These are excerpts of a speech I gave on Saturday 25 August at YouthQuake, a forum organised by the Workers’ Party Youth Wing.
I thank the Workers’ Party Youth Wing for inviting me to share the perspective of a parent with young children. I will be sharing about my wife’s and my considerations when starting my family, the challenges faced by working parents in Singapore, and what more can be done to support the family.
I have been married for almost nine years to my wonderful and supportive wife, Elena. We have two children—a daughter Hannah, who is turning four soon, and a son Asher, who just turned two.
I got married at age 26. We remained DINKs (double income, no kids) for about five years before having Hannah. We felt it was better to spend a few years adjusting to married life before having kids.
Why did we want to have kids? If we had we conducted a standard cost-benefit analysis (CBA), here’s how it would have looked like: High initial costs of prenatal and delivery fees, medical check-ups, infant care and childcare fees. There would be 25 years or more of continuous expenditure from diapers to degrees. Since we don’t expect our kids to support us in our old age, the payback period is infinity. So using the CBA approach, the conclusion would have been that this child-raising project should not be undertaken.
This is a clear departure from previous generations, where the costs for raising kids were not so high, the period of upbringing was shorter (since children left school and went out to work earlier), and children were presumed to be the parents’ old age social security policy.
Fortunately starting a family is not a business decision, although one cannot ignore the financial implications.
Our reasons for having kids were more social, cultural and faith-based. Elena and I are Christians. We met in church, which, like most religious organisations, places a strong emphasis on family. We have many church mates, who are also our close friends, who have kids—some with as many as three to five kids. They seemed to be doing well and having much joy in raising their kids.
We also believe that children are a blessing from God and we have a responsibility to multiply ourselves, and raise up the next generation to be a blessing to this world.
Having kids was one of the best decisions we made. Neither Elena or I were crazy about children before we had our own, but now we love every moment we spend with our kids. Nothing brings a smile to my face more than looking at their photos or seeing their quirky behaviour or expressions.
Last week, a reporter emailed me to ask what radical solutions I had for raising total fertility rate (TFR). She asked me what I thought about allowing singles to adopt children, or outlawing abortion for married women. I told the reporter what we need are not radical proposals, but an implementation of practical proposals that many Singaporeans have already suggested in the past. We need to decide as a nation if raising the TFR is really a national priority or if we don’t really think it can be achieved.
If we are serious about raising the TFR, we need to tackle three main challenges: Cost, work culture and our culture and values.
Money is not the solution to everything, but it is the strongest lever the government has at its disposal. We need to significantly reduce the cost of raising children, especially during their first six years of their lives. This is a time where the cost of raising children is the highest. It is also a time when parents are struggling the most financially, as they are a long way from their peak earning power.
One of the biggest cost factors is childcare. Even with subsidies, many parents still have to fork out $500 to $800 or more a month per child, and this excludes the high end childcare centre fees.
If the government is willing to subsidise up to 90% of the training fees of adult workers, including foreigners, why can’t it subsidise a similar proportion for the care of our future Singaporean workers?
Besides money, need to create a work environment that is more conducive for parents with children. Our local work culture needs to change. Employers and bosses need to realise that family comes first, yes even before the job.
Paternity leave will be useful. The Workers’ Party called for it in our manifesto and I raised the issue in Parliament in March. But more childcare leave or paternity leave is just symbolic. When your child falls sick and the childcare centre calls, it’s usually not your leave balance that prevents you from dropping everything and leaving to pick up your kid.
If your boss wants “face time” and does not allow you to work from home, or your workload is so heavy that you can’t afford to leave, you’ll find yourself scrambling to find someone to pick up your sick child. It’s usually those times when you curse your stressful life and hate your work.
We need to redesign work to provide for more telecommuting, flexible work hours, part time work and job sharing. This will also encourage more non-working mothers to re-enter the workforce.
Most of these things will not happen as long as there is a generous supply of skilled and unskilled foreign workers, who are here alone and are willing to put in long hours with low pay. The Government can give all sorts of work-life grants and consultancy assistance, but employers will have little incentive to redesign work in order to retain and attract Singaporean workers unless our foreign worker policies are tightened, including at the high end.
Beyond money and work culture, the third and probably most important and sensitive factor we need to tackle is our culture and values.
Our culture and values have evolved. Many look at child-raising as a burden rather than a blessing. Some couples want to have kids, but are so paralysed by the fear of how difficult it is to raise children. They feel that if they don’t raise their kids to be as smart as Einstein and as talented as Mozart, they have not done their job as parents. This all adds to the calculated cost and stress of raising kids, so they conclude: Why bother?
There is a limit to what the government can do to change values. In fact the more it tries to coax young people to get married and have children, the more put off they are. Even parents and nosy relatives have limited effect on couples deciding to have kids.
I believe social and religious organisations have a big influence on the culture and values of their members. They should do more to encourage their members to “go forth and multiply”, and to provide a supportive environment for parents and families. For example, my church has many cell groups for parents where they can share their experiences and challenges in parenting.
Those who are already parents can also help the peers by not always painting such a burdensome picture of child-raising, but highlighting the joys of having kids. One of my friends does this well. She writes a series of occasional Facebook Notes, titled “Lessons from My Future”. In them she provides snippets of her conversations with her three children. They are always funny and touching. Helps readers realise how precious a privilege it is to be able to raise up future leaders of our nation and our world.
I hope to see more positive stories like these. And I will do my part to share more of my stories. These suggestions are by no means exhaustive, and I look forward to hearing more of your suggestions during the Q&A later. Thank you.
Afternote: The Prime Minister, in his National Day Rally speech on 26 August, announced that the Government is now considering statutory paternity leave, and there will be more infant care and child care financial assistance given to middle and lower income families (although the quantum has not been revealed yet). He also acknowledged that work culture needs to change, although he seemed to suggest that this was not something the Government can control.
These are steps in the right direction, although as I alluded to in my speech on Saturday, paternity leave is primarily symbolic. What really needs to be changed is our work culture to provide better work-life balance. I believe this is within the Government’s control. Tightening the inflow of foreign workers, including professionals, will force employers to re-think ways to attract and retain Singaporeans. This could include providing better work-life balance and more family-friendly workplaces.