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新加坡的人口危機

FROM BABIES TO PRIME MINISTERS: SINGAPORE'S LOW BIRTHING RATE

By Tom Plate

June 15, 2004

SINGAPORE -- Would you ever think that a man about to inherit the prestigious throne of a little country that boasts one of the world's highest per capita incomes, one of the lowest crime rates and one of the highest aggregate IQ rates would be so preoccupied with something as commonplace as babies?

But when Lee Hsien Loong, the deputy prime minister of Singapore, agreed to sit down recently for an informal chat, he described his most pressing concern, after only a slight pause, as babies. Clearly something unusual is eating at the insides of this otherwise thoroughly modern, sensible and prosperous city-state.

What is it? Here, and in a growing number of other places, babies are becoming, in fact, less and less commonplace. In 2003, Singapore's birth rate, at 1.19 births per couple, became the lowest in the history of this ultramodern state. What this means is, should present trends continue, Singapore, incredibly, is shrinking. To be sure, the city-state has no monopoly on baby-deficit disorder syndrome: It's pervasive throughout the region and in other locales.

Hong Kong is having a near-death experience in the birth-rate game, though China next door offers an easy demographic fix: just loosen up on mainland immigration. Japan's birthrate is at a low point, too: Whereas demographers estimate that something like 2.3 babies per couple are necessary and normal for population level maintenance, Tokyo's tots are being churned out at a lethargic 1.32 rate.

South Korea, at 1.17, may have the lowest birth rate in the world today. China faces a daunting demographic challenge, too: The policy of aborting baby girls is producing a female shortage, a serious infant supply-side impediment, and thus no down-the-road help to Hong Kong.

Did Singapore unintentionally create its own baby crisis when it decided decades ago to institutionalize gender equality of opportunity? "You have no choice but to do it," Lee cheerfully shot back. "How can you not? You have half the population uneducated and their potential wasted. Economically and intellectually, it is just unthinkable. It would be a totally different kind of society." More than 50 percent of Singapore's women work, and, on the basis of a totally personal random survey over the years, they are enormously talented, educated, competitive, stylish and, mostly, baby-less.

For all that has been added to the regional economy, though, the unintended consequence of women's liberation in Asia is this dramatic baby bust. Few truly ambitious Chinese women these days want to mother what they regard as a dead weight on the way to the top of their profession. For their part, many Chinese males regard having to child-rear, even part-time, as a form of punitive house arrest and tend to be uncomfortable mating a strong-willed and highly articulate female. The result is a demographic deadlock of historic proportions: A lot of women with no babies and, for many, no husbands, either.

But self-confident Singapore is not intimidated by mere historical trends. The government, under the Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong, is reviewing a mix of remedial measures, from direct economic incentives (with its high standard of living, babies are increasingly seen as a luxury item), to increased immigration (but it's a small, crowded place already), to reinforcing corporate norms that afford male and female employees greater maternity and child-care flexibility (could help).

But a largish cultural change in the hearts and minds of Singaporeans -- and, indeed, among Asians in general -- is probably needed first. As Lee himself points out, "It's a mind-set issue, for the employers as well as the employees. Also, there's a certain trade off between family and career. You can spend all of your time bringing up a family or all of your time having a career or somewhere in between. People have to be prepared to find something in between. The father, too, has to be prepared to make some adjustments and chip in. If you say I am not prepared to compromise, that I must become a senior counsel or CEO and family comes second, then something will suffer."

Lee, educated at Harvard and Cambridge, admires the flexibility of American women and men as well of many U.S. companies with branches here: "Employer attitudes are very hospitable and so employees get a lot of flexibility. Even the American multinational corporations here tend to be very reasonable. If someone wants to take four months off, arrangements can be worked out. So they have become used to making these adaptations."

The deputy prime minister also sees answers coming from the city-state's younger generation, which he paints as more globalized and less stuffy than old-style Singapore: "They go to Britain. They go to America. They go on scholarships. They are on the Internet. They know what is happening, or at least they think they do. The numbers are not quite enough. But our young people are not squashed up. They complain ceaselessly about how they have to have their own views. They are not that browbeaten."

Lee, extensively groomed for the top job that is to be his shortly, thus faces quite the challenge. Modern Singapore's first prime minister, Lee Kuan Yew, stayed in the job for more than three decades and transformed the former Japanese and British colony into an Asian dynamo. The able PM Goh succeeded in 1990 and took the place to a new level. Now Lee, the founding PM's son, is about to become only the third PM: In Singapore, it seems, they don't breed babies or a lot of prime ministers, either.

 
 

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