Furry Brown Dog

Dedicated to the memory of my canine friend…

Singapore’s ill-thought population policy

with 9 comments

Acknowledgements: This post would not have been possible if weren’t for the assistance of a friend whom helped to read through and provided useful suggestions for content.

Much attention in the past few years have been focused on the Singapore government’s liberal and generous immigration policies designed to attract foreign talent and labour which the government insists is necessary to maintain a sizeable workforce, given Singapore’s extremely low fertility rate. The influx of immigrants have caused depressed wages and sky-rocketing property prices. Lesser attention has been paid towards the causes of low fertility, although Lucky (among others) has written about it here.  Both the Temasek Review and The Online Citizen wrote about this as well.

To sum up their argument, the government’s decision to embark on a large-scale social engineering project of depressing birth rates was carried through to a ridiculous extreme, which saw Singapore’s fertility rate plunge from a high of 4.66 in 1965 to 1.28 in 2008:

The social engineering project largely responsible for this decline was due to the success of the Singapore Family Planning and Population Board established in 1966.  A national campaign which was over-reaching and overly-intrusive was launched which saw the introduction of draconian measures to curb population growth through promoting coerced sterilisation and contraceptives.  Here’s an example to reinforce this point, quoted from the book Public Health in Asia and the Pacific, 2008 (pg 196):

After giving birth to her first or second child, a woman would be encouraged to go for sterilization or to use the contraceptive pill or an inter-uterine device.  If she was not willing to pursue either path, she would be visited at home by the family planning staff. If all else failed, she would also bear the brunt of higher charges for hospital delivery as well as a reduced chance of housing and a school place for her child.

This was a blatant disrespect of privacy and personal space.  Wait, there’s more. The Straits Times published an article on Aug 24th, 2008 which included two particularly poignant stories of those whom experienced the heavy hand of the family planning board:

One policy decision caused a lot of grief, though it worked: linking sterilisation to school policy. ‘If you did not undergo sterilisation after your third child, he would not get priority in school,’ recalled gynaecologist Paul Tan, 68. ‘That was when people stopped reproducing.’

Working in KKH then, Dr Tan said sterilisation rates ‘went sky- high’ as doctors there performed up to nine operations a day. ‘Pregnant women came in saying ‘Doctor, I think I’m pregnant again’ like they committed a crime,’ he said.

One such woman was Madam Teo Gek Eng. In 1976, she found herself pregnant with her third child. The doctors and nurses chided her when she went for a check-up at a clinic, she said.

‘They said, ‘Your kids are so young and you’re pregnant again’,’ said Madam Teo, 55, a housewife. ‘They asked if I wanted an abortion.’  She kept her child but got ligated to ensure that her son would get priority in school. ‘I had the sterilisation certification, which had to be shown as proof to the school,’ she said. ‘All but one of my five sisters tied their tubes.’

Saleswoman Mary Koh, 56, went one step further: She had an abortion in 1976 when she became pregnant with her third child. To have the child, she and her technician husband would have had to pay a $150 delivery fee, which was called the accouchement fee.

‘It was a lot of money back then,’ she said. ‘It was a painful decision.’ Those fees were waived if the woman or her husband underwent sterilisation. The more children they had, the higher the fee.

The image of pregnant women, afraid to disclose to doctors that they were bearing another child (which in today’s world is cause for congratulations) due to the stigma associated with multiple pregnancies is something completely unconceivable and unthinkable today.

Despite its nature, the programme was lauded as a runaway success in reducing fertility rates.  Total fertility rate (TFR) was reduced to the replacement rate (2.1) by 1975 instead of 1980, as originally targeted.  However, for reasons not known, the programme persisted until 1987 when the government officially introduced the New Population Policy in an effort to selectively raise fertility rates amongst the better educated while retaining punitive measures for the lower educated.  It is worth quoting the following in full to illustrate the degree of selectivity which characterised the government’s plan:

This did not mark an abandonment of pro-natalism and, in 1987, the government went much further in its attempts to increase fertility by introducing a New Population Policy. The new package of policy measures was comprehensively but cautiously pro-natalist. A new slogan, ‘Have Three, Or More If You Can Afford It’, replaced the old ‘Stop at Two’. Like the old anti-natalist policy, the new one relied upon a variety of policy instruments. The higher level of tax relief was extended to the third child and eligibility for the enhanced child relief scheme (first introduced in 1978 to encourage mothers with ‘special educational qualifications’ to participate in the workforce) was reduced from five passes to three passes at Ordinary Level in the GCE examinations for women who were taxed separately from their husbands.

Priority in primary school registration was extended to all third children and the maximum period of unpaid childcare leave for mothers in the civil service was increased to four years. Compulsory counselling before and after abortion for women with some secondary education and fewer than three children was introduced. Sterilization incentives were abandoned except for those with no Ordinary Level passes and with three children. These are just some of the detailed policy measures embodied in the new legislation, but the way in which the intended impact of the policies differs according to the educational attainment of women is obvious.

Tax incentives were not only structured to provide maximum incentives for the better off and better educated to have more babies, but also designed to encourage this group to start reproduction earlier and to shorten birth intervals. This was reinforced by the changes introduced in the 1989 budget, which doubled annual income tax relief from S$750 to S$1500 for the first, second and third child and extended the higher rate to the fourth child born on or after 1 January 1988. At the same time, the maximum claim for each child was increased from S$10,000 to S$15,000. The Housing Development Board also participated in the new pro-natalism by relaxing restrictions on access to larger housing units, essentially by allowing families with three (and sometimes four) children to jump the queue and to sell their existing apartments on the open market even if they had stayed in them for less than five years. All these policies were expected to exert a different influence on different groups in Singapore society according to education, income and their family size at the time the new policy was introduced in March 1987.

This inevitably raises the question of why it took twelve long years (1975-1987) for the government to push pro-natalist policies.  Was it not clear that the target replacement rate was reached in 1975?  Why was the programme continued until 1987?  Indeed, as early as 1970 it was apparent that Singapore’s total fertility rate had reached a level which was the lowest regionally amongst its neighbours:

For the period 1965-1970, Singapore had the lowest fertility rate regionally at 3.5; the next highest rate was 5.6 (Indonesia).  Was there a need to depress it even further until 1987 when it fell to 1.42?  And as quoted above, the 1987 population policy was selective and targeted mostly the higher educated, which limited its efficacy and outreach. I cannot at present fathom if there is any good reason for the government to have persisted with their population control policy until 1987.  It appears to be unthinkable given that the government had still intended for Singapore’s growth to be export-led by the manufacturing sector which is labour dependent.  Did the government realise that by depressing population growth it is effectively stamping down its people, which it often claims is their only natural resource?  Or that doing so effectively created the problem of an ageing population, leaving fewer descendents to support an increasing number of elderly folks in the future?  So the next time someone tells you that Singapore has to import foreigners because of an ageing population, be mindful of whose policies led to that problem in the first place.

In the same year, 1987, David Evans of Newcastle University, Australia published a study which performed an expected Net Present Value (ENPV) analysis of preventing 1,000 births in Singapore.

The project assumed that an individual born would have to be dependent on government and private spending from year 1 to year 16, after which it joined the workforce and was able to contribute to the economy.  Assuming a project lifespan of 30 years,  it was discovered that the ENPV of preventing 1,000 births would be -S$2.68M (1987 dollars), a negative value which concluded that the general family planning programme (FPP) was not viable under growth rates of the early 1970s:

If growth continues at the average rate observed since the early 1970s, the analysis suggests that the returns to a general FPP do not justify the costs.

Under the model employed by Evans, Singapore would reap the benefits of preventing 1,000 birth up until the 16th year, when net benefits would then turn negative.  This suggests that the population control programme which Singapore practised from 1966 till 1987 sacrificed long term gains due to workforce contribution in return for short term benefits of cutting costs (of raising and nurturing the child) from the 1st to the 16th year of the individual’s lifespan. Such a short term policy consideration appears rather ill-thought in hindsight, and has likely contributed to the current shortage of labour prompting the government to import foreign workers to make up for the shortfall.

How about the post-1987 period? Did the government go to the other extreme, to try to reverse the lasting consequences of their anti-natalist policies?  The short answer is NO.  As late as 2001, the government was still unwilling to push for a general pro-natalist approach, like it had done for the anti-natalist one.  The Straits Times reported on March 10th, 2001 that an “accouchement fee” was still being imposed by the Health Ministry and administered by hospitals:

But Mr Lukman is not one to complain. The only thing that confounds him is why he has to pay a government “fine” levied on big families with four or more children.

A check shows that this little-known “fine” — called an “accouchement” fee (French for “delivery”) — comes under the purview of the Health Ministry and is administered by public hospitals here.

According to a Health Ministry spokesman, “it was one of the measures implemented under the New Population Policy in 1987, to reinforce the message that couples should have three or more children only if they can afford it”. It is tagged onto the hospital delivery bill and set lower administratively for the first three births — typically at about $400 — but escalates steeply to more than $1,000 for the fourth and subsequent births.

These big families bear the brunt of policies which date back to the Stop At Two era in the 1960s, when the national priority was to curb rather than coax procreation.

For example, they are not allowed to use Medisave to pay for maternity-ward charges for their fourth and subsequent babies. From the fifth child onwards, they are not entitled to childcare subsidies from the Ministry of Community Development and Sports. Paid maternity leave after Baby No 3 is out of the question, too.  They are also ineligible for Edusave grants, which can be used to pay for miscellaneous student fees and enrich-ment programmes, as Kreta Ayer-Tanglin GRC MP Lew Syn Pau pointed out in Parliament on Wednesday.

Edusave was finally changed in 2004 to include 4th and later children, some 17 years (!!) after the government first introduced pro-natalist policies:

However, only the first, second and third child were eligible for the Edusave account prior to 2004 and only students between the age of 6 and 16 prior to 2009 were eligible for the annual Edusave contributions.

Yet even today, the government still practices selective welfare schemes in half-heartedly encouraging pro-creation to improve the fertility rate.  For example, HOPE, an MCYS scheme explicitly states that married couples earning less than $1500 monthly must have no more than two children before they qualify for grants and bursaries:

Who is eligible for HOPE?

HOPE will target young families who are at risk of becoming the permanently poor. The eligibility criteria are:-

(a) Married couples with no more than 2 children.

(b) Either the husband or wife must be a Singapore citizen, and the spouse must either be a citizen or a Permanent Resident.

(c) The educational level of both husband and wife is 2 GCE ‘O’ level passes and below.

(d) Monthly household income of $1500 or below.

(e) Age of the mother is 35 years or below.

With initiatives like these and half-hearted attempts coupled with inexplicable strings attached to “encourage” couples to have more children, is it any wonder that the Singapore government has to resort to importing foreign labour en-masse to supplement the workforce?

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Written by defennder

December 16, 2009 at 11:16 PM

9 Responses

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  1. […] some cases if they choose not to comply) to bear fewer children back in the 1960s-1980s when the anti-natalist and quasi-eugenics campaign by the ruling party was in full swing. This apparent pushing of responsibility to the current […]

  2. I totally agree that “stop at 2” was way too harsh… The consequences should have been carefully thought of… Even though there are rumours that the low BR/TFR now in Singapore are not due to that policy but, there are still certain after-effects of that “disastrous” policy which has impacted the statistics now… Actually, the rates would have eventually slowed down anyway, but that did not just act as a catalyst, I think it is seriously a wrong step which resulted in many problems that are slowly but surely appearing…

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    July 9, 2012 at 11:23 PM

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