Solving Singapore’s Fertility Woes: Why Money Isn’t Everything

Solving Singapore's Fertility Woes Why Money Isn't Everything

The government had recently announced a $2 billion Marriage and Parenthood package to increase the fertility rate of Singapore.

The government had also said that they would be making two more announcements along the course of the week. One would be on how “we (are able to) meet those aspirations for good jobs, while at the same time, meet the social and infrastructural needs of Singapore, particularly when we are facing this very rapidly ageing population.” The next is on “how to ensure a high quality living environment for Singaporeans.”

I applaud the government to want to look into a ‘high quality living environment’. For this article, we will be looking purely at numbers to identify what a “high quality living environment” should entail, so that we can achieve the outcomes that we hope for.

In the table above, you will see a comparison of the different statistics of some countries I’ve chosen to take a look at. I’ve chosen Hong Kong because Singapore and Hong Kong have many parallels and similarities. I’ve also chosen to look at the United Kingdom, France and Germany because they are three of the key economies in Europe. I’ve selected Norway and Denmark because the Scandinavian countries are considered leading examples on their policies for increasing fertility rates. Finally, I’ve also chosen Australia and New Zealand as two countries in the region who have always been ranked highly on their standards of living.

In the table, I’ve highlighted in bright yellow boxes the countries with the best rating in the segment, and in pale yellow boxes the countries with the second best rating. I’ve highlighted in the dark red boxes the countries with the worst rating and in pale red the countries with the second best rating.

As you can see, Singapore, as well as Hong Kong, fares badly among the countries, though Singapore does well in one aspect – we have the second highest Gross National Income, after accounting for purchasing power parity. You can also see that both the Scandinavian countries score the best in many of the categories.

If you look at the fertility rate, Singapore and Hong Kong have the lowest fertility rates, while New Zealand, France and the United Kingdom have the highest fertility rates among the countries in comparison. Denmark and Norway also have respectable fertility rates.

Just by looking at the numbers along, the statistics already tell an interesting story. The Scandinavian countries work the shortest hours, and therefore could also achieve the highest GDP per hour worked. They are also ranked as having the best work-life balance, the highest proportion of a population who have positive emotions and are also ranked as having the most personal freedom. Their real wage growth is also one of the fastest, while their income inequality, as measured by the Gini coefficient, is the lowest.

As for Singapore and Hong Kong, we work the world’s longest hours and have the poorest work-life balance (this is an extrapolation, based on the scores of Japan and South Korea, because of the similar nature of their economies). Also, Singapore and Hong Kong has the highest income inequality, lowest wage growth and have the lowest proportion of their populations which show positive emotions, and are rated as the people with the least personal freedom, as compared to the other countries in this table.

Just by looking at the numbers, one way to surmise why the Scandinavian countries are able to have a high fertility rate is because they have a socially equitable society, where they are accorded enough time for their own personal time and also have the most autonomy to be who they want to be – I will interpret this to be that their governments are more open and less authoritarian and the people are able to vocalized themselves more freely and openly.

Conversely, you can see that the reason why Singapore and Hong Kong continue to have the lowest fertility rates in the world because we do not have enough time for ourselves, our societies are highly unequal and we feel that our freedom is constricted, with governments which are controlling.

The interesting thing is that, for all these four countries, they are ranked as the richest countries in this table. Yet, their destinies are different. One way to explain this is that even though Singapore and Hong Kong are rich, their income distribution is highly unequal, and there is a larger proportion of Singaporeans and people in Hong Kong who are disadvantaged. But, we might be asking the wrong question.

If we look at New Zealand, they are an oddball. New Zealand is the least well off, among the countries compared, yet it has the highest fertility rate. Also, they have the highest level of autonomy and also have the second highest proportion of people who have positive emotions.

At this point, some things stand out – what this suggests could be that money isn’t the main consideration as to whether people want to raise a family. Singapore and Hong Kong are rich, yet the people are not interested to raise families. What then is more important? Just looking at the statistics, the main motivations are when people have enough time for themselves, when they have autonomy to be their own person and when they live in a highly egalitarian society, they are more likely to exhibit positive emotions, and are then more willing to bring bundles of joy into their lives.

If this is the case, when the government speaks of a “high quality environment”, they would need to ensure that this environment also satisfies the following criteria:

– Shorter working hours
– Government intervention to ensure that wealth accumulation by the rich does not adversely affect the poor
– Freedom of rights for people to be able to express themselves and to think, without the fear that they might be criminalized or threatened with law suits for what they say

Just by looking at the numbers alone, you can easily pinpoint what the main issues are and what needs to be adjusted to achieve the ultimate goal – higher fertility rates.

Then, the question is, will the government want to do this?

1) Will the government be willing to shorten work hours? The rationale behind having higher working hours could be that the government is concerned that if work hours are shortened, people might become ‘lazy’ – we’ve heard them say this before – and thus they might want to keep the people working as long as they can. The government might also want to have long work hours, so that it seems to investors that Singapore is highly committed to ensure economic viability. A skeptic might argue that long working hours are a way to control the people. However, as can be seen in the table, long working hours is highly inefficient as our GDP per hour worked is the lowest. Also, if you look at the table, you could generalize to say that the countries with the shortest working hours are also the ones with the highest productivity. There are thus strong arguments and rationale for the government to reduce work hours, with the goal of increasing fertility rate, and also, productivity. This means that the government needs to look into not only how to increase our productivity, but to also look into how we can work efficiently. Efficiency needs to start being treated as an equal, when the government champions productivity.

2) Will the government want to regulate the wealth of the rich and protect those in the lower income groups from being disadvantaged? I’m not so sure about this, because the premise of which the government grows Singapore is precisely by allowing the rich to have it easy in Singapore – and that’s why our corporate tax rates are one of the lowest in the world, and how we now have the world’s highest concentration of millionaires. So, can the government accommodate certain changes to ensure a more egalitarian society for Singapore? Would this be aligned to their economic planning principles?

3) Finally, will the government relent on allowing Singaporeans to have more autonomy, so that the people would be able to speak out on their beliefs, to also critique government policies and not fear having to face defamation suits, or resort to self-censorship, and thus compromising on our autonomy? To be clear, this isn’t something the government should or should not allow. The autonomy to be ourselves should be ours regardless, so why we are letting the government dictates our moves is something we need to ask ourselves. Where did it go wrong that we stopped owning our rights?

So, finally, the question boils down to whether the government is willing to adopt approaches which will contrast with the model of capitalism that they are currently taking, which have benefitted a few but marginalized a growing group of lower income earners and result in increasing income and social inequalities, and whether they will be bold and confident enough to make adjustments to shorten work hours and give back to the people their autonomy.

Essentially, what this article is saying is – the fundamental reason why the government’s goal of increasing fertility rate in Singapore will never happen is because the government’s fundamental governing principles will not allow them to adopt approaches which are essential to increasing fertility rate. Thus if the government is serious about increasing the fertility rate in Singapore, they need to relook their governing model and principles.

Question is, will they?


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