Don’t get me wrong, I like the Baby Bonus plan because it helped me avoid paying taxes for quite a few years. Now that my Bonus has run dry, I end up having to fund it with my taxes (oh the irony). But it was pretty clear from the start (to me at least) it wouldn’t work. And not because of what the Gahmen thinks.
Before I tell you my three cents, let’s read what the Gahmen folks and other experts have to say in today’s Straits Times (I like the way the sub-headline tries to be so positive despite the bleak news…I had to cut and paste the entire story because it’s only available to subscribers):
Baby bonus has had little impact so far
One positive trend is the rise in the number of first-time parents
By Radha Basu, Senior Correspondent
A RECORD $230 million was given out by the Government in baby bonus payments last year, up from $55 million just five years earlier.
But there was no corresponding increase in the number of Singaporean babies born.
Figures from the National Population Secretariat show there were only 32,423 citizens born last year.
That was just 129 more than in 2003, the year before the Government extended the Baby Bonus Scheme to include the first and fourth child.
Non-citizens, who are not eligible for the payouts, fared better on the baby front.
The 7,403 non-citizen babies born last year represented an increase of 2,212 from 2003.
The Baby Bonus Scheme aims to encourage Singaporean couples to have babies by easing the financial burden on parents.
Introduced in April 2001, the scheme has undergone two major revisions – in August 2004 and again last year – with bigger carrots being dangled each time to prospective parents.
Since Aug 17 last year, fifth and subsequent children were entitled to bonus benefits too. Cash payments for the first and second child were also increased.
Dr Yap Mui Teng, a fertility expert at the National University of Singapore’s Institute of Policy Studies (IPS), said the latest revisions to the scheme and the fact that it is retrospective in nature, could have led to the record bonus payouts last year.
The first child, for instance, may now get up to $10,000 from the Government, up from $3,000 earlier. The scheme is administered by the Ministry of Community Development, Youth and Sports (MCYS).
When asked how successful the scheme was given that the rise in foreign births has outstripped that of locals, an MCYS spokesman told The Straits Times that more time was needed to ‘assess the efficacy of the scheme’.
Singapore is facing one of the worst baby droughts in the world. The total fertility rate (TFR) – or the number of children a woman is expected to have – fell a notch, from 1.29 to 1.28 last year. Only South Korea and Hong Kong have lower TFRs than Singapore. To replace itself, a population needs a TFR of 2.1 or higher.
While the TFR may have flagged a bit, take-up rates for the Baby Bonus Scheme have been increasing. About 19,000 new Child Development Accounts (CDAs) were opened last year, up from 14,000 in 2004.
CDAs are savings accounts parents can set up in their children’s names, with the Government matching deposits dollar for dollar, subject to a cap of between $6,000 and $18,000, depending on the birth order of the child.
The money can be spent on childcare, education and medical expenses. Parents can open a CDA any time before a child’s sixth birthday.
Although the number of Singaporean babies born remains low, family and fertility experts see some signs of hope.
Sociologist Paulin Straughan, for instance, was pleased to note the sharp rise in the number of first-child births among citizens – from 13,969 in 2003 to 15,129 last year.
‘A common suspicion of the Baby Bonus Scheme is that it speaks to converts or those who have already decided to have children,’ said Associate Professor Straughan, a Nominated Member of Parliament.
She sees the rise in the number of first-time parents as proof that the scheme is helping to change mindsets and encouraging many couples to have at least one child.
The next step is to help the new parents to grow their families and have two or more children – though data from 2003 and last year show that fewer are opting to do so.
Prof Straughan was not surprised at the rise in the number of foreigners giving birth, given that there are more foreigners here.
‘Besides, in first-world countries such as the United States, it is the immigrants who are boosting fertility rates,’ she said.
So what more can be done to encourage more Singaporeans to have babies?
Rather than increase the payouts, Prof Straughan believes that what parents really need is more ‘flexibility and latitude’ at the workplace.
‘We need more enlightened employers who know that granting parents time off for pressing childcare needs may actually produce happier, more productive and loyal workers,’ she said.
She speaks from experience, as supervisor of a ‘very fertile’ office. Four of the five women who work under her at the National University of Singapore had children in recent years and none has quit her job.
The women – all young mothers – willingly cover for each other when one has to be away on an emergency. They also hire temporary staff when necessary.
‘Mothers need to be more vocal about asking for help at work when necessary,’ she said. ‘Too many are worried about offending the singles.’
She concedes that productivity may be hit in the short term as more working mothers take time off to tend to children.
‘Bosses need to decide whether they should insist on short-term returns to productivity at the cost of the long-term stability of Singapore.’
Dr Yap from the IPS agreed that more can be done at the workplace, and women need to see that they will not pay a heavy penalty in terms of career advancement if they choose to have babies.
Only then can more educated and career-driven young women be persuaded to have children.
Indeed, balancing career and family is what many women find tough.
Insurance agent Mun Wai Ping, 34, who has two children under two, said she finds it hard to handle the emotional stress and frustration of juggling her two roles when her children fall ill.
‘I know this is just a passing phase. But it’s hard to keep turning down my clients when they request to meet up with me,’ said Madam Mun.
She and her university professor husband Ben Leong, 35, are entitled to about $7,000 in Baby Bonus cash payments, which are especially useful for paying their older daughter’s childcare fees.
In addition, they can receive up to $6,000 for their younger girl’s CDA, if they match the amount.
But they are not planning Baby No. 3. ‘At this moment, I think I have reached my limit juggling work and children,’ she said.
The Baby Bonus Scheme has been a godsend for Mrs Anandhi Raghavan, 33, who works as a trainer in a daycare centre, and her hospital safety officer husband Ragavan Nair, 36.
They have three children aged seven, two and six months. Their eldest daughter was born before the scheme was extended to first-borns in 2004, but they told The Straits Times that the $9,000 they received as cash gifts for the birth of their younger children has enabled them to better manage both career and family.
It has allowed them to get paid help with domestic chores so that when she is home, Ms Anandhi can spend her time with the children.
It has also allowed her to take part-time courses in counselling in the hope of getting a better job.
On Tuesday evening, baby Haridaren developed a raging fever and had to be taken to hospital. The bill, after multiple tests, was nearly $400.
Mr Ragavan said: ‘The baby bonus is allowing us to make use of the best kind of medical care. Later, it can help with their education.
‘That’s more than we ever asked for.’
It’s a classic Singaporean approach to solving a social issue – blame it all on the woman and her lofty ambitions. And like I’ve said before, the policymakers often believe that fathers do not actually exist in Singapore.
I have my own solution, and it’s so plausible the policymakers will probably write it off straightaway. And it won’t even cost a cent, much less $230 million.
Boosting fertility rates starts in school
No no, I’m not asking students to go hump like rabbits. What I’m saying is that long-term mindsets are often formed in school and that’s where the Gahmen brainiacs need to hit first.
Think about it: If it is believed that Singaporeans are career-minded (or rather, materialistic) and that is deemed as the reason why they rather be DINKs (double income, no kids), where did that mindset come from? It comes from living and growing up in a society which praises and celebrates the chase for money.
Every weekend, I feel slightly ill when I read the papers and it keeps telling me which swanky condo to buy, which rich person has a strategy for becoming richer, which car above S$100k is good for my soul and so on and so forth. The media inadvertently propagates a culture of envy, even as journalists remain largely poorly-paid around the world.
When I was in school, we were often taught that if we studied hard and got good grades, we’d have our comfortable car and condo. Of course, nobody told us that after securing your first job, nobody really cared about your grades anymore.
Most parents in my generation encouraged their kids to become one of the holy trinity – doctor, lawyer or engineer.
“Be an artist? You’d be poor forever! See, your classmate over there, he’s doing 3 A-level Special papers and he’s gonna be a brain surgeon one day earning so much money and living in some big bungalow. Why can’t you be like him? And why don’t you go apply for any scholarship out there?”
Nobody with a rational brain faults the Gahmen for putting us on the path to economic prosperity. I don’t blame my mum for making me study hard so that today I have a decent job. Today Singapore is a shining spot in the region and we are more well-off than millions living around us. For that, we have much to be thankful for.
But in the pursuit of economic development, many locals have forgotten that there are other pleasures in life besides chasing after the material.
I was fortunate in my case. As a journalist, I was exposed to the raw reality of life and learnt quickly that happiness reigned supreme among all desires. And that while earning money to pay your bills was critical, one had to set aside time for the immaterial like family, friends and personal growth.
As a Christian, I knew from young that money was the root of all evil, and as economically-driven members of the society, we all know that families get ripped apart thanks to money issues.
When kids go to school today here, it appears their key focus seems to be nothing but chasing the material dream. Sure, there are more enlightened schools and teachers who teach otherwise, but to put it in a corporate way, if these kids don’t hit their KPI of getting top grades, the school is going to come down hard on them. Never mind if the working world doesn’t really care about grades but passion, drive and talent.
Teach parents how to be real parents
Then again, maybe it’s not the classroom that will help the situation much. Perhaps it lies with parents who learn to shower their kids with time and love so that the kids remember it for life.
Instead of parents who insist that having a double-income is the only way to be happy and leave their kids alone or with the maid. Sure, they’ll have a million bucks or two in savings come retirement, but they don’t really know their kids. Is it any wonder why the children grow up and insist on not having kids themselves, so they can save up to their first million much faster?
Our society needs more role models of great parenting. And that said, I consider it an anomaly that I’m actually in a circle of friends and colleagues who are very focused on their family even though they are highly successful at work. Most of the guys I hung out with in school actually had their first kid before we were 30 years old. (By the way, I kicked things off at 26, and I must admit it wasn’t entirely according to plan ;D)
Birds of a feather flock together I guess…so who are you hanging out with?
Stop throwing money down the drain, start thinking out of the box
If it doesn’t work after eight years, stop kidding yourself that the plan will work with more time.
And the ST article doesn’t mention how much has been spent IN TOTAL over the past decade trying to encourage people to procreate (c’mon journalists, that’s a great number to put up). Has it been a billion or more dollars? Hey that’s my tax dollars you’re talking about!
Perhaps a devious strategy would be to tell single people blatantly – if you don’t start having kids, you’ll just have to pay more taxes lor!
Our Gahmen likes to talk about how its top civil servants like to think out of the box since they’re such brilliant scholars. Come on, I don’t see much creativity at this point. Just throwing more money at the Baby Bonus scheme and increasing ERP rates – anyone could suggest that. Why, perhaps some joe will dare suggest that we make more casinos to fund Better Fertility! (Actually, come think of it, a gambling addict will need alot of kids who are working to help him pay off the bills right?)
These are all silly ideas, I know. But creative problem solving comes from facing a problem from another angle. Not the same old same old.
If you strip away all the angsty reasons, the low fertility rate really stems from the problem of money. And the biggest irony is that the Gahmen is using more money to solve a money-related issue.
If you can’t fight fire with fire, then douse a big pail of water on it.