This is the first of a two-part series in response to the marriage and parenthood package announced by the Prime Minister in his National Day Rally speech 2008. It was first published on The Online Citizen.
In his National Day Rally speech, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong announced a slew of measures to increase Singapore’s fertility rate. It was the second time since taking over as prime minister in 2004 that he had sought to tackle this pressing national issue, which has often been cited as the most critical issue facing our young but ageing nation.
Mr Lee explained the two-pronged approach to reversing the trend of low birth rates: Firstly, encouraging people to get married, and secondly, encouraging couples to have children.
Earlier intervention needed
It appears that the Government’s solution to the problem of young people not getting married or marrying too late is merely a tweaking of the same approach that has delivered limited success so far, that is, to fund the matchmakers.
The marriage problem in Singapore is three-fold: Firstly, people putting off marriage until too late; Secondly, society’s attitudes towards marriage, and thirdly, higher divorce rates.
When couples get married too late, they will often have more difficulty conceiving. Many may give up trying and simply opt not to have kids. The issue of older, educated women not getting married is well known and needs no further explaining.
To tackle the problem of late marriages or no marriages, we need to focus on not just singles in their 30s, but also younger people in their late teens and early 20s.
Once people leave school or university, their casual social circle tends to shrink dramatically. The uphill task of finding a partner begins from the first day of work. Therefore if the government really wants to throw money at the problem, it should consider funding matchmaking programmes directed at university-age students. This is a group that most private matchmaking agencies will likely avoid as they don’t have as much disposable income as older singles.
Even pre-university students could be beneficiaries of programmes encouraging marriage. I do not advocate matchmaking for teenagers, but there could be more programmes advising students on how to prepare oneself to be a more ideal partner in future. These programmes could cover issues like respecting oneself and the opposite sex, encouraging abstinence before marriage, healthy sexual behaviour, financial management, and grooming and etiquette, among others.
Society’s attitudes towards marriage have also changed since a generation ago. Nowadays, young people no longer see marriage as critical to leading a fulfilling life. Alternative lifestyles abound and young people have many other life options to choose from. It doesn’t help that the media often portrays being married and having children as signing away one’s individual freedom.
Parents and society also need to change their mindsets that young people should wait until they have graduated and are settled in a well-paying job before considering marriage.
Too often, the excuse for not getting married is simply that it costs too much. If couples are prepared to have simple wedding ceremonies and live simply in the first few years of their marriage, it is actually quite affordable to get married.
The role of religion
The PM did not mention the critical role religion plays in getting people hitched and having kids. All the major religions in Singapore strongly encourage marriage and childbearing. Many couples met each other in church or other houses of worship.
While it would be a stretch to suggest that the Government should fund faith-based programmes that promote marriage and parenthood, this is an angle that policymakers should not overlook, given that 85% of Singaporeans have their worldviews shaped by religion.
The divorce rate in Singapore has been rising with each successive year. For couples who divorce before bearing children, this further delays childbearing or causes many to completely abandon any plans to have kids.
An increasing divorce rate has a knock-on effect on younger Singaporeans. As broken marriages become more pervasive in society, it could put off other people from getting married in the first place as they would increasingly question whether marriage is really worth the trouble and heartache.
To reduce the number of unhappy marriages in Singapore, our society needs to urgently look into this problem.
There is no silver bullet that can encourage people to get married earlier, and it is definitely not something the Government can or should do alone. It will require a national effort led by, most importantly, singles themselves, but with assistance from non-government organisations and religious institutions in partnership with the Ministry of Community Development, Youth and Sports.