By Teo You Yenn, Published TODAY, 28 Jan 2013
The revised and upsized Marriage and Parenthood Package will no doubt please Singaporeans who are planning to marry and have children.
What effect it will have on the rest of us, who are either not at this stage in our life-course or do not immediately fit the model of life required by the schemes, both remains to be seen and is a question we should ask.
Two questions follow, the first being: Are the schemes likely to lead to significantly different outcomes in terms of demographic trends? The answer depends more on long-term trends in policy orientations than on the specific schemes at hand.
People make marriage and childbearing decisions based on a complex confluence of explicit and tacit factors — job prospects, suitable partners, existing responsibilities, evaluations of their place in society and aspirations for the future.
People envision the future based on their existing circumstances and by gauging how they fare against social norms; in Singapore, the range of choices and behaviours marked as “ideal” are narrow.
Our current knowledge about the low fertility issue in Singapore suggests there is high desire for marriage and children that does not translate into practice. Combine this with over two decades of pronatalist policies, and we can safely conclude that what has been done thus far has not been terribly effective.
The extent to which the newest measures can achieve their ostensible aims of earlier marriage and higher fertility, therefore, depend on where they are headed, and the degree to which they move towards creating a set of social conditions where people can envision themselves and their loved ones leading secure and fulfilling lives.
Such a shift in societal conditions would have to go beyond changing the immediate financial circumstances of young couples thinking of marriage and children — and would certainly shape the lives of people beyond this small group.
TOWARDS THE GOOD LIFE?
This leads to a second question: Do the latest measures signal a radically different set of principles, a significant shift in worldview? In other words, do we see signs that we are moving towards creating conditions where people can imagine good lives?
There are some obvious shifts: We see some movement towards recognising that caregiving and employment should not be the privileges or burdens of one gender. There is greater sensitivity towards the disproportionate challenges faced by working mothers.
On the other hand, there are important limits: The principles of differentiated deservedness and individualised solutions remain highly salient. The right to support for children continues to be tightly tethered to marital status, citizenship, employment and, despite the one-week paternity leave, gender.
The narrow criteria for qualifying for each scheme and the differentiated benefits compel people to think in terms of “What’s in it for me here?” or alternately, “Why don’t I get that?” It orients people towards individual benefits and narrow self-interests.
This obscures, for example, the fact that providing more subsidies for childcare, while important, does not altogether address the problem of schools demanding from and rewarding kids for qualities that they cannot attain solely from formal schooling.
In Singapore, access to housing, education, healthcare, retirement funds, et cetera are premised on Singaporeans’ self-reliance through employment and familial membership. Therefore, the capacity to form a family publicly recognised as deserving support has long-range consequences throughout one’s life course.
When the right to family — both its formation and the autonomy to parcel out its members’ responsibilities — is unequal among citizens, it is hard to speak of an inclusive society wherein members are equal stakeholders.
When policies differentiate citizens along multiple lines — reminding them at each turn that they qualify not as citizens, but only when they are this type or that type of citizen — this poses challenges to forging citizenship ties based on mutual obligations among societal members.
Instead, we develop zero-sum mentalities — fearing that what benefits others is costly to us. In these ways, the principle of differentiated deservedness that continues to be embedded within marriage and parenthood measures affects us all.
Dr Teo You Yenn is an Assistant Professor in Sociology at the Nanyang Technological University.