamped. An attuned approach to population growth was soon introduced where new policies targeted to entice those with better means of living to expand their family size. The motivation behind — that those with higher education would be endowed with better genes, so the union of two graduates should result in “brighter” children.
This period, commonly referred to as the “Eugenics Phase” was unpopular, especially among its target group – the graduate community. New pro-natalist family policies were soon introduced to encourage tertiary educated women to marry and have more children. In 1984, the Social Development Unit (SDU) was set up to provide matchmaking services to single graduates. On the other hand, less educated mothers had been rewarded an SGD$10,000 cash handout if they were to undergo sterilization. In short, during this phase, a two-pronged policy was in place: those who were deemed as capable and able parents were encouraged to have more children and those who were not, were encouraged to stop at two. Unfortunately, the population did not take too well to the new policies, therefore the nation’s TFR continued to dip further. Another notable factor to the decline in TFR was changes in family structure. Extended family arrangements that were ubiquitous in the decade before began to diminish as families relocated from large communal living arrangements to public housing units. Consequently, the nuclearization of Singapore families can be seen as a “natural” consequence of the country’s chase for economic growth and industrialisation.
Following the failure of the social eugenics programme – the number of higher-educated females preferred to remain single or have fewer or no children, new pro-natalist policies were introduced in 1987. The government’s creation of the key slogan, “Have Three Or More Children If You Can Afford It”, was an attempt to avoid the discriminatory tone of the eugenics era, setting a new measure of “affordability”, and concurrently superseding their previous emphasis on education qualifications in the eugenics era. Still, the new policies continued to give benefits to higher-educated mothers, though its primary goal was to provide incentives to married couples to produce more children. The promotion of the new policy came with numerous benefits and policy changes, just like the anti-natalist policies, the government made use of extensive media coverage to campaign in hopes of persuading the public to appreciate the new returns of having more children. The main targets of the campaign were married couples and unmarried singles. Popular slogans such as “Children – Life would be empty without them”; and “The most precious gift you can give your child is a brother or sister” were often accompanied with pictures depicting a happy family, enticing the majority. On the contrary, unmarried singles would often be bombarded with reminders to not leave out building a family for themselves while on their pursuit of career advancement. The government introduced income tax relief for children, childcare subsidies for working mothers, and granting of income tax relief on foreign maid levy for working mothers. In addition to various subsidies, the baby bonus scheme – a two-tier payment involving outright cash and contributions to the Child Development Account was introduced by the government to lighten the financial costs of raising a child.
Fertility has not responded as many hoped, and this may well echo the fact that baby bonuses and tax concessions for children are not substantially adequate to make much of a change in the high monetary costs of raising children. Moreover, the culture in many Singapore workplaces remain unfriendly to those who prioritise family over responsibilities to their company, and this could strongly discourage women from having a child that may tarnish their career prospects and relationships with colleagues. A conceivable solution in the present day would be to possibly rely on migration and foreign talents, in hoping they could aid in increasing the net population.
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