Children make you richer, not poorer

Family ranks above anything else, says guest columnist Charles Tan Meah Yang.
Family ranks above anything else, says guest columnist Charles Tan Meah Yang.

I had to make a little detour on my trip around Europe recently. The husband of my aunt, who has lived in Germany for the best part of half a century, had died in his sleep over the weekend. As she has no children and I was the closest family within easy reach, the burden of responsibility fell on me to ensure that she was all right and to assist in her plans to move back to Malaysia, where her siblings live.

A loved one's passing invariably evokes feelings of shock and grief, and is also a time for reflection about priorities, purpose and life in general. It is regrettable that, given our increasingly manic and materialistic lives, we often get so caught up in the rat race that we don't give ourselves any time for introspection until an event such as a death in the family forces us to.

Spending a week with my childless aunt, and seeing the help pour in from her vast support network of siblings in her time of need, I was made to rethink the value of not just family in general, but large families in particular - even as I prepare to start my own in the near future.

I grew up in Singapore. Doing so as an only child had its benefits. It meant that I never had to share anything (such as clothes, toys and parental attention), but also I never learnt the joy of sharing. I never had a sister to coach me on dating or a brother to play basketball with, and there were countless instances when I wished I had the counsel of a sibling because there are just some things you don't ask or tell your parents about.

In contrast, my mother had 15 siblings, of whom the aunt in Germany is one. She recounts that life in Singapore was very hard back then, rebuilding in the aftermath of World War II. Having so many mouths to feed was not helpful either. While my mum's large family size is probably an extreme example, the fertility rate was 5.8 back in 1960, compared with the 1.2 it sits at today.

In their final days, my grandparents were surrounded by their children and grandchildren, all having taken different paths in life, but all successful in their own right. And my grandparents must have been so proud and happy in the knowledge that, even as they were leaving this world and their material possessions behind, they would live on through us, for we are their legacy.

This significant reduction in fertility can be partially explained by lower infant mortality, higher economic productivity and other positive developments that have reduced the need to have large numbers of children. However, it would seem the decline in fertility is also in many ways a voluntary one: Contraceptive use has increased with rising education levels, many couples will use the "quality over quantity" argument to justify having just one or two children and some singles cite the rising cost of living as a reason they cannot afford a family at all.

The last point requires greater reflection. Because while it is not wrong to say that the cost of living has indeed risen in absolute terms, compared with the situation 50 years ago, Singapore is certainly far ahead in relative terms, and the standard of living enjoyed today is something people in the 1960s could only have dreamt of. To use a crude measure of economic progress, the inflation-adjusted gross domestic product per capita has risen from $1,700 then to $70,000 today.

So if my grandparents, despite their relative poverty, felt comfortable having as many kids as they did, why are we so cautious when it comes to parenthood today?

The answer, I believe, is that our value systems have changed. Speaking with my parents and their friends about "life back then", I get the impression that people from generations past appeared to place the family and community above the self, whereas the opposite is generally true for the younger generations of Singaporeans.

While having many children used to be seen as a source of great pride and even wealth, the modern couple is likely to view kids as a burden (and not just in financial terms) while, ironically, a large family home may be a greater source of pride than a large family in today's context. In essence, we seem to have become a more materialistic and egocentric society.

The cynical among us will say maybe it is all about the availability of alternatives. My grandparents didn't have budget airlines, South Korean soap operas and time-saving devices such as washing machines and microwave ovens. So they didn't have the time, money or option to do anything else. Their world revolved around their families and tending to their needs, not travelling the world or fulfilling their innermost desires. Perhaps, if they had the same options that we have today, they might have made the same selfish choices we make.

However, while I can't speak for others, I believe my grandparents were different. While they were simple people, I think they intuitively understood the value of family. To them, children were not burdens to bear or obligations to fulfil, but long-term investments in sanity and dignity, paying healthy dividends in pride and happiness, each with unknown but unlimited upside potential.

In their final days, my grandparents were surrounded by their children and grandchildren, all having taken different paths in life, but all successful in their own right. And my grandparents must have been so proud and happy in the knowledge that, even as they were leaving this world and their material possessions behind, they would live on through us, for we are their legacy.

As I bade my aunt farewell at the bus station that weekend, it saddened me to think that, with her beloved husband now gone, she would be returning to an empty home, with no family to visit or call. She now regrets not having children, of course, but she lived quite the colourful life when she was young and didn't think it mattered all that much.

If we all thought more deeply about the things that are truly important to us, that give our lives meaning, I am sure the vast majority of us would come to the same conclusion: that family ranks above anything else. Having children will necessarily entail sacrifice, that much is certain, but even if I am poorer - in terms of time, freedom and money - my life will surely be richer for it. That, at least, is the lesson my grandparents have taught me.

• The writer is co-founder of 31-East.com, a start-up that aims to tackle waste, corruption and inefficiency in the property sector.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 22, 2016, with the headline 'Children make you richer, not poorer'. Print Edition | Subscribe