Lee Hsien Loong, who is tipped to become prime minister later this year, said getting people to have more babies would be one of his administration's top three priorities for 2004, the Straits Times newspaper reported on Monday.

Singapore's current birth rate is 1.37 babies per woman. To maintain the current population of 4 million, an average birth rate of 2.1 is needed.

From January to October last year, 31,171 babies were born - a fall of 2447 over the same period in 2002, the paper said.

"We (already) have all these procreation incentives, we have tax rebates, we have all sorts of things," the newspaper quoted Lee as saying.

Incentives

"We (already) have all these procreation incentives, we have tax rebates, we have all sorts of things. We have to change people's mindsets so they think of making babies as something that's happy"

Lee Hsien Loong,
Singapore leader

The government provides incentives of up to $3530 for couples when they have their third child.

It also offers tax breaks and child care facilities and even runs a dating agency, the Social Development Unit, to bring young people together.

"We have to change people's mindsets so they think of making babies as something that's happy," Lee added.

The government has blamed the falling birth rate on adults putting their careers before having a family and an economic downturn.

The newspaper said Lee declined to elaborate on what new incentives he would implement to boost the birth rate.

Lee is the son of Singapore's founding father Lee Kuan Yew and last year was named as the successor to Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong.

Priorities

Lee said the two other priorities for the year were restructuring the economy and ensuring his ascension to prime minister was smooth, the paper said.

The government has often talked about shifting the economy from being heavily reliant on manufacturing to other industries, such as biomedical sciences, arts and the media as it faces increasing competition from India and China.

The paper quoted Lee as also saying the government was looking for its citizens to get more involved in the running of the country.

"We're wanting more diversity, to be more varied and rich culturally in terms of expression, in terms of views," the paper quoted him as saying.

Critics charge Singapore's economic growth has been placed before basic civil liberties and the pace of change has been glacially slow.