Singapore offers $300 bonus for second child

Like a bad pick-up line, the Singaporean government's new enticements toward marriage and procreation are being given the cold shoulder.

Facing a declining birth rate, shrinking workforce, and the pressure to remain one of the healthiest and fastest- growing economies in the world, Singapore last month announced measures designed to encourage would-be couples and parents. New programs include "baby bonus" savings accounts, flex-time for civil servants, and co-ed university lodging.

But after more than a decade, low-key policies have failed to reverse low birth-rates. Gen-Xers - women in particular - "see that life doesn't have to be about kids and looking after the mother-in-law," says Angelique Chan, an American sociologist at the National University of Singapore.

Singaporeans weren't producing enough children to stop the population from falling 13 years ago when the government last tried to tackle the problem. Since then, the annual fertility rate has plunged further, to 1.48 children per woman from 1.62, although this varies among the three main ethnic groups in Singapore: Chinese, Malays, and Indians.

The new programs neatly fit Singapore's traditional cultural values and modern materialist bent. Financial carrots are a key plank of these policies. The government will fund savings accounts for parents who have a second child - nearly $300 a year for up to six years - and twice that much for the third child. Maternity leave, previously limited to the first two children, will now be granted to women having a third child. More and cheaper child-care facilities are on the way. And the Civil Service, the Lion City's biggest employer, will give three days of marriage leave, and three days of paternity leave, plus offer more flextime and telecommuting to help parents care for their children.

"The Singapore government tends to be very pragmatic, so they're picking policies that will appeal to Singaporeans," says Dr. Chan.

But unfortunately for the government, babies and even marriage clash with the dynamic lifestyles of many young Singaporeans. And the pro-marriage, pro-baby talk from officials isn't persuading many women to change priorities. Unimpressed is Serene Chiu, a divorce who cares for a young daughter and produces television commercials for a global ad agency: "Many of the new measures are basic needs that should already be mandatory," she says.

Chrys Chua, a home stylist, didn't see much to shout about either. "It's not that attractive, people aren't that tempted," she says at a busy outdoor cafe in the leafy Orchard Road shopping district.

To Chan, sitting behind a broad desk in her crowded office, where photos of her daughter and husband fill spare space, these attitudes come as little surprise. "There's a lot more cynicism than there used to be, in part because of globalization and the Internet," she says.

Thirty years ago, opportunities for Singaporean women outside the home were limited. Since then, education levels have risen, and opportunities have grown to match those men take for granted. "In earlier days there was an economic necessity for women to get married, which isn't there anymore," says Yap Mui Teng, of the Institute of Policy Studies, an independent think tank established by the government.

Such obstacles lower Singapore's chances of success where other countries - such as Italy and Spain - have failed in stemming plunging fertility rates. Even Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong admitted as much in his key National Day Rally speech in August: "I don't know one country with falling birth rates where pro-natalist policies have worked," says Chan.

Which leaves Singapore facing the politically awkward prospect of opening its doors to more immigrants. Census results recently revealed that Singapore's population is above 4 million for the first time, due to an increase in foreign workers: In Singapore, 1 in 5 people is now a foreigner.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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