Car-lite Singapore

Want more babies? Help families afford cars

Two writers offer contrasting viewpoints on cars: the first says charging market rates for parking will wean people off driving cars, while the second argues that helping families own cars may boost fertility rates.

Last month, officials from the National Population and Talent Division, led by Senior Minister of State Josephine Teo, went on study trips to Denmark and South Korea to understand how these countries dealt with their falling fertility rates.

The consensus is that we need a holistic approach that cultivates a more family-friendly society. Raising the fertility rate would require an equalising of the demands of childcare by enhancing paternity leave, promoting a more supportive work culture, providing adequate infantcare and fostering a shift in societal attitudes.

So here is a crazy idea to add to the mix: help families afford cars.

At first glance, this appears to run counter to the policy mantra of going "car-lite" in land-scarce Singapore. Such a "car-lite" culture promises to enhance Singapore's urban liveability based on a well-connected and efficient public transport infrastructure. Singaporeans would benefit from healthier, more cohesive, and grounded communities.

Yet, on another level, the idea of helping families afford cars does not seem so crazy when you consider that most people would intuitively agree that having a car significantly eases the experience of starting and raising a family.

A car provides working couples with added time for parenting, and flexibility as they juggle work and family schedules.

For young families, this may mean the ability to pick up or drop off kids on their way to and from work, without having to expend more physical and emotional energies navigating an already overtaxed public transport system that has frequent breakdowns.

A car also provides a conducive means of family interaction and bonding.

After all, when people are stuck in a car, mobile yet immobile, where eye contact between driver and passengers is difficult, they are able to have sensible or sensitive conversations about relationships, responsibilities and decisions.

The car provides a quasi-private space cocooned from the hustle and bustle of urban life for parents and children to communicate, whether it is a serious conversation between parents, playful talk or parental guidance.

A car can facilitate the task of caring for children. For couples with newborns or toddlers, getting around without a car can be a laborious task, especially when a nappy change is needed, or when a mother urgently needs to breastfeed or store her breast milk.

Indeed, it is not uncommon to see such young parents on the MRT, where in addition to having to manage energetic toddlers, they also have to lug along a pram and a bag of baby accessories.

One can sway between admiration and anxiety for their safety as these parents attempt to travel up an escalator with an infant in their pram.

In short, more than just a chunk of metal that gets you from point A to point B, or a status symbol, the car is a multifunctional parenting tool.

Of course, parenting is never an easy task, and we should not expect it to be.

But if the objective is to create a family-friendly environment that encourages couples to have more children, then should we not consider more ways to support parents' everyday lives?

What form can this take?

We can leave that to our skilled technocrats, although one possibility might be a"family car" certificate of entitlement category for families with young children.

Whatever form it takes, such a policy will have its limitations. Helping families own cars may exacerbate inequalities within social classes as the ability to sustain car ownership is associated with certain socio-economic groups.

Crucially, it would send mixed messages about the Government's commitment to a "car-lite" Singapore.

But we need to be clear about means and ends here. After all, the Singapore Government is well-known for its non-ideological and pragmatic attitude towards policymaking.

Restricting car ownership through a series of policy instruments is a means towards an end of reducing congestion and promoting liveability.

Likewise, having a series of policies to ease car ownership for families is a means towards the larger imperative of supporting families and encouraging couples to have children to raise the country's fertility rates, and easing things for families, who are the basic building blocks of society.

  • The writer is a research assistant and recent graduate of the Bachelor of Environmental Studies programme at the National University of Singapore.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 27, 2016, with the headline Want more babies? Help families afford cars. Subscribe