Todayonline reported on 20 January 2017 “Extra childcare leave not the way to raise fertility rates: Harvard professor”. Professor Mary Brinton, Reischauer Institute Professor of Sociology from the university’s Department of Sociology, at a public lecture and dialogue session on family and population, advise against extra childcare leave for mothers because this reinforce bias against women at the work place. She did advise that new fathers could be required to take childcare leave on top of paid leave for both parents.
The event was attended by Senior Minister of State Mrs. Josephine Teo. She has plenty of advice and input but it was entirely on how employers can create arrangements like flexi-work to promote a pro-family environnment and how employees should adapt their mindset and their objectives to consider building careers in tandem with starting a family.
Unless Todayonline misses them which is not out of the question, Mrs. Teo made no mention about the government’s role both in setting the conditions that led to the extremely low fertility rate in the first place and in providing the solutions to the problem. It is ironic for her to have reportedly said that employers have to be shown that adopting pro-family policies is not detrimental to their business when the government should accept not only that there are negative social consequences of the accumulation of massive financial reserves but that alleviating financial uncertainties for Singaporeans to consider starting families and earlier is not detrimental to the extremely robust government finances.
These policies are no doubt “fiscally sustainable” or “prudent” but every economic policy has trade-offs and consequences. The lack of job and social security and the stresses on personal and household finances leave citizens uncertain about the future, especially old age. Citizens over-compensate with long working hours at the detriment of work-life balance. Surveys had noted that Singaporeans between ages 20 to 35, i.e. in the prime child bearing age faced the most financial pressure. It should not be surprising that the fertility rate had worsened so dramatically.
There is a lot the government can do to change the equation, e.g. provide free or heavily subsidised chidlcare, a pre-requisite for an improvement in the fertility rate. Much bigger subsidies for first time home buyers will help reduce a large obstacle often cited for not starting a family. Reduce the financial uncertainties, the propensity to overwork and hence better work-balance and improvement in fertility rates will follow. Japan’s famously low birth rates have turned up and exceeded Singapore’s in recent years took place amidst better work life balance and a reduction in hours worked despite the shortage of labour.
Around the world, fertility rates in advanced countries improved where attitudes and ideas of gender, family and work are shaped to the realities of the modern dynamic, skill-based economy. Cooperative, flexible approach to work and raising children meant both women and men need not choose between career and family,. They are given greater choices and are supported by the prevalence of free or heavily subsidized childcare facilities and home help. Singapore is not there but it is not just up to employers and employees. Like many socio-economic issues, the government needs to do a lot more and it can very well afford it.
Chris Kuan is an astute commentator of Singapore and international affairs.