YOUR VIEW: ‘Focus on getting singles to settle down’

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Following the Prime Minister’s National Day Rally Speech, I read with interest the great surge of debates in the various media regarding his comments about Singapore’s fertility rate. Respondents contributed ideas on changes to childcare systems, financial subsidies and paternity leave, amongst others.

Now, I’m a woman, aged 27, university-educated, self-employed (was previously holding a well-paying job), childless, unmarried— with no sign of a change in marital status in the near future. I’m one of the guilty ones.

Following PM Lee’s thought-provoking speech, I spent some time pondering just why I, and others like myself, haven’t begun doing our part for preserving the existence of Singapore’s next generation.

And I have news for the government: None of the measures being bandied about – childcare improvements, baby bonuses and maternity/paternity leave – mean a peep to us. 

Single people don’t care about any of the above because we don’t HAVE kids. And frankly, the sheer amount of discussion about the subject is enough to stress anyone away from contemplating a change in status quo.

Part 1: Are we solving the right problem?

Moreover, I don’t think we’ve quite got our finger on some of the key problem areas.

It seems that the married couples are already contributing not too badly. Let me illustrate.

In the year 2011, for every 100 women, about 150 babies were born. (Yes, these are only indicative statistics for purpose of discussion)

So for every Mummy-and-Daddy pair, on average the married couples have a Total Fertility Rate (TFR) of about 1.5. The actual number can well go a little higher in the next few years, since some of these women are in their early thirties, and more babies may well be forthcoming.

The TFR among married women is not quite the ideal 2.1 that PM Lee was seeking, but 1.5 isn’t quite the doomsday situation we’re dreading.

Statistics can hide the real issue

So yes, the married couples could do with a bit of a boost, and with some help from Baby Bonuses and paternity leave and a lot of family-nudging, might possibly up numbers enough to effectively replace themselves.

However, in 2010, among women aged 30-35, 31% were single. My question is: Isn’t that what’s really causing the problem? A quick illustration:

-    For every 100 women, an ideal TFR of 2.1 means that they collectively have to produce 210 babies to effectively replace everybody
-    Since only 69% of women are married (and assuming no unwed mothers), each of the married women would have to produce 3 babies each to achieve the ideal TFR.

That’s DOUBLE the current TFR among married women.

This is why I think that, rather than just focus on getting the married to have more children, some effort should be spent on getting the singles to pair up and do their part. That will serve double duty of not just producing babies, but also reducing the burden on the already-hitched to not only replace themselves, but also the singles.

Part 2: So why aren’t Singaporeans getting married?

Clearly there are a myriad of reasons why each individual remains single, but I would like to put forth my take on what some of these major reasons are, and possibly get these topics to attract the same amount of attention that discussions on childcare and working arrangements for parents are getting right now.

1. Work-life balance is not just for parents

Our working hours are truly incredibly long, and we are now getting conscious of the fact that OT is taking away parent-child time.

But the effects are just as serious for singles. On an average week, most singletons spend their time at work with colleagues, at home with family, and at food or alcohol joints with that same weekly regular group of friends. The net result is that they don’t meet any real potential partners at all, assuming the singleton doesn’t hook up with someone at work and all the weekly bunch of friends have been friend-zoned years ago.

Hobbies? Special-interest projects? Some singles have admirably been able to find time for these, but the vast majority barely find time to sleep sometimes, what with being contactable for work 24/7 via smartphones, laptops etc.

2. Singles can’t afford to live on their own

Culturally, most of us live with our parents until we marry. In more ways than we realize, applying for a HDB flat is a coming-of-age milestone, since you can’t apply for one unless you get married or get to age 35 (and even then you have to be able to afford one from the resale market on a single income).

First of all, this leaves us being a lot more immature than we’d like to admit. Lots of singles I know can’t cook or clean house (myself guilty as charged), and don’t pick up basic skills for real money-management. Unfortunately, that doesn’t bode well for presenting ourselves as prospects for an adult partnership.

Secondly, for the practical-minded, living at home is comfort-zone galore. Your expenses are lower, there’s always food in the refrigerator and the floors are always mysteriously dust-free. Unless you feel emotionally-motivated to build a new home with a worthy significant other, why change the wonderful status quo?

Lastly, I think the Asian politician who suggested blackouts to PM Lee as a solution to our TFR problem was one of the serious idea-contributors. Truth is, dinner-and-movie dates alone aren’t always enough to motivate two singles to give up above-mentioned comfort zone and privacy is an increasingly diminishing commodity in our fast over-crowding island. Living with parents, in this case, is the number-one obstacle.

HDB flats have always been denied to singles, sort of dangled in front of us like a carrot-reward for doing our part by registering our names in the Registry of Marriages. Can I put forth the idea that making it affordable for singles to live on their own may actually BOOST marriage and fertility rates? It may just make a lot of us finally grow up and realize we need to transit into forming meaningful adult partnerships and taking on a parental role.

3. Where did Co-Curricular Activities (CCA) go?

Remember when we were all members of some CCA group in school? It was a time when people with similar interests met up once (or three times) a week to sing in a choir, or play chess, or play volleyball.

And if my memory serves me right, it was also where when we witnessed a lot of budding teen romances.

Why did CCA work as a matchmaker for teenagers? First and foremost, people showed up because they wanted to (theoretically), not because they had to, like for school lessons. Secondly, you knew if you joined the basketball team, pretty much everyone there is into basketball, as assumedly you joined because you like it too. Thirdly, most of the time everyone was in a relaxed frame of mind; you could all go for ice-cream after practice if you wanted to, or go off in pairs after practice if that was what you preferred.

The SDU, the activities touted in the Duet magazine and the numerous dating agencies in Singapore have tried to duplicate this, but lots of people aren’t taking it up, and the success rate isn’t half as good as what most secondary schools managed to achieve, albeit rather reluctantly.

In conclusion

It’s just been strange to me that so much has been said about boosting births, but not half as much about getting singles to settle down. Arguably, the effort to effect the latter will still leave a gap till they start producing children, but it seems to me that late- or non-marriages is a bigger long-term problem for Singapore, with more severe effects (ageing population of unmarried, childless old folks, anyone?).

What does everyone think? Are some of the suggestions here way out, or do they make some sense to you?

The writer, Sim Si Ying (May), is a 27-year old Singaporean female. She is a real estate agent by profession and has a healthy dating calendar. She loves astrology and Broadway musicals and hopes that singles can buy BTO HDB flats soon.

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