Tuesday, March 09, 2004

Baby talk in Parliament 

The on-going debate in Parliament is supposed to be about the budget, but has been dominated by views on Singapore's procreation problem: Singaporeans are not producing enough babies.

It's a serious problem: Singapore's fertility rate last year was only 1.26, well below replacement rate. At this rate, the country will age rapidly, leading to an imbalance between working-age and elderly people. That in turn may strain the country's economy and finances.

For the debate so far, what is heartening to me is that it has gone beyond just concentrating on financial incentives. Where the government has tended to simply throw money at the problem in the past -- the so-called baby bonus is a good example -- many of the Members of Parliament who have spoken up in the current debate have pointed out that the issue involves intangibles as well. These include things like the pressures of the education system, child-care arrangements and social attitudes.

It's a complicated problem, and thankfully recognised as such. Potential harm resulting from some of the suggested incentives have already been identified. For example, some MPs warned that longer maternity leave, as suggested by some, could actually discourage employers from hiring women.

Most rich, modern societies tend to have declining fertility rates, and Singapore has proven to be no exception. If Singapore fails to reverse the trend, it certainly won't be for want of trying.


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