The slew of measures which Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong has announced to encourage couples to have children are an incremental move in a fundamental direction. The nation has to simply stay ahead of the threat of demographic attrition posed by low birth rates. This problem has been exercising minds both within and outside the Government for many decades now. Mr Lee revealed statistics at the National Day Rally that showed improvement in Singapore's natalist situation. For example, the 33,200 births last year were the highest in a decade, although the year was not a particularly auspicious one to many Singaporeans for having children.
However, boosting birth rates remains a challenge. Last year's total fertility rate of 1.25 children a woman falls far short of the replacement rate of 2.1. Although the measures announced on Sunday cannot be expected to bridge the gulf all by themselves, they add to the momentum of earlier initiatives. Together, these embody the Government's determination to not let a demographic deficit undo the present's investment in the future.
The latest measures seek to strengthen both the familial and the financial support systems that make it easier for couples to have babies. Of them, perhaps the new Proximity Housing Grant will be the most popular because it will help couples to live closer to their parents. Along with access to childcare, proximity to family can help the young to combine careers and parenthood. The enhanced Baby Bonus scheme, the larger Medisave grant for newborns, and the doubling of paternity leave will add to the attractiveness of the overall package, given that these tweaks to policy reflect consultations with young couples.
However, expectations of the natalist package must be tempered with caution. An Institute of Policy Studies survey has shown that incentives, such as the Baby Bonus cash gift and more maternity leave, are witnessing diminishing returns in boosting the birth rate. This is not to argue that policy initiatives are unimportant, but that they vitally need to be complemented by wider social practices. Singapore's work culture could help by paying greater respect to both a woman's economic value and her maternal needs - for example, by facilitating her entry to the work force after childbirth and boosting family-friendly arrangements at workplaces.
At home, fathers need to embrace more closely the ideal of a culture in which nurturing the child is a function shared fully and willingly with the mother. Singapore men, many of them brought up in patriarchal families where childbearing and child-nurturing went together, will have to adjust themselves to the reality of family life where both parents share the baby-minding duties. Their wives will cherish them all the more for it.