Our nation’s total fertility rate (TFR) plunged to a historic low of 1.04 children per woman in 2022. This is attributed to the “rising proportion of singles, later marriages, and married couples having fewer children” despite young Singaporeans consistently expressing a strong desire for marriage and children. The National Population and Talent Division’s 2021 Marriage & Parenthood survey showed that 8 in 10 young singles aspire to get married and have children, and over 9 in 10 married Singaporeans want at least 2 children.
In the 1970s, the government ran a ‘Stop At Two’ campaign to curb population growth. This campaign carried messages such as “Small families, brighter future – Two is enough” and “The more you have, the less they get – Two is enough”.
The government imposed a range of disincentives to discourage people from having large families. These included a reduction of income tax relief to cover only the first three children, a reduction of paid maternity leave from three to two confinements, and lower priority for larger families on the wait list for Housing and Development Board (HDB) flats.
It is well known that population control efforts were so excessively successful that the government made a drastic about-turn on its policy because of falling fertility rates. In March 1987, then-First Deputy Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong launched its pro-natalist policy with the slogan, “Have three, or more if you can afford it”.
Since then, Singapore’s family policies have evolved to include a whole range of measures such as baby bonuses, parental leave, childcare subsidies, tax reliefs, housing support, and the like. As part of the latest move, paternity leave has been increased by 2 weeks, although on a “voluntary” basis for employers. The baby bonus is increased by a few thousand dollars every few years.
However, experience shows us that attitudes and trends about childbearing have become deeply ingrained and have been difficult to reverse. As a result, Singapore’s TFR remains at an all-time low. For a small, densely populated island nation with no natural resources except its population, declining birth rates is a serious crisis.
Even while the government is trying to tackle Singapore’s birth rate woes, is there anything that we can learn from other countries?
We take a look at two successful case studies from Japan and Hungary.