Mon, Mar 08, 2004 - Page 5 News List

Singapore tries to spark baby boom

AFP , SINGAPORE

A renewed effort is underway in Singapore to reverse an alarming baby shortage, with the government mulling longer paid maternity leave and a host of other family-friendly incentives to spark a procreation boom.

The task took on an added sense of urgency with just-released figures showing the total fertility rate plummeted to an historic low of 1.26 children per woman last year.

In absolute terms, it means only 36,000 babies were born that year, well below the 50,000 annual birth the city-state needs to replenish its population of 3.37 million naturally and have enough manpower for economic, defense and other needs.

"This is a serious problem. A declining birth rate will sap the vitality and resilience of our country," Deputy Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said in parliament last month.

But demographers said changing social mindsets, apart from easing the financial burdens of raising a child, are equally important -- a point acknowledged by the government.

"We need to shift social attitudes toward having children, even while we recognize that having children is a very personal decision which couples have to make for themselves," said Lee, who will succeed Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong in a leadership change coming possibly later this year.

Since 1987, the government has put in place a slew of financial and tax incentives to encourage couples to have more children than the current average of two.

A "baby bonus" scheme announced in 2000 gave fresh financial incentives for couples who will have a third child.

But demographers said the failure of the financial perks to lift the fertility rate underscores the need for non-monetary measures, such as creating a more friendly environment for working mothers.

"I think the missing link is about work. It's not about buying babies," Peter McDonald, professor of demography at Canberra's Australian National University, said.

"Providing financial support to have children is important but the financial loss that [working women] have by having children ... is in financial terms vastly greater than the payment that any government is going to make to them."

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