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
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
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