SINGAPORE — Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong is cranking up a national debate on babies this month, with proposals to Parliament that would try to stem the country’s slumping birthrate.
Penelope Sim isn’t listening.
“My mother-in-law hates me and she says I’m selfish, but I don’t really care,” said Sim, a human-resources consultant who’s been married for six years. “Everything’s crazy expensive and life’s already stressful enough here without kids. If there’s no one to carry on the family name, then so be it.”
Sim, 33, embodies Lee’s challenge to persuade Singaporeans to wed younger and procreate more, four decades after concern about overcrowding prompted his father to urge citizens to delay nuptials and have smaller families.
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Lee is caught between a rock and a hard place. While the birthrate was about 1.3 children per woman in 2012 — barely enough to replace one parent — a backlash against soaring immigration forced the government to curb the influx of foreigners, leading to labor shortages and slower economic growth.
Measures since 1987 to reverse declining fertility, including handouts of as much as S$18,000 ($14,600) and extended maternity leave, haven’t worked.
The nation’s birthrate in 2010 and 2011 were the lowest in 47 years of independence. About 36,000 babies were born to residents in 2011, compared with nearly 50,000 in 1990.
The failure to encourage more births means the country will have to contend with a shrinking pool of workers and consumers.
Lee has said higher taxes will be needed in the next two decades as the government boosts social spending to support the growing numbers of elderly.
Singapore’s first cohort of baby boomers turned 65 last year, and its number of elderly will triple to 900,000 by 2030, according to the National Population and Talent Division.
Singapore resorted to immigration in recent years to raise numbers. The population has increased by 1.1 million in the past decade, to 5.3 million.
In a package of measures released on a government website called “Hey Baby,” Singapore said it will boost its annual budget on marriage and parenthood to S$2 billion from S$1.6 billion, including spending on matchmaking, housing grants, subsidized child care and fertility treatments and cash gifts for babies. In 2001, the budget was S$500 million.
The prime minister, who has four children, is encouraging couples to start a family earlier by giving priority public housing to those with children under 16.
In Singapore, with some of the most expensive real estate in Asia, government-subsidized homes are the only affordable option for most young couples, and waiting lists for new apartments can extend years. The government will make a S$3,000 contribution to childhood medical expenses and plans measures to make child care more affordable.
Social-policy experts aren’t optimistic the measures will reverse the trend.
“No pronatalist policy can bring the fertility rate back to replacement level,” said Theresa W. Devasahayam, a researcher at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies in Singapore, who has published papers on gender, aging and labor policies in the city state. “The government is in a fix. For the moment, it has little choice but to keep importing labor and keep the country’s doors open to foreigners.”
In 1965, the country boasted a fertility rate of 4.7. So many women gave birth in the national maternity hospital in 1966 that it entered the Guinness Book of World Records.
The so-called birthquake raised concern that the fledgling economy would be overburdened, and Lee’s father, Lee Kuan Yew, promoted family planning, legalized abortion and encouraged sterilization.
A “Stop at Two” campaign in the 1970s and the natural decline in childbirth as the economy developed brought the fertility rate down to 1.82 by the end of the decade.
Last August, Lee Kuan Yew lamented that the number of births in the city has halved since he came to power in 1959, even with twice as many people.
“If we go on like that, this place would fold up because there will be no original citizens left to form the majority,” Lee, 89, said in a speech published in the Straits Times newspaper. “We’ve got to persuade people to understand that getting married is important, having children is important.”
Men and women are delaying getting married in part because they want to “concentrate fully” on their jobs or studies, a government survey of 2,120 singles showed this month. The median age for grooms has risen to 30.1 in 2011, from 26.9 in 1970. For brides, it has climbed to 28, from 23.1.
“We have to find effective ways to encourage Singaporeans to have more babies,” the younger Lee said in his New Year message. “We are not impersonal, calculating robots, mindlessly pursuing economic growth and material wealth.”
“A lot of women in my generation feel torn between work and family,” said Farah Azmi, a 34-year-old accountant for a pharmaceutical company who married her boyfriend of four years in 2011.
“I definitely want to have kids but I won’t be able to be there for them like my mum was there for me and my brothers,” she said. “What’s the point of having kids if they’re going to be brought up by an outsider, by your maid?”
“I’m stopping at one,” said Corinne Chia, who is six months pregnant with a boy she plans to name Jeremy. She said the cost of bringing up a child is the main reason. “He’s not even born yet, and I joke to my friends that I’m already broke.”