Singaporeans Show Again That Changes in Work Culture is What Will Impact Birth Rates, and Not Money


Joanne Poh



So once again, it looks like raising Singapore’s dismal birth rate is a priority in this year’s Budget, just as it is every year. And just like every year, it looks like the carrots the government is dangling are going to do squat to raise the total fertility rate.

The problem, bluntly speaking, is that the government is dangling the wrong carrots. There have been hints aplenty that long working hours are putting a greater dampener on couple’s desire to have more kids than even the high cost of living.

What’s more, there have been signs that the intense work culture here suppresses dating and prevents singles from finding partners, some of whom would presumably want to start families.

No matter how much money you throw at couples, providing them with financial help is just one part of the equation. Here’s why:


Long hours at work are preventing Singaporeans from dating

Every few years, our local newspapers publish articles about how more and more Singaporeans are staying single beyond age 35.

These articles tend to blame singles for opting to pursue career success and being picky. But let’s be honest—there are heaps of Singaporeans who work long, punishing hours not because they want to but because their bosses demand it.

And many of these people are single not by choice but because they just don’t have the time or the opportunities to date. In fact, 50% of Singaporeans in a recent survey found work to be a barrier to dating.

The government has responded with the Social Development Unit, which crudely thrusts unmarried people together by organising singles mixers, which sound about as appetising as the notorious Shanghai marriage market. It is hoped that these events will make it more “convenient” for singles to couple up.

The point they’re missing is that dating isn’t something you can force through such initiatives or by nagging people that they have to do their national duty by procreating.

It’s something that happens when people have the time and energy to become the sort of person somebody would actually want to date, and interact with others in a spontaneous manner. Well, at least that’s what happens in this day and age for those who aren’t considering arranged marriages.


Families value work-life balance over more money

If you want to know why families aren’t having more kids, why not just ask them? Well, the families have spoken and confirmed what we already knew: in a recent report, the top issue faced by married couples was found to be balancing work and family life. Managing finances fell to the third item on the list.

The second concern, keeping the spark alive, was also closely related to a lack of time. Which makes sense: if both parties in a couple come home every day late at night completely exhausted and have little time for anything besides work, it’s hard to see how they’d be much fun to be around.

Kids take time and energy to raise, and it seems that even at the current TFR, couples are already struggling to keep it together.

Why have another kid when you are already finding it tough to find the time to bring up the one you do have? Bombarding couples with propaganda about the joys of parenting is futile when the reality they face involves long hours at the office while their kids are looked after by maids.


What can be done?

It’s clear that the monetary incentives thrown at parents aren’t working. It seems that until the work culture here changes to embrace flexible hours, better work-life balance and efficiency over face-time, as it hopefully will in a few generations, the low TFR is here to stay.

The issue of a growing percentage of singles is also something that we might grow out of, given time. Dating culture is fairly new in Singapore, and it will take some time before people learn to think of it as a process rather than as a necessary step to marriage, another box to check off on the list of Singaporean milestones.

20- and 30-something in Singapore are caught in the uncomfortable space between a new generation that wants to believe in love, and an older one that thinks of marriage as a ticket to stability and kids as the natural next step in the evolution of the good Asian family.

Now, the question is whether employers can allow Singaporeans enough breathing room to find time to explore relationships and, just maybe, consider whether they have space in their lives for marriage and kids.

What do you think can be done to raise the total fertility rate in Singapore? Tell us in the comments!

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Joanne Poh

In my previous life, I was a property lawyer who spent most of my time struggling to get out of bed or stuck in peak hour traffic. These days, as a freelance commercial writer, I work in bed, on the beach, in parks and at cafes, all while being really frugal. I like helping other people save money so they can stop living lives they don't like.

  • Chris Kuan

    hhhhmmmm…… Joanne, you should be asking the fundamental questions: why work so long and why there is poor work-life balance. The answer is MONEY or rather the concern of the lack of in old age. But I do agree with you, throwing monies at couples isn’t working – that is because it is not a simple matter of targetting couples. The whole proposition needs to be conducive for better work life balance and better conditions for having children. The most important thing is to reduce the uncertainities of old age – that is step up spending on pensions and healthcare (and no PGP will not do because we have to target the young, not just the old). Then as the example in Scandinavia and France has shown. improve spending on the infrastructure for childcare that it becomes much less a financial burden.

    What has happened is that after declining for decades, the TFR in those countries have turned up significantly. Even Japan’s famously low TFR has now exceeded Singapore’s in the last 15 years and that is correlated to a drop in total hours worked (and also cultural changes in which the young has no wish to put in the long hours of their fathers). Yes reduce the total hours worked but more important money reduces risks and uncertainties – both are equally important.

    • hansc

      agree, government incentives in the form of longer maternity leave (e.g. up two years in Germany), or heavily subsidised childcare (EU as a whole), and generally a stronger social welfare system where people will not have to be too afraid i being unemployed or sick will help a lot. However these solutions are much more costly than just proposing a subsidy. Don’t forget that aformentioned countries also have one of the highest tax burdens in the world..

      • Chris Kuan

        Well, we Singaporeans are trained by government through the MSM that our tax burdens are very low and theirs very high. But the problem is that we think taxes (low) and CPF contributions (high) as 2 different things. Over there, taxes (not as high as we think) and social security payments (high) are the same thing. So when we talk about high European tax burden and low Singaporean tax burden, we are not making a like for like comparison because we exclude CPF. We should be comparing total financial transfer from individuals to state. not just taxes alone.
        Then let’s look at benefits – here we withdraw CPF and spent Medisave, there they have a comprehensive set of social entitlements far greater in scope and variety than ours. Again, we think of them as two separate issues but we should consider them both as benefits which means total financial transfer from state to individuals.
        Once we begin to think of payments and receipts are financial transfer between individuals and state, then our taxes ain’t that low. One can argue that benefits are greater in Singapore because we withdraw our own monies but that has to be set against the comprehensive social entitlements received by Europeans.
        In all, I reckon the equation still favour Singapore but far from the extent derived from a comparison of tax burdens alone. But then again, our system build around CPF is minimally redistributional and regressive, favouring the rich. Theirs is highly redistributional which favours the poor and the middle class. How does one put a monetary value to peace of mind, improved conditions for work life balance and social justice?

  • I agree wholeheartedly with you and the 3 comments below. Where the govt has failed is to look at the issue, as it does in practically almost every other important issue in our society, invariably only from the dollars and cents perspective. But, even then the money that it is willing to ‘throw’ at the problem amounts to mere tokens. The govt thinks that every single dollar its gives out is the size of a bullock cart wheel! It takes much more than a few thousand dollars handed out to couples to bring up a child from before childbirth to 18. We know that and the ministers know that, but the latter habitually pretend ignorance. In their minds, being too charitable is going to bankrupt the state coffers or create crippling dependency among the people.

    My wife and I should know as she has to give up a professional career in order to bring up our two girls, one of whom was born severely hearing impaired, which is when we discovered to our utter dismay that the govt has ZERO facilities or help for children like her.

    However, I also detect insidious political, elitist and social control elements, under all these ‘doomsday’ talk – precipitated by a morbid fear of ‘growing’ the wrong class and race of citizens. We see it in the patronizing affirmative actions (which is in reality a subtle form of political control) and we see it in the decades of neglect to disabled and handicapped citizens in mainstream education and schooling.