Six kids, no maid: a turnaround in population policy

Mar 29, 2016 01.00PM |

by Daniel Yap

WE ARE due in September: our sixth child in less than nine years. Even if I accomplished little else of note in this life, nobody could accuse me of being an unproductive member of society.

When people hear the news, most people congratulate us, heaping us with praise (“Wah, Gahmen very proud of you, ah!”), but there are friends and strangers who silently worry that our children may be too much for us to cope with or, considering how many benefits are being given to families these days, are a drain on the nation’s resources.

The budget’s new CDA First Step grant to put $3,000 into the Child Development Account (for childcare, healthcare, and education) is something Minister for Social and Family Development Tan Chuan-Jin referred to as designed to benefit lower income families most, who often have tighter cash flows and are unable to contribute the full value of their kids’ CDA. Between the kids, we have qualified for $48,000 in matching contributions, but my wife and I have only deposited less than a quarter of that, family finances being as tight as they are.

Although it is part of the Baby Bonus Scheme, a friend of mine remarked that the measure was unlikely to affect Singapore’s flagging total fertility rate, and I agree – it is to me a sign that something else is changing.

Supporting low income families who want to have more children is something of a turnaround from policies past. Sure, the G has technically been encouraging people to have more children since 1987, but back then it was only the rich and the educated who were exhorted to procreate.

During the two-child policy era, parents of more than two children were slapped with financial penalties unless they got sterilised – a clear sign that only those who could afford to pay the G (the well-to-do) were allowed to have larger families.

Even as population growth flattened out and went negative, the 1984 Graduate Mothers’ Scheme schemed to give benefits to those with higher education. Then, the 1987 New Population Policy was specifically designed to only encourage the well-off to have babies – “three or more… if you can afford it” the slogan went. It seemed that the poor were still producing and the rich (or at least the well-educated) were being stingy with their full creative potential.

My wife and I are by no means poorly educated, but we are nowhere near well-off – our per capita income puts us at the bottom quintile of Singapore’s households (furthermore, our per capita income is set to take another hit in September).

Yet here I am looking forward to number six. How times have changed. It seems that Singapore wants more sons and daughters, whichever financial family background they may come from.

Yet vestiges of the old ways remain, and I often wonder why.

Our fifth child was born towards the end of 2014, and we came face to face with a clear distinction between the haves and have-nots. Back then, the fifth and subsequent children were not eligible for the Baby Bonus cash gift, but had a larger CDA matching account – an arrangement that prejudiced families with tighter cash flows. To compound the cash flow issue, we discovered on the day of delivery that we were not allowed to use Medisave to pay for the delivery of our fifth child. These rules were overturned in 2015, but other pro-education/anti-poverty measures are so entrenched that they continue to this very day.

Income tax rebates and reliefs for parents provide benefits only for those who earn high enough salaries to attract tax under Singapore’s fairly light income tax regime. With the number of children I have, I look forward to not paying personal income tax for maybe the next decade or two.

Then there is the Home Ownership Plus Education (Hope) Scheme that launched in 2004, which has as a condition for financial aid that parents have no more than two children. While it is certainly prudent to look at the correlation between parents’ income and outcomes for children perhaps, given our TFR problem, it is time to mitigate the risks for those children without placing restrictions on how many children such a family should have.

Many of our politicians and scholars hail from poorer family backgrounds. Who is to say that a child in a poor family today, in prospering Singapore, faces the same bleak future that our generation did in the 50s, 60s, or 70s? Singapore has the resources, and hopefully the will, to put all Singapore’s children, rich and poor, on a level playing field to mature into productive adults.

People, after all, are Singapore’s greatest natural resource. And I guess that makes my wife and I some of the most economically productive members of this society… about 25 years from now.


Featured Image by Sean Chong.

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