SINGAPORE — A lengthy campaign to persuade parents in Singapore to "stop at two" children has worked too well, and government officials are now offering a package of financial incentives in an attempt to spark a baby boom.
But the major policy shift has left parents baffled, mothers indignant, sociologists skeptical and private employers nervous about potential costs.
"Are we being told to have more children for the sake of the country or for ourselves?" asked J. D. Indran, the father of a 2-year-old boy.
"It's not just a question of finances," Indran said. "A baby must be wanted mentally and spiritually. It would basically be a disservice to the country to bring up an unwanted child."
'Laughter and Silence'
"These rules are made by men who have no concept of what's involved in raising children," said Thio Su Mien, a mother who had three children "when it was antisocial to have them."
"My reaction (to the policy change) is laughter and silence," she said.
Government officials say that the call for more children was sparked by alarm over an increase in the number of adults who do not marry and a rise in the number of married couples who postpone having children. Without a change in the birth rate, officials contend, there will not be enough young people paying taxes by 2030 to provide services for the 800,000 residents 60 years old and above.
"In order for any nation to survive, it has to change in accordance with changes in circumstances," First Deputy Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong said. "For us, it is even more necessary."
Goh cautioned couples who cannot afford larger families to refrain from having more children. But he said that most can support three children and those "who can really afford it" should have more.
The government, fearful of a runaway population overwhelming the job market, housing and health care facilities, embarked on its population control program in the 1960s. After the Family Planning and Population Board Act was passed in 1965, young people were bombarded with government slogans such as "Girl or Boy--Two Is Enough" from officials, teachers and other advisers. At the time, four or five children per family was the norm, and experts warned that the population would climb to a staggering 5 million people by the year 2000, overwhelming the 239-square-mile city-state.
To help convince parents that fewer were better, the government legalized abortion and encouraged voluntary sterilization. Hospital fees went up as a woman had more babies, working mothers were allowed only two paid maternity leaves and a family's third, fourth and subsequent children were given a lower priority in the choice of and admission to schools.
The measures had an immediate effect. Birth rates dropped sharply in the first four years and continued to decline. The small family grew in appeal as more people were educated, women joined the work force and incomes rose. The fertility rate--the number of children each woman is likely to have--dropped steadily from 4.7 per woman in 1965 to the planned level of 2.1 in 1975.
But the campaign then began to backfire. The decline in the birth rate did not level off. Officials say that the average Singapore woman is likely to have only one or two children today. They predict that the population will peak at 3 million in 2020 and then decline.
Goh said that the government could not have anticipated the problem. If every woman had married and had two children, the population would be replacing itself, he said.
"It's because large numbers of people remain unmarried and the better-educated ones who are married have fewer than two children," Goh said.
Married couples now have "to make up for those who are not (having children) or who are under-producing," Goh said, while the government seeks ways to encourage single adults to marry.
Tax Rebates, Subsidies
The package of incentives is aimed at reducing the financial burden of having more children, he said. It includes special tax rebates, subsidies for child-care centers, priorities in government-subsidized housing and the removal of earlier disincentives discouraging more than two children.
Seeking cooperation from employers, the government is encouraging part-time and flexi-time employment for women with young children, extended maternity leave and the retraining of mothers who rejoin the labor force after having children.
Goh is optimistic that Singapore residents will be replacing themselves by 1995 with the help of the new policies. But critics note that the emphasis on economics completely ignores major social changes and the realities of caring for babies.
"We have a new breed of women," Malla Tan, a University of Singapore sociologist, said. "They're involved in their careers and have become used to a certain amount of leisure and more material possessions.