Assess the impact of Big Baby Budget

Babies in a nursery at Mount Alvernia hospital on Jan 19, 2010. PHOTO: ST FILE

In recent days, the Budget debate has had many speaking in Parliament and outside, with some suggesting that government spending should be prudent and targeted.

This set me thinking that all major policies promulgated by the Government should be assessed for outcomes and impact and if this process finds that the impact of the policy is not forthcoming and is below the intended outcome, then serious thought should be given to reconsider the whole policy rather than just tweaking the policy further.

One outstanding area to look at pertains to the fertility policy package.

Continued declines in fertility through the 1990s led to the introduction of pronatalist policies consisting of a series of Marriage and Parenthood packages in 2001, 2004 and 2008. These were mainly cash baby bonuses, co-savings or matching child development accounts, tax benefits and subsidies for childcare.

The annual budget for these packages was $500 million from 2001, $800 million from 2004 and then doubled to $1.6 billion from 2008. In 2013, with the addition of other measures, including one week's paid paternity leave, the expenditure ballooned to $2 billion per year.

An interesting corollary to the increasing amounts of money spent on these packages, which are meant to increase fertility, are the actual figures for the fertility rate in Singapore from 2000 onwards.

In the year 2000, total fertility rate (TFR) was 1.6 and then it steadily declined to 1.24 in 2004. It hovered around this figure and then went down to 1.15 in 2010 and then up to 1.29 in 2012 when 33,238 babies were born (in the Year of the Dragon which is an auspicious year for Chinese births) and then down again to 1.25 in 2014. The year 2015 saw a small increase to 33,793 new babies in our Jubilee year.

All these statistics highlight the counter-intuitive fact that the fertility rate was higher (at 1.6 to 1.7) before the Marriage and Parenthood package was started and then on implementation of the programme, the fertility rate fell and remained obstinately low below 1.3.

This unhappy state of very low fertility continued, in spite of the fact that since 2008, a total of $14 billion has been spent to increase our nation's fertility.

In 2013, Singapore's first Prime Minister, Mr Lee Kuan Yew, expressed exasperation with the idea of monetary incentives to promote fertility, "declaring that he had given up on Singapore's fertility problem".

Is it not time then to assess the outcome of our Big Budget Spend on Babies and on fertility and modulate it so that there is more productivity to show?

Not only is our industrial productivity low but also our reproductive productivity. Just like Finance Minister Heng Swee Keat has introduced medium-range, targeted and innovative measures for our economy, we need to look at a fresh slew of measures to increase the nation's fertility.

These measures should be more holistically targeted at work-life balance, at pre-school education and care, at our high-pressure school system, at our young parents' concerns, at the workplace with its inflexibilities and long hours, and at the national psyche of aspiring for ever-higher standards of living and the fear of failure.

Can we be a more relaxed society? We have to be in the mood if we are going to make babies.

  • Kanwaljit Soin, a former Nominated MP, is the founding president of Wings, a non-profit that promotes active ageing for women.
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 08, 2016, with the headline 'Assess the impact of Big Baby Budget'. Subscribe