A tale of two fertility approaches

A shift to support young parents by the Government - and singles, too?

It would be good if singles did not resent colleagues taking flexible work arrangements

As the only unmarried reporter on a media delegation to South Korea and Denmark, I was prepared for uncomfortable and unwelcome questions from well-meaning civil servants and the minister in charge of population matters, Mrs Josephine Teo.

After all, she and the National Population and Talent Division (NPTD) staffers on the week-long trip were studying marriage and parenthood policies.

Singapore has been trying to raise its birth rate for decades, and it was their job to encourage more Singaporeans to have children.

 
 

And I, a female in my mid-20s already past the prime of my reproductive years, was an obvious target. But to my surprise there was no overwhelming pressure on me to get married and have children, which I appreciated.

Sure, there was a casual joke of "Ha, ha, we should sign you up for a Korean dating agency".

But by and large, the NPTD focused on how to encourage married couples wanting kids, to have them.

If we can accept that men have to be away at reservist training for a fortnight every year, why can't we accept that fathers will also be away for just as long after their children are born?

It seems that the Government has realised the chances of success in coaxing singles to marry and have babies are low. Many of us are uninterested or not ready, and the decision to have children is still some way off.

Instead, the Government is more likely to succeed by giving support to young parents - a welcome shift, in my opinion.

This shift in emphasis could be seen in how the delegation queried think-tanks, childcare operators, government officials and parents about infantcare options for working mums, and flexible work arrangements.

All this was with a view to make it easier for young parents to juggle work and family.

They also consulted policymakers, employers and researchers on how to increase the take-up rate of paternity leave.


It makes more sense for the Government to set its sights on how to lighten the concerns of parents or married couples who are on the fence when it comes to children, instead of coaxing all couples to marry and have children. PHOTO: ST FILE

During the trip, the delegation also visited a dating agency in South Korea where, like Singapore, young people are getting married later and having fewer children.

But transplanting this dating culture to Singapore appeared to be low on the list of priorities.

When asked if young Singaporeans could and should be encouraged to date earlier, Senior Minister of State Josephine Teo said: "I think we have to respect individual choices, and individual decision-making."

Instead, she thought that the Government should focus its attention on helping couples who do marry earlier, and who do have more children, to enjoy parenting.

Parenting should be something achievable, enjoyable and celebrated, said Mrs Teo, a mother of three.

"Hopefully, these positive role models will inspire other young people to not forget that, as they pursue their career aspirations, it is also possible to pursue their family aspirations. That both can be done at the same time."

This softer approach is a far cry from the initial raison d'etre of the Social Development Unit, set up in 1984 and now known as the Social Development Network.

The government body encourages dating and used to coax all couples to marry and have children. But its mission never quite took off, and it remains unpopular today.

Heave-handed haranguing is also not helpful. In fact, the public still responds negatively to it.

In February, for example, voluntary organisation I Love Children took out advertisements in train stations urging people to conceive earlier while they are more fertile. The ads, which featured cartoon sperm and slogans like "Women are born with a finite number of eggs", were criticised and the organisation was accused of fear-mongering.

TARGETING THE 'MAYBE BABY' GROUP

It makes much more sense for the Government to set its sights on how to lighten the concerns of parents, or married couples who are on the fence when it comes to children.

These are people working out how many children they can afford, and whether they are up to the challenge of having another little one to care for. They know very well the pressing questions of whether there is an infantcare centre nearby if they want to return to work, and the amount they need to set aside for fees.

Which is not to say that singles are completely isolated from young parents and off the hook, either.

In lieu of having children ourselves, what we could do is be more supportive of those who do.

In Korea, officials and researchers said repeatedly that many young people found it hard to work and parent at the same time.

The workplace culture there values long hours spent at work, so young parents feel pressured to not take up parental leave or flexible work arrangements.

These parents fear they will be perceived as inconsiderate slackers who increase their colleagues' workload, by shortening their own working hours to spend more time with their kids. Small wonder then that only 2 per cent of Korean dads take paternity leave.

Let's not be like that in Singapore. We can all be a little kinder and more understanding.

Already, there are anecdotal tales here of unsupportive employers.

In a Facebook note last month, Mrs Teo said some new fathers told her that their bosses had hinted their performance grade would be affected, if they took more time off work to care for their babies, on top of their reservist duties.

Yes, some bosses, especially those from small firms, face a genuine manpower shortage. But if we can accept that men have to be away at reservist training for at least a fortnight every year, why can't we accept that fathers will also be away for just as long after their children are born?

Furthermore, it's unlikely that an employee will go on paternity leave every single year, unlike the regularity of reservist training.

As for the rest of us non-bosses in the workplace, it would be good if we did not resent or begrudge colleagues who want to take up flexible work arrangements. Especially not if they strive to be just as productive - albeit at different hours of the day - as before their children came along.

If you want to take a pragmatic perspective, it's these children who will be supporting us when we're old anyway. So, while it's good that the Government is stepping up support for young parents, society should, too.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on April 03, 2016, with the headline 'A tale of two fertility approaches A shift to support young parents by the Government - and singles, too?'. Print Edition | Subscribe