21 August 2006

Trees, Robots & Babies

An excerpt from PM Lee's speech:
"Finally, let me talk about a major problem we face – population shortage. To keep our society lively and vibrant, we not only need our people to be healthy, but must also maintain our population .....

To sustain our growth and prosperity, we need to have enough people living and working in Singapore. This means that we must encourage families to have more children, and also attract more new immigrants here.

Two years ago, we introduced major policy changes to encourage couples to have more babies. So far the results have been very modest. I understand why some Singaporeans do not want to have more children. But I have not given up hope and will continue to think of ways to encourage couples to have more babies.

Let me explain why we need new immigrants. To maintain a population of 4 million, Singapore needs at least 50,000 babies a year. Last year, we had 36,000 babies. This means that we are short by 14,000 babies. No matter how hard we try, it would be hard to produce another 14,000 babies. Hence we need to attract more immigrants."
This reminds me of an old episode of Battlestar Galactica where a Cylon (a metallic, evil robot representing the Bad Guys) remarks that the human methods of replication are very inefficient. A baby human takes nine months to gestate; then after birth, it takes about 16 or 17 years to reach full maturity. Furthermore, a baby human requires an extraordinary amount of care. In contrast, a fully-functional Cylon can be manufactured within a day.

As we can see, PM Lee's thinking is somewhat Cylonic. Faced with the challenges of baby-making, he decides to opt for "instant adults" from overseas. Fully functional - just like the "instant trees" that have been popping up around Suntec City this past week for the IMF/World Bank conference.

Maybe PM Lee needs to consider this - generally, human beings do not breed for the sake of sustaining the economy. Yes, Adolf Hitler did try to promote that idea, but he isn't exactly an ideal role model for any modern government today.

One problem with PM Lee's baby-making incentives is that they focus on the time of the child's birth (maternity leave; paternity leave; cash gift; tax rebates the following year) or at the most, the first few years (Edusave scheme). But raising a child is a much longer-term commitment, and Singaporeans know this.

I believe that most Singaporeans would view it as a basic parental responsibility to support their child (if they had one) at least until he/she completes secondary education (and in many cases, polytechnic or university education). Singaporeans who doubt that they can do this will likely choose not to have children.

I also suspect that the present generation of young Singaporean adults view parenting more seriously than past generations. Ironically, this is what deters many Singaporeans from having a child, or if they already have one, from having another one. Parenting is a very time-consuming activity if you want to do it properly - and it is a very important responsibility that cannot be lightly undertaken - that could be why many Singaporeans choose not to undertake it at all.

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19 comments:

boon said...

mr wang, so where're your constructive suggestions? heh. Hint of it in your article: provide longer-term support for the parents.

Support doesn't have to be purely financial. The work-life balance initiative is a move in the right direction. But there is much resistance from the employers.

And given how the government has been so consistently pro-business in the past, one wonders how it could succeed in persuading the companies that flexible (and shorter working hours?) could actually increase productivity.

Anonymous said...

I think one of the main reason my generation have 2nd thoughts about having children is the current & future cost of living.

Bring down all public amentities charges, public transport costs, and I think it will be easier for many to think about having children and to be able to afford a good life for them.

All parents are ultimately a responsible lot who wish to be able to provide.

Anonymous said...

Another reason is because young people nowadays are aware and fully understand what a crappy place Singapore is for raising kids, especially the education system.

Raise them up here to get brainwashed in schools (National Education), to be highly schooled but poorly educated, to conform to the caste elitist system through streaming and gifted programme, to be economic slaves to the ever-changing 'next big thing' sector cooked up by the government, to stifle their dreams of travelling the path less travelled.

Last but not least, if the kid is a male and reaches conscription age... MANY Singaporean males, though resigning themselves to the obligation of conscription, know fully well that they can prevent their offspring from suffering the same fate.

Yes, all that and the cost of living too.

Oh and Lee Hsien Loong, if you have a goddamn problem with a declining population, you can jolly well import more of your beloved precious FTs to make up the numbers. Make it 'Our global city' indeed. So stop whining about birth rates.

singaporean said...

FT scheme and raising birthrate solves the same problem, but yet the two are counter-acting.

The left hand exhorts employers to provide work-life balance for citizens, the right hand chides Singaporean workers for being choosing, refusing to spend 4 hours commuting daily, working 12 hour shifts, unwilling to work the graveyard shift, unwilling to accept a few hundred dollars is better than nothing, so unlike the beloved and hungry foreign talent.

Over and on top of the fact that male citizens have reservist commitments, plus the CPF tax, what would the employer do?

Here is a government that provides tax breaks to companies to import foreigners and give away PR cheaply, and makes no attempt whatsoever at preventing discriminating hiring practices for white collar workers.

Yes, the day to day survival of the citizen is under attack, who will want add in another factor of uncertainty?

Or if you absolutely want to have a child, you will want to keep it under control. I'm stopping at one, and I will ship him out if I can.

John Riemann Soong said...

But won't you risk culturally alienating your child that way?

On the subject of fertility....

Kelvin said...

I guess the Matrix has always been running low on Duracells...

Anonymous said...

From all the topics covered during the rally, one see clearly that the PAP thinks and operates in old economy mode. They want to price compete instead of innovate, they want to duplicate and copy instead of creating and nurturing our own. The fervour given to pleasing and cocksucking foreigners at the expense of our own is just nauseating and makes a mockery of nation building. And in a few years time the Casinos will be here... The matrix doesn't even bother pretending to be one anymore.

Majullah Singapura and good bye.

Anonymous said...

I believe the government is looking at sustainability. Indeed the Govt should adopt a long term perspective, making structural changes that go beyond the early years. The economics of demand and supply dictate that we "raise supply" to meet the needs of the economy. Are we then to blame the government for not making Singapore a more attractive place for business? If foreign talents are so required, then have them to plug the gap while true-blue Singaporeans step up to meet the challenges.

I have been working in London for the last 9 months and trying to see things from a "foreign talent" perspective. I see young mainland Chinese making their mark here and holding key positions despite their tender years and linguistic difficulties. What enabled them to succeed (as well as impressed me) is their fierce determination. Yet I dun see/hear the locals complaining; more often than not I sensed admiration. Are we then guilty of talent bashing?

I, for one, believe my children (future) should take responsibility once they hit a certain age (16-18 for me). The softness of this generation was due to the pampering accorded by the previous. Have we not heard how soft the present generation is?

I do think that Singapore provides a better environment for raising kids. I have talked to Londoners who lament about the stabbings in school, teenage pregnancy, exposure to pornography (in the media!). I do not have a kid at the moment, but I am sure young Singaporeans can go to school safely without worrying not making home alive.

Anonymous said...

You're in London? Aha, then you should know about their rules abut employing foreigners. The effect is something like this:

A UK employer cannot offer a job to a foreigner unless he can demonstrate to the authorities first that he has already tried unsuccessfully to hire a local for that same job. To prove that he has tried to hire a local, he must show evidence like having advertised X times for candidates; interviewed Y no. of locals; and state why he found them unsuitable. Only then will he be permitted to hire a foreigner.

If rules like that existed in Singapore, I don't think Singaporeans would mind the foreigners in their midst.

porcorosso said...

Taking on Anonymous' commnent on UK employment rules - even if we had that rule here in Singapore, it would be easy to justify employing foreigners. For example, if you look at what Mr Wang does for a living - it is difficult to find trained and experienced Singaporeans to do that job. You can get someone with relatively meagre experience and train them or to make your job easier, hire a foreigner.

On the subject of babies, there is a positive correlation between income, quality of life, education and birth rate. If you have a career that already takes up too much time, a condo, country club and all that, you may not want to trade all that in for years of diaper changing and bottle feeding. It's not just here - happens in Japan, Italy, Sweden ... the list goes on.

John Riemann Soong said...

In the end, only one solution presents itself: we cannot have the PAP as a ruling party.

Mr Wang Says So said...

Well, Porco, let's take this a little further.

What do I do for a living? I supply legal services in a highly specialised & lucrative area of the banking industry. As you say, by prevailing market standards, I am now considered "trained and experienced" in this area - a valuable professional.

Yet oddly enough, just slightly more than two years ago, I had no experience in this area. I had been working in much more traditional and much less specialised areas of the banking industry.

My prospective employer's choice was therefore either, as you say, to get "someone with relatively meagre experience" (me) and train him (me) ... or to hire an expensive foreigner.

In my case, the employer took the 1st option and trained me. So the employer had to suffer my inexperience for six months, while I had to suffer a steep learning curve ....

... and then a few wires connect in my brain, cognition kicks in, and now I am considered "trained and experienced". A mini-national asset, the kind of skilled professional that the PM hates to see emigrate from the country.

The point is that this wouldn't have occurred if I, a Singaporean, had not been given the opportunity.

And if Singapore makes it very, very conducive, easy and convenient for employers to keep hiring foreigners, many Singaporeans would be denied the opportunity and kept further down the value chain.

Then in time the foreigners will make their money and leave for home country or Hong Kong or Tokyo or London ... and we would replace them with new foreigners ... for we still wouldn't have any trained, experienced Singaporeans in this field ... because the Singaporeans never had the opportunity to learn.

I got the lucky break because there is an international shortage of professionals in my field. As you know, it isn't easy to find those sorts of skills even if you look to Hong Kong or elsewhere.

But look at other industries and other kinds of jobs. Say you need a highly-experienced, highly-skilled mechanical engineer. Would you:

1. hire a Singaporean mechanical engineer and give him one year and the opportunity to develop into that highly-experienced, highly-skilled mechanical engineer?

or

2. take the convenient shortcut and just hire a highly-qualified, highly-skilled mechanical engineer from India or China? And let that Singaporean engineer continue with his current, less-value-added job in Singapore?

Because of what the govt is doing, employers increasingly opt for the 2nd option. I think it's fairly obvious what the long-term disadvantages are for Singaporeans.

Which is all good and well, if Singaporeans were really accustomed to think of Singapore as Singapore Inc. or Singapore the Hotel. The problem is - many Singaporeans still want to think of Singapore as home & nation. They want to feel that they belong here. That is their personal tragedy.

I have glossed over some of the issues, of course, but you get my basic points.

klimmer said...

So far, I noticed everyone has focused on the economic aspect of having children. However, I think what is of more significance is that most Singaporeans are generally unhappy with their lives in Singapore. Even a small percent of childless married couples, who are put off by the prospects of raising their child in such an environment, is sufficient to create a population shortfall over time.

So perhaps of constantly harping about how selfish Singaporeans are, perhaps the government should instead focus on the quality of life worthy of a first world nation.

Mr Wang Says So said...

The problem, Boon, is that there are two fundamentally different ways of considering the issues, and the two ways don't gel.

You can look at the babies issue in the economics way. But if you do so, then it actually makes more sense to import foreigners, because of the Cylon advantages. In fact, in the pure economics sense, the more confident the nation is in its ability to continually attract foreigners to work here, the more it should discourage people from having babies. Human offspring are economically non-productive for years and years and years.

Or you could look at it in a "human factor" way - that is, we want to have babies because that's natural, that's good, that's fulfilling, that's a fundamental human experience, it is potentially the most meaningful personal experience you will ever have in your life. The problem is - if you look at it this way, you also see that having a child has nothing whatsoever to do with the government. Then on this basis, why should the government encourage you to have or not have children? It should be a purely personal decision. And the government should also not have any responsibility for creating conditions that are conducive for more people to have more babies.

simplesandra said...

mr wang wrote: "And if Singapore makes it very, very conducive, easy and convenient for employers to keep hiring foreigners, many Singaporeans would be denied the opportunity and kept further down the value chain."

I second that. I was once denied promotion because the company "needed my experience" in what I was doing then; instead, they hired *another* foreigner who struggled and eventually left the firm. I too quit since it was pretty obvious the company wasn't worth working for.

The rest is history (so's the company). ;)

Indi said...

Singapore should follow Norway or Sweden. Give women 12 month maternity and men 3 month paternity leave.

who pays for their salay during those maternity/paternity leave?

the Government, of course.

A Simpler Life ... said...

Maternity leave or paternity leave doesn't factor much in that critical decision. Neither is level of income. Hygiene factos, at most.

Both of us earn earned a combined income of near quarter of a million a year.

Yet, we don't breed like rabbits. In fact we have only one child.

I love kids and will think of having another in Australia or adopting one. In Singapore, there are many factors to consider, all very daunting. To put in a nutshell, as someone had mentioned, the quality of life.

Eeps said...

In response to Indi, the marvellous maternity/paternity leave offered by the Scandinavian countries is largely due to the SIGNIFICANTLY higher personal tax rates in these countries. Do you want to be taxed more and enjoy the benefits, and thereafter slam the Govt for the taxes?

Let take a more holistic approach in identifying solutions to a problem - very much like Mr Wang who dissects the articles/speeches and bringing in supporting views.

singaporean said...

Considering the services you get in return, the tax rate in Scandinavian countries is really not that high (~40%). In fact, if you consider CPF as an income tax as well, our tax rate is spectacularly high at all income levels, possibly highest in the world.

And we wonder why the Singapore government is so rich, while Singaporeans are so cash poor.