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To boost fertility, bridge gender gap

Office workers crossing the road at Robinson Road in the Central Business District after office hours on March 24, 2016.
Office workers crossing the road at Robinson Road in the Central Business District after office hours on March 24, 2016.ST PHOTO: LIM YAOHUI

Much has been said about Singapore's low fertility rate, so perhaps it is time to relook Singapore's family values and see how the demographic crisis might correct itself ("2 weeks of paternity leave to be legislated"; last Sunday).

Consider Europe's history with the same problem. With industrialisation and the liberation of women's rights, more women started placing an emphasis on career over family, with many trying to break the glass ceiling and achieve more gender parity at the workplace.

This resulted in more women getting married later and having children later in life. Fertility rates fell.

The same thing has happened in Singapore.

But in Europe, what happened was that social norms began to shift in the latter part of the 20th century, and even more rapidly in the past few years.

Childcare became more widely available and men started helping with housework and family, making it easier for the women to juggle both career and children.

In France, Scandinavia and Britain, fertility rates are almost back up to replacement levels. But in societies where the traditional gender roles of male breadwinners and female housewives still endure, such as Germany and Italy, fertility rates remain low.

In Singapore, men who insist on old-fashioned gender roles will doom themselves to bachelorhood.

With more supportive husbands, women will find it easier to combine motherhood and career, so they will have more babies.

What Singapore needs to do to boost its fertility rate is to tackle the cultural lag where traditional precepts of gender roles still exist.

Society and the expectations of women at the workplace and in the home have changed. So must the expectations and mindsets of men, both in terms of national policy, as well as at the societal and domestic levels.

Only when we bridge the cultural gap between men and women can we have any hope of boosting our fertility rates.

Francis Cheng

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on March 27, 2016, with the headline 'To boost fertility, bridge gender gap YourLetters'. Print Edition | Subscribe