Asia-Pacific, Development & Aid, Gender, Headlines, Human Rights, Population

SINGAPORE: Population Decline – Enter the Matchmaker

Kalinga Seneviratne

SINGAPORE, Aug 26 2008 (IPS) - After failing to induce young people to marry early and raise families with tax breaks and ‘baby bonus’ schemes, the government appears ready to fall back on the matchmaker to give the stork a chance.

Dipping birth rates are a major worry in Singapore. Credit: Kalinga Seneviratne/IPS

Dipping birth rates are a major worry in Singapore. Credit: Kalinga Seneviratne/IPS

The government’s concern was reflected in the fact that Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong spent more than 30 minutes of his two-hour long National Day (Aug 9) televised speech encouraging young educated Singaporeans to marry early, and even set parenthood before careers.

Lee, who seemed to be targeting young career-minded Singaporean women, referred to a recent conversation he had with two Indian women migrants. Lee said they expressed satisfaction with the marriages arranged for them by their parents and that, for them, love blossomed post-marriage.

In the Mandarin version of his speech, directed at the majority Chinese community, Lee pointed out that arranged marriages were now being encouraged by the Chinese government. In Beijing, he said, thousands of parents go secretly to “Parental Matchmaking Sessions” to find suitable partners for their children.

“We don’t have Parental Matchmaking Sessions in Singapore. I think our People’s Associations (government-funded neighbourhood community centres) should consider organising similar sessions,” said Lee.

Lee pointed out that the low total fertility rate (TFR) is especially acute for the Chinese community (that makes up about 70 percent of the population here) and stood at 1.14, which is almost half of the replacement level of 2.1.

“Many singles do want to get married” he noted. “They are serious, and not just out to have a good time. But they face difficulties because some have never dated, and once they start work and settle into a routine, there’s no opportunity to socialise and meet new people.”

Singapore, like many other fast growing Asian economies, has a high percentage of well-educated professional women who have large incomes but remain single and independent. Lee’s advise to this group was to consider marriage perhaps in their late 20s rather than wait for careers to stabilise and look for a partner when well into their late 30s.

“Marrying early has its advantages. Couples who marry young have the luxury of putting off having a baby should they choose to prioritise their career or ‘alone time’ with each other,” says Jacinta Leow, a mass communications graduate in her mid-20s who recently got married a school teacher.

Leow tended to agree with the idea that affluence can negatively affect fertility rates in modern societies. “Of course, it can be said that as a country gets more affluent and educated, its citizens become more picky.’’

On the other hand, said Leow, having a good wedding and moving into a flat or condominium calls for major financial resources, and if a baby comes along it can add to the burden. “So they have to work for a few years and save… not everyone works in a well-paying job.’’

The government’s answer to such reservations has been to lay on dollops of incentives and subsidies. Recently announced were packages that could cost the exchequer 1.2 billion US dollars. They include a 25 percent tax rebate for each child, increased leave allowances for working mothers and pro-child environments in workplaces.

From April – July this year the government held consultations with over 300 people from a cross-section of the society to gauge their responses to a similar family-package introduced in 2004 along with a five-day week to allow more time for the family. The study found that young people generally preferred to focus on their careers ahead of marriage. Many cited difficulties in finding suitable partners as a key hurdle to settling down.

“Marriage, perhaps, needs to be weighed against other responsibilities of today’s Singaporean women,” argues Lai Yee, a public relations executive at a leading international organisation here.

An only child, she was born at a time when the Singapore government was advocating two-child families to stem birth rates. Now in her 30s and enjoying her work, she told IPS that as an only child she has to look after her ageing parents. The rising cost of living and healthcare are a problem.

“I could imagine being married, but unless I have the financial security to provide for a child, it would be the elders who are higher on my agenda as compared to a yet-to-be-conceived child. I wouldn’t be immediately persuaded by subsidies and tax cuts if my existing responsibilities are not alleviated to a certain extent,” added Lai Yee.

“I do acknowledge that I am ambivalent about marriage,” she noted. “I am certainly not resisting it, but neither am I pursuing it actively as the next milestone of my life. Without doubt, financial independence has opened up more options for women, including myself, who no longer need to consider marriage as a lifetime meal ticket”.

In his speech, Lee did not spare young Singaporean males and complained that they seemed reluctant to take on parental responsibilities. ‘’Mindsets among men are beginning to shift, but still not fast enough,” he argued. The government, he said, may try and encourage ‘’greater shared responsibility in child-raising and parenting.”

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