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With Birthrate Falling, Singapore Targets 'Lifestyle Impotency'

By Ellen Nakashima
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, September 11, 2004; Page A13

SINGAPORE -- Sarah Wee and James Ng are the quintessential career couple. Married only a year, the sparkly Wee is a media executive at a large ad agency. Ng, clean-cut in a blue button-down, is an asset manager with a property investment firm. They own a condo, a $42,000 car and two dogs, a Maltese and a Shih Tzu.

They have a bright future, a future that includes children -- but not just yet.


Sarah Wee and James Ng are among the young, upwardly mobile Singapore couples who want children, but not yet, causing the birthrate to plunge. (Ellen Nakashima -- The Washington Post)

That is the quandary Singapore faces as it tries to boost its anemic birthrate. The government, fearing that the tiny, prosperous city-state will shrink into oblivion, has recently adopted a series of incentives to encourage people to have not just one or two but three or more children.

Officialdom here once rewarded parents who voluntarily sterilized themselves. Now it's offering three-month paid maternity leaves, up to several thousand dollars in graduated baby bonuses and co-savings plans, and tax breaks for nannies and grandparents who take care of children.

Those incentives may nudge couples such as Wee and Ng. Wee, 28, had been thinking of having one or two babies. But with the new policy, she said, maybe she will have more.

"It seems a bit easier to have children," she said over dinner at a restaurant in a glittering downtown shopping mall. But, she added, "I don't want to quit my job and stay at home."

Singapore's birthrate has sunk to an all-time low of 1.25 babies per woman. Raising it has become a national cause, as significant as the fight against terrorism. If the birthrate continues to wane, officials warn, the workforce will shrink. There will be fewer people to support a growing elderly population and to sustain the military that protects this 400-square-mile island sandwiched between Indonesia and Malaysia. Singapore's vaunted tiger economy will whimper.

The government is loosening immigration rules, too. But a premium will always be placed on native-born Singaporean citizens, officials said.

"This is a matter of values, not of incentives," the new prime minister, Lee Hsien Loong, said in a recent National Day speech. "We want people to have babies because you want them and you love them. It's part of a happy family life. "

"Singapore. A Great Place for Families," declared a two-page color spread in the Straits Times newspaper promoting the baby perks. The paper also brimmed with articles about new measures to encourage a "balanced family life," including a shorter workweek for government employees -- five days instead of five and a half -- and guidelines for ending discrimination against working women who want babies.

A government parenthood hotline has logged about 1,000 calls a day since it was set up last month. A parenthood Web site has drawn about 80,000 hits.

To succeed, the government must remake the social attitudes that come with greater affluence, as well as the resistance to having children that the state itself fostered a generation ago.

In the 1960s, when Singapore had just gained its independence from Britain, having six children was common. In the 1970s, worried that the population was growing too fast, the government began a "Stop At Two" policy, using tax and other incentives to curb family growth.

The birthrate started to drop, mainly among educated women.


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