Debate on ministries’ budgets

Govt aid alone not enough to raise birth rate: Minister

Mrs Josephine Teo cautioned against concluding that measures to encourage parenthood were not working, noting that "society as a whole needs to make marriage and parenthood achievable, enjoyable and celebrated".
Mrs Josephine Teo cautioned against concluding that measures to encourage parenthood were not working, noting that "society as a whole needs to make marriage and parenthood achievable, enjoyable and celebrated".ST PHOTO: LIM YAOHUI

The personal lives of Singaporeans were examined in detail in Parliament yesterday, as MPs wrung their hands over Singapore's low birth rate.

Why were people not dating, if surveys show that most young Singaporeans wanted to be married? And how can married couples be encouraged to have more babies? Some wondered why government schemes to encourage parenthood had not produced more results, and urged the Government to do more.

But Minister in the Prime Minister's Office (PMO) Josephine Teo said amending laws and providing financial help addressed only one aspect of the issue.

A delicate balance has to be struck between meeting the career aspirations of workers and the needs of employers as well as giving couples and families a helping hand, she said.

"So what matters appears to be that more than the package of support measures, society as a whole needs to make marriage and parenthood achievable, enjoyable and celebrated. All three things have to come together," she added.

The low total fertility rate (TFR) was a particular bugbear for MPs such as Mr Melvin Yong (Tanjong Pagar GRC) and Mr Gan Thiam Poh (Ang Mo Kio GRC).

Mr Yong asked during the debate on the PMO's budget why the TFR remained low despite a slew of government support schemes like the baby bonus, and whether it would fall further.

At 1.2, the TFR is way below the replacement level of 2.1.

Mrs Teo warned against concluding that the measures to encourage parenthood were not working.

The minister said Singapore's TFR had fallen below replacement levels for some 40 years, and had stabilised at the current rate for the past 15 years, noting that these same trends have played out in developed East Asian societies like Japan and South Korea.

This means that financial and legislative measures alone are not enough, and at the same time, the TFR could fall without such measures, she added.

She also said the children of the "baby boomer" generation who were born in the late 1980s and 1990s - a large cohort - were only about 20 to 30 years old and just entering the "peak childbearing ages".

"Compared to earlier cohorts, more of them are not yet married or have not started having children. When they do... TFR could then also increase," she said.

Mr Alex Yam (Marsiling-Yew Tee GRC), meanwhile, was concerned about why Singaporeans were not dating.

He cited a National Population and Talent Division survey last year which showed that nearly half of the singles in Singapore have never dated seriously, despite most saying they wanted to get married.

Mrs Teo said the Social Development Network has been supporting private dating agencies to come up with creative ideas to encourage dating.

She quipped that the Government was open to suggestions on how it can better support this "without coming across like nannies and without being thought of as being very intrusive in people's private affairs".

"The Government cannot interfere with how people go about finding a partner, or whether, and when, they start trying to have children.

"These are personal decisions. But we can help those who are ready to settle down," she said.

Yuen Sin

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 02, 2018, with the headline 'Govt aid alone not enough to raise birth rate: Minister'. Print Edition | Subscribe