Singapore’s hunger for (some) babies

The government’s attempt to raise Singapore’s birth rate may be leaning too far into social engineering, writes author.

File photo shows babies lying in cots at a maternity ward in Singapore
Despite government incentives for couples to reproduce, the fertility rate in Singapore is still not at the minimum requisite of two children per mother that will ensure its capability of replenishing its population [Reuters]

The Golden Goose was prized for her eggs
That shone in brilliant gold
But there soon came a time she could make them no more
For her egg-making device was rusty and old

Such is the advice from the Golden Goose, informing women that they will have more and more difficulty conceiving a child as they get older.

The Scarecrow from The Wizard of Oz has something to say too – the moral of his story is that men are “biologically wired to like big butts because it indicates fertility”.

Don’t worry if you don’t recognise these stories from your childhood. No one does. These stories have been “remixed” as part of a campaign aimed at encouraging more Singaporeans to start families.

Known as “The Singaporean Fairytale“, the campaign was created by a group of university students and funded by Project Superglue, an initiative of Singapore’s National Family Council.

It’s not the first attempt to persuade reluctant Singaporeans to have babies, and it won’t be the last. Over the years the government has come up with a variety of schemes, from Baby Bonuses, to a government-linked dating network, to dating vouchers that friends and family can buy for their singleton loved ones.

These quixotic efforts have not succeeded in raising the dismal fertility rate – according to the CIA World Factbook, it is estimated to be at 0.79, far from the 2.1 seen as necessary to replenish the population.

But that doesn’t stop the government from trying, so much so that the call to raise the Total Fertility Rate (TFR) has become somewhat of a national in-joke. During last year’s National Day, mint company Mentos released a song on YouTube encouraging Singaporeans to “get it on” and make babies after the National Day Parade. The song was picked up by overseas publications and reported as an official initiative – perhaps a sign that it is increasingly difficult to distinguish between government campaigns and parodies?

The assumptions in the narrative

Campaigns like “The Singaporean Fairytale” are cringe-worthy at best. Beyond that, though, is a complete lack of acknowledgement that such campaigns only speak to a specific group of Singaporeans, marginalising and alienating the rest.


The Stream
‘Singapore for Singaporeans’?

With sex between men still a crime – essentially making homosexuality illegal in Singapore – talk about marriage and starting families remains solely hetero-normative, assuming that the only “right” family is one where a man and a woman marry and have children. The LGBT community is still light-years away from being able to broach the subject of gay marriage, much less adoption.

There is an assumption that marriage is a natural stage of life to which all aspire. A postcard, sent out by the government-supported Social Development Network, played on the stages of evolution, depicting a baby growing into an adult before becoming part of a married couple. Such a narrative assumes that one is not fully accomplished, or even evolved, in life until one is part of a heterosexual marriage.

Young men and women are now being bombarded with “pro-family” messaging, cajoling and coaxing them into getting married and settling down rather than “waiting for all the stars to align”. A married life with children is portrayed as the ultimate desirable outcome, and singles are continually told to get out there and start looking for a spouse. A recent article commissioned by the Singapore Development Network and published in The Straits Times exhorted singles to ask themselves if they were “in circulation or vegetation”.

It’s like constantly being under the gaze of an overzealous aunt, eager to set you up on blind dates with anyone who catches her eye. Young Singaporeans are barely given the time and space to really think about what they want, and with a host of “pro-family” policies – priority in the public housing queue for married couples, parental leave being only applicable to couples who are lawfully married, etc – it sometimes seems like a choice between conforming or working doubly hard. Those who don’t fit into the social norm are more or less left out.

It can be said that every government in the world indulges in some form of social engineering, encouraging its population to work in one way or another. Yet when it comes to the issue of marriage and children, the Singapore government is neither subtle nor flexible; it simply plows on, throwing more money at the problem, launching more campaigns in its quest for more heterosexual nuclear families regardless of what Singaporeans want for themselves.

The ‘unwanted’ children?

The pro-family campaigns also fail to address one important and lesser-known fact: that the government has, for years, enacted policies to restrict the number of children from lower-income families.

The Home Ownership plus Education Scheme, more commonly known as the HOPE Scheme, provides support to poor families in the form of education bursaries, housing grants and mentoring services. However, such an arrangement comes with strings attached: families cannot have more than two children, or they will no longer be eligible for the scheme. Cash incentives are also given out to fund ligation or vasectomy procedures.

One may argue that it makes sense to discourage low-income families from having children they cannot afford, but this goes far beyond mere “discouraging”. The families are in no position to refuse the financial and material assistance offered by the government, and are therefore unlikely to have any other choice but to comply. In this way the HOPE Scheme does not discourage poor families from having less children – it coerces them into doing so.

When it comes to abortion, the same discrimination applies: while counselling – where women are shown ultrasound scans of the foetus in an effort to persuade them not to terminate their pregnancies – is mandatory for women with primary and/or secondary school education, it is not for women who have not finished primary school. These women are able to terminate their pregnancies right away.

There appears to be little justification for such double standards. It leaves one to assume that the children of women with higher education are more “precious” than that of less educated women – so much so that we would go to potentially unethical lengths to persuade an educated woman to keep her baby, but not the less educated.

Such policies reek of eugenicist logic, indicating that while Singapore’s government exhorts its citizens to get hitched and have babies, they are really only interested in babies from specific demographics.

Kirsten Han is a freelance journalist and blogger from Singapore, with an interest in human rights and social justice issues. A social media junkie through-and-through, she is currently a Master’s student in Journalism, Media and Communication at Cardiff University.

Follow her on Twitter: @kixes