From “a baby every seven minutes” to “silver tsunami”

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Singapore is counted among the fastest-ageing countries in the world. This “silver tsunami” is being compounded by the drastically falling birth rates here. The total fertility rate (TFR) was only 1.2 in 2011 as against the replacement level needed TFR of 2.1. Even 2012 – the Year of the Dragon, which is considered the most auspicious of Chinese zodiac for having babies, saw only 33,205 new babies born to Singapore citizens, improving the TFR only marginally to 1.29. In fact, the city-state has witnessed low birth rates consistently for over three decades now. Starting at 6.56 in 1957, TFR declined to 4.62 in 1965, 3.07 in 1970, 1.82 in 1980, and 1.60 in 2000. 1976 was the year when TFR fell below the replacement level for the first time.

But how did this change come about?

With housing and water a big issue in post-independence Singapore, the government introduced family-planning measures for the first time in 1960 when a three-month long campaign was launched marking exhibitions and discussions on the subject. During these, a baby doll was carried across the hall every seven minutes. This was to remind Singaporeans that “a baby is born in Singapore every seven minutes”.

Later, in 1966, the Singapore Family Planning and Population Board was set-up and government enacted the Abortion Act and the Voluntary Sterilisation Act (VSA) in 1970. This was followed by simple measures such as providing subsidised birth control pills and organising mobile family clinics. The more stricter and controversial Stop at Two campaign was launched two years later in 1972.

Under this campaign, various anti-natal policies were enacted. These included paying $100 more to deliver the third child as compared to the second one, no maternity leave from the third child onwards, and priority in public housing for smaller families. The VSA was also amended to remove the need for applying to the Eugenics Board to get sterilised. A post-sterilisation incentive of $10,000 dollars was also offered to women from households with less than $1,500 monthly income. In all about 1,00,000 women underwent sterilisation by tubal ligation between 1967-87, of which almost three-quarters have had three or more children.

Noted writer Catherin Lim in her book, A Watershed Election Singapore’s GE 2011, has argued how these measures, while creating fear, also led to “its inevitable product, resentment.” “The most egregious instances include the higher accouchement hospital fees for a woman having a third child in defiance of the ‘Stop at Two’ population control measures, and the sterilisation policy, which had a particularly vile moral odour for it required the woman wanting to get her child into the school of her choice to produce a sterilisation certificate,” she writes.

Come 1980s, and Singapore started witnessing a fertility transition.

The National Library Board, in an ongoing exhibition, Campaign City: Life in Posters, mentions that “By 1987, the climate had changed from one of urgent population control to an anxiety over population replacement. That year, the Have Three or More campaign was launched in a decidedly quieter manner”. The exhibition also quotes Dr Chen Ai Ju, the Health Ministry’s Deputy Director of Medical Services in 1987 who had said, “77 percent of married women aborted their pregnancy because of the Stop at Two policy”.

Anticipating this transition, the government in 1984 formed special departments under the Ministry of Finance to matchmake couples according to their educational levels and job profiles. Additionally, financial and social incentives were introduced for graduate women to marry and procreate under the Graduate Mothers Priority Scheme. Though some have argued that the Scheme wasn’t very well received. “It singled out graduate women for favoured treatment, because Lee Kuan Yew believed that only highly educated mothers produced the quality offspring he wanted for the society, alienating many with the noxious eugenics,” adds Catherin Lim in her book.

Also, in 1989, a tax rebate of $20,000 was offered to families who had a fourth child after January 1, 1988. As a result of reversal in government policies, about 7,000 women under the age of 35 approached the health ministry to have their ligation reversed, as noted by the then Health Minister Yeo Cheow Tong in the Parliament in 1987.

As things didn’t improve much, another effort was made in 2001, with the introduction of the Marriage and Parenthood Package (MPP) Scheme, which was enhanced again in 2008  to a budget of $1.6 billion a year. Besides giving child care subsidies, the Social Development Network reached out to 100,000 singles each year to provide them with more social interaction opportunities. Further enhancements to the existing MPP were made in January 2013 and for the first-time government decided to co-fund the  assisted reproduction technology treatment for the needy couples.

Not everyone agrees though on the role played by the Stop at Two campaign in Singapore’s fertility transition. The Civil Service College (CSC) Singapore in its publication Ethos — Issue 7, January 2010, claims,” While selected individuals might have been influenced in their fertility decisions, it was more likely that government policies had acted as a catalyst in hastening a fertility transition which would have taken place even without direct intervention.”

The CSC gives three reasons to support its view. “Firstly, fertility had begun to fall even before the family planning measures were put in place. Secondly, even with the reversal to a pro-natalist policy supporting childbearing from the late 1980s, fertility did not rise from its low levels. Thirdly, we observe that most low fertility societies around the world have a well-educated population with a rapid rise in the education profile of women, increasing ages of marriage and childbearing, and an economy that had been successful in creating jobs for its people.” Hence, while family planning policies are likely to have contributed to Singapore’s pace of fertility decline, they are secondary to the fact that changes in the population, society and economy were already leading to a reduction in the number of children couples would have, the CSC concludes.

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