Expert suggests radical measures to raise fertility rate

Is it really impossible to raise Singapore’s fertility rate?

No, said prominent sociologist Paulin Straughan.

Speaking at Thursday’s Institute of Policy Studies (IPS) roundtable on population trends, Straughan suggested that Singaporeans will have more babies if they change their attitude towards their career.

The former Nominated Member of Parliament said that young people between the ages of 25 and 29 are reluctant to date or get married because they are too caught up trying to scale the corporate ladder.

“(Meritocracy) is what pushes our young Singaporeans into overdrive in paid work,” she said, before adding: “Because we are a capitalist economy, work achievements have transformed the way we deal with ourselves until it has become, for many, the only mark of success.”

There is also a lack of clear key performance indicators, or KPI, for local workers, which results in many of them spending more time in the office, in the hope that this will translate into better appraisals from their supervisors.

“Our workforce has logged the longest hours’ work, yet our productivity figures are among the lowest in the world. We have a situation where we are living in the office and yet doing very little — something is wrong,” she said.

To change that, Straughan said a revamp of the remuneration system in Singapore is needed. At the roundtable, she suggested that the base salary for workers could be increased, while performance-related bonuses are reduced. She also urged companies to adopt “flexible work arrangements”.

These measures, said Straughan, will help to improve work-life balance, and take the pressure off Singaporeans who feel the only way to advance in their careers is to work long hours.

With more time on their hands, Singaporeans can then “prepare” themselves for parenthood and boost ground-up citizen population growth.

Recruitment and human resource (HR) professionals contacted by Yahoo! Singapore were in favour of Straughan’s suggestions, calling them a move in the right direction.

Associate director of HR at recruitment consultancy Robert Walters Singapore Joanne Chua said the measures will help to create a better positive work environment, which impacts the quality of one’s life in turn.

“With better work-life balance, many professionals will definitely be more motivated to consider starting a family,” she said. She noted, however, that having children is ultimately a personal decision, and a change of mindset may take some time.

Chua added that for such measures to work, all parties — namely the government, businesses and employees — will have to “buy in” to them.

“One institution is linked to another and they don’t work solo, so you can’t expect the fertility rate to pick up simply from implementing one measure alone,” she said.

Chua also suggested further measures to make the work environment more conducive for family expansion, and these included granting paternity leave, and welcoming new mothers back into the workforce.

Another expert, associate director at recruitment company Robert Half Singapore Stella Tang also saw merit in Straughan’s proposals, saying these changes will help to encourage people who have family responsibilities to stay in the workforce for a longer time, or to re-enter it after taking time off to start a family.

“As Singapore employers battle to retain their best talent, they need to look at more flexible work arrangements as a means of holding on to quality staff,” she explained.

Abolish PSLE and streaming for a better education system?

At the IPS discussion, Straughan also proposed radical changes to Singapore’s education system.

For example, she suggested scrapping the primary school leaving examination (PSLE), as well as streaming, and replace it with a 12-year primary and secondary school system (six years each) that focus on imparting learning techniques.

“Get rid of PSLE, get rid of streaming. Let the child go into school at Primary 1 and enjoy learning all the way through to the entrance exams into university,” she said. “I think that will be a major transformation for parenting in Singapore.”

The other changes Straughan called for include doing away with tuition and for a review to be done to ease the pressure on school teachers.

Commenting on these measures, Arthur Foo, a young father of two, said he would be supportive of such changes if they allow children to experience more holistic development instead of simply focusing on academic intelligence.

“I think our children are acculturated to be exam-smart but not as street-smart as those in countries where academic achievement is not the only route to success,” he said, noting, however, that a suitable alternative to Singapore’s practice of selection by meritocracy must be found before the changes can be made.

Paulin Straughan’s suggestions at a glance:

  • Reducing the performance bonus aspect of remuneration, while increasing base salaries instead
  • Encouraging mainstream application of flexi-work arrangements
  • Evolving clearer, more objective indicators of good performance, instead of vague performance markers that force workers to go into “overdrive” in a bid to attain them
  • Establishing a better work-life balance
  • Reducing reliance on face-time, the amount of time one spends in the office.
  • Scrapping streaming and PSLE for primary school students and implement a 12-year primary and secondary school system (with six years for each) that allow students to focus on learning, instead of passing examinations.

Do you agree with the suggestions? Tell us your views.