Seeing Like the State: TFR and Replacement Migration

by singaporearmchaircritic

Not another analysis on TFR! You may think as you read the headline of this post. But bear with me, I’ll be brief.

As you can see from the infographics, Singapore’s TFR in 2012 is 0.78, the lowest in the world according to CIA World Factbook. Given the graveness of the issue, many bloggers have written about the causes of our abysmally low TFR and/or the remedies for it. AWARE, the National Population and Talent Division and the Institute of Policy Studies (IPS) have also conducted in-depth studies on the issue. A White Paper on Population is slated to be released by the end of the year.

Considering the deluge of information on the issue, what more can be said about Singapore’s TFR that has not been said before?

Babies No Enough

Bloggers have attributed the want of babies to many factors: high housing prices, high population density, wide income gap, a stressful life, high cost of raising a child and inadequate financial incentives, women’s attitudes to work, marriage and parenthood. They are right in their own ways. But AWARE’s paper is spot-on:

The TFR issue is fundamentally linked to quality of life issues – i.e. the general well-being of individuals and societies. If citizens do not have a sense of well-being and security, they will not be inclined to take on additional responsibilities of parenting and caregiving.

To address TFR, we must therefore look at all policies that affect our citizens’ quality of life, including policies on education, health, housing, employment and retirement.

Childbearing boils down to individual choice and preference, which result from many factors as shown in the infographics. Atomistic policies tailored specifically to encourage childbearing will not be effective as long as the general social climate – long work hours, poor job security, high cost of living, materialistic culture – is not conducive for setting up a family.

The key to lifting TFR, therefore, is not pro-family policy per se but pro-individual policies.

France’s success in boosting its TFR is a good case-in-point. It started off not with a policy to foster parenthood but a policy that empowers women by giving them the option to work or not through supplying the necessary services and financial means. Working women are able to reconcile their career and motherhood. This is a far cry from the situation in Asia, where being a mother often means sacrificing your career and ambitions.

A holistic approach is essential to promote a shift in social norms towards parenthood and ultimately, a higher TFR over the long-term. AWARE has put forth comprehensive policy recommendations.

Dollars & Sense

However, do you think our government is ever short of good ideas and suggestions? I doubt so.

The problem is that suggested measures such as an anti-discrimination act and greater social support for the underprivileged run contrary to its adherence to market fundamentalism (no minimum wages, no labor protection, much less protection for pregnant working women), its “stingy nanny” tendencies (meagre social welfare tied to stringent conditions), and its preference for short-term, instant results (think Olympics medals).

So instead of implementing these painful policies (painful for its pocket) that take eons to work, some myopic smart aleck in the government came up with the bright idea of replacement migration. Hey! Instant population growth, additional revenue from foreign worker levy, new pro-PAP citizens to counter balance the ungrateful locals . . . what’s not to like?

A lot, apparently, as our government learned the hard way through the last General Election.

Also, the proposition that increased immigration will help to buck the trend of an ageing population is suspect. You can read Lucky Tan’s argument here and I also quote a RAND research paper on TFR in EU which finds that “immigration will not reverse population ageing”:

Allowing large numbers of working-age immigrants to enter EU countries is not a feasible solution to the problem of population ageing. The sheer numbers of immigrants needed to offset population ageing in the EU states would be unacceptable in Europe’s current sociopolitical climate. Furthermore, over the longer term, these immigrants would themselves age. The study concluded that the debate should focus on using immigration as a potential tool for slowing — as opposed to overcoming — population ageing.

These arguments apply to Singapore’s context too.

In sum, there is a wide gulf between a government that thinks of babies in terms of dollars and cents, and the individual who deliberates over parenthood in terms of dollars and sense. Till this gap is bridged, emulating France’s baby boom shall remain a distant dream.

Footnote: The title of this post is inspired by James Scott’s book Seeing Like a State.