Posted by under Opinions on 17 June 2007

Western governments support families with babies - without any moral strings. High levels of welfare support for children, and child and maternal health, and generous parental leave - for fathers and mothers. High rates of female workforce participation and gender income equality.

LOOKING at the experience of some Western countries, you might think single mums deserve support as they are contributing to the effort of producing more babies for a greying nation.

A rather sneering commentary in the International Herald Tribune last month by Philip Bowring, for example, suggests how Asians can solve their problem of falling birth rates.

We should, he advised, look West. Western Governments support families with babies - without any moral strings.

'There is a dumb arrogance in East Asia's approach,' he argued. We spend our money on unnecessary infrastructure and squirrel it away as savings, when we should instead, be spending it on social subsidies to jack up our 'abysmal fertility rates'.

In Europe, there is a baby boom, with the highest rates being in Scandinavian countries. France has rates which are close to replacement levels, and Britain and Holland are not far behind.

'The most obvious features of these countries, the Nordic ones in particular, are very high levels of welfare support for children, and child and maternal health, and generous parental leave - for fathers and mothers,' he wrote.

These countries also have very high rates of female workforce participation and gender income equality.


What he does not mention, of course, is the corresponding high tax rates to fund such welfare.

'Finally, and most shocking to the Asian values brigade, all these countries have high rates of births outside wedlock, even though abortion is readily available,' he said.

But is Singapore ready for such radical thinking?

Last week, Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew said that while the West was encouraging single parents to boost birth rates, Singapore was not ready for that.

He told reporters, while travelling in Tatarstan, Russia, that by educating women and giving them a fair chance at top jobs, Singapore had inadvertently created the issue of capable women staying single, and not having children.

With Asian men generally shunning women who make more money or who have higher career positions than themselves, 'our best educated, intelligent women ended up not getting married'.

It is probably true that the 'values brigade' in Singapore is not ready for policies that promote the proliferation of single mums.

But I wonder if we can take a more liberal approach with helping families in general. This includes everyone with kids - single parents and low-income families in particular.

Can we (dare we?) extend to them all the benefits that 'normal' families have? For single parents, mainly unwed mothers, this means the chance to buy a Housing Board flat from the Government.

Certainly, this goes against the grain of our housing policy, where a subsidised flat is given only to married couples or singles above 35.

And yes, in Britain, where public housing is given to unwed mothers, the problem of young women getting 'knocked up' for the sake of a council flat did arise.

But I feel that because of the social pressures here, very few women would become single mothers for the sake of a flat.

Rather, it is because they are already single mothers, and often in financial hardship, that they need a flat even more. This is a matter of providing a roof over the heads of a vulnerable group.

Then there is the Hope scheme, which is designed to help small low-income families. It stands for 'Home Ownership Plus Education'. What it means is that if you are a couple, younger than 35, and have two children or fewer, you can get up to $100,000 in benefits if you agree not to have any more children.


You must also have no higher than O levels and the household income must also be less than $1,500.

Is it time for a re-think? First, lift the cap on children. If your income is less than $1,500 and you have more than two children, you would need more help, not less.

Why is Hope denied to those who need it even more?

Second, I think we can explore the idea of a child allowance.

For example, if your household income is less than $1,500, you could get a monthly allowance of $400 per child to help you.

Giving state subsidy for raising kids is not unheard of in Singapore.

Foster parents who take care of children under the Ministry of Community Development, Youth and Sports scheme get about $650 each month.

Helping poor families does not send a signal that we are a licentious society of unwed mothers. Neither does it condone irresponsible parenting by poor couples.

Rather, it signals that we care about all families - whatever their circumstances

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Think Centre New Paper: Goes into Full Spin Bashing the Single Mums

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