Sunday, July 22, 2012

The drive for more babies...and the wrongheadedness of the approach.

The government is getting there...but still does not quite get it. Or chooses not to get it. Or believes it can have its cake and eat it too. Wishful thinking.

There were 2 articles and an editorial on encouraging Singaporean couples to have more babies. Very briefly, the first article was on NTUC pushing for 6 months paid maternity leave and an option to take a further 6 months unpaid. The second article was on changing employers' mindset to make for a more baby and mother friendly work environment. Finally, the editorial was on how a holistic approach was needed to encourage more babies, ranging from more hands-on fathers, to affordable childcare and preschool.

I shall deal with these one by one.

One definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.

The government had previously extended paid maternity leave by one month from 3 to 4 months, with our taxes picking up the tab. This was over and above the Baby Benefits, which are really tax breaks that are applicable only to those families that make enough money to pay taxes.

I will say this even if no one else wants to say it. Our Baby Benefits are targeted at couples in the upper middle class and above to have more kids, and no one else. The provenance of new babies matters to our government; heaven forbid that the poor go forth and multiply. This is one more example of how our government's policies favor the rich rather than the less privileged.

Let's also not forget state subsidies for in vitro fertilization, which is largely an option open only to the upper middle class.

After several years of the fertility rate continuing to languish at below replacement levels, I think we can conclude one thing. Throwing money at the problem, and increasing maternity leave is throwing money at the problem, is not a solution.

Why do I say increasing maternity leave is throwing money at the problem? Because no one makes the decision to have kids, a lifelong commitment, just for one or two more months of leave. Just like no one is fooled by the government's one-off or X-off GST rebates and Medisave top-ups in the face of what are permanent GST hikes and increased Medishield premiums.

My opinion on baby benefits has evolved over the years. Today, I believe that the couples who desire kids will have kids regardless of these Baby Benefits and perks. And those who won't, won't. The benefits are really just gravy for whoever already wants kids. In which case, these incremental benefits are a waste of tax dollars.

Is having a few months of maternity leave important? Yes. But is increasing it from 4 to 6 months going to help boost the fertility rate? No, I don't think so.

Thinking that applying the Scandinavian approach outside Scandinavia will work reflects an appalling lack of big picture perspective.

The second article was a wonder in naivete and ignorance.

In it, Ms Cham Hui Fong spoke on wanting to create a mini Denmark where there was high GDP growth, high female participation in the workforce and a high fertility rate.

Honey, we live in one of the most unequal societies on earth, where money is worshiped like a god, status is tied to how much you make and how much you spend, and the myth of meritocracy has taken root like the state religion. With meritocracy, you should get what you deserve, but the flipside is that you resent when people get what you feel they don't deserve. This is about as far from Scandinavia as you can get.

In a Scandinavian country like Denmark, the income and wealth distribution is relatively flat and taxes are progressive and high. This lends credence to the ideals of shared sacrifice both among individuals and companies, income redistribution, equal opportunity, societal values where family and relationships are prioritized, and work environments where workers are respected and valued.

In Singapore, GDP is what is valued. Economic growth is what is valued. Every time some form of social assistance is broached as an idea, the bogeyman of higher taxes is trotted out, we are reminded of what it will mean to our collective pocketbooks, and the idea is shot down.

Ms Cham is part of the establishment. She should know. We live in a society where we are taught to hold our noses to the grindstone early in life, that we need to scramble constantly for advantage.

Ms Cham spoke of changing employers' and colleagues' mindsets, saying that "Women need the peace of mind that they are not being victimized and marginalized just because they have a baby or have to spend more time at home."

Well, honey, guess what? In this country, when companies like SMEs are compelled to give say, 6 months of maternity leave, they feel victimized. In this country, when the norm for most working professionals is to knock off at 7, 8 pm, or even later, if they have to pick up the slack for a colleague on maternity leave, they feel victimized. When an unmarried worker has to shift their work patterns on account of flexi-work arrangements made specially for a worker with kids, they feel victimized.

Am I being anti-family? No, I am not. I am simply speaking of the realities on the ground. If we lived in a country where everyone knocked off at 5 pm and could go home and relax, the environment would be naturally kid-friendly and no one would bat an eyelid at maternity leave, paternity leave or family-friendly work arrangements.

But we don't live in such a country. Ms Cham talked about changing employers' and colleagues' mindsets. I have a news flash for her. You need to change the entire country's mindset.

A holistic approach is needed. 

Isn't it always the case? The editorial has it right in that affordable and available childcare and preschool must be part of the equation. I don't think the lack of hands-on fathers is a problem anymore, particularly among the upper middle class that the government is especially anxious to see reproducing.

However, I have one caveat to add, and this is linked to my second point above about changing society's mindset.

While it is thought to be important, providing greater and greater incentives to encourage couples to have kids may in fact, prove to have a divisive side-effect in this highly unequal, mercenary society of ours.

The benefits provided so far are in fact a form of affirmative action, but the reason that nobody complains is because most people see themselves starting families and having kids at some predefined point in their lives. But that may change in the not too distant future.

We already see sizeable segments of the population choosing not to have kids for various reasons. There are the avowed singles, the childless couples unwilling to sacrifice their careers and lifestyles, the LGBT community, and the marginalized minority, such as single parents.

In a Scandinavian country, such generous benefits would, as I have mentioned, not cause a furore, but be seen instead as a societal good.

In a country like ours however, some people may take issue with these benefits instead. Remember, we live in a country where being single practically bars you from owning your own home due to stratospheric property prices, the lack of a housing grant and affordable HDB loans, and being shut out from the market for new HDB flats.

Who can tell when benefits become too generous and arouse disgruntlement and resentment among sections of the population? I know I myself feel some disquietude already.


Ponder Stibbons said...

They haven't exactly applied the Scandinavian approach, so I think it's too quick to say that the Scandinavian approach won't work in Singapore. A major portion of the TFR in Scandinavia is due to births outside of marriage. Such births are attached to huge financial and social disincentives in Singapore, but not in Scandinavia.

The other aspect of the Scandinavian approach is greater gender equity. Right now incentives for childbirth in Singapore are still set up with the assumption that women do most of the childcare work.

I am not sure if applying these two aspects of the Scandinavian approach in the Singapore context would have an appreciable effect, but I think they are worth thinking about.

mjuse said...

You made some good points, but that is precisely what I meant when I said adopting the Scandinavian approach outside Scandinavia won't work.

The government is cherry-picking aspects of Scandinavian policies without giving much thought to the framework under which they operate in Scandinavia.

Giving generous maternity benefits in a society where the work environment is as grueling as ours substantially blunts their effectiveness, and also raises questions of fairness, warranted or not.