The Great Singaporean Baby Blues

July 24, 2008

“My time hasn’t come,” the young apprentice insisted.

“There, there, it will come,” replies the elder, “It will come.”

Yes, it could well be an intimate scene from “Brokeback Mountain.” But it’s not, the advice is proffered by an even more wizened character, the Padahshan courtesan to a younger seductress who hopes to birth the son of the Sultan from the ancient paramour “The Arabian Nights.”

The exchange is a pithy summary, describing an age when the only preoccupation of a woman was to bear children. Even long after the balmy Arabian nights, when a cup of kopi cost 10 cents and neighbors could always be counted never to mind their own business on the void deck and Singapore was still a third world enclave in a forgotten peninsula – marriage and starting a family was more or less cut and dried a veritable done deal which all married couples aspired towards unfailingly.

In the early 80’s the trend of forestalling the stork first surfaced predominantly affecting the ranks of professional women (but that was alright. Besides they were all batty and fortunately there wasn’t too many of them. The government even created a spinster happy home to accommodate this erudite lot, called, SPH “Sisters of Perpetual Hesitation.” Neither did it affect the baby bottom line either. In fact, the government saved all the men in Singapore from the purgatory of endless bitching.) Recently on a more disturbing note, we are told even the likes of Sengkang Sally seem to be hanging up their eggs while a chorus of “dowan’s” resound against the backdrop of the heartlands. It’s serious this time – this will really impact the baby bottom line because it affects the broad base of the social pyramid – the vast majority of Singaporeans. So out comes the same unsavory characters making a bee line in rogue’s gallery: cost of living, time constrain, an uncertain future and the impossible demands of juggling jobs and kids etc. Are they the only suspects? After all weren’t they the same ones who did in the educated and ugly girls during the 80’s? Don’t tell me we didn’t nail them the last time. Or is there another suspect who is responsible for the dismal birth rates this time? A far more insidious character that has even eluded the attention of the policymakers? (This is definitely a case for Sherlock Holmes.)

It’s a tough case to crack: falling birth rates in Singapore or in any part of the world don’t even make the slightest sense not even to an economist (or for that matter even sociologist or any subject matter expert, though watching them field questions on the subject one is left with no doubt they know what is going on. When in fact they are equally as baffled as all of us). According to economic theory, the choice “to be or not to be,” hinges entirely on the concept of “Homo Economicus.” The hypothetical “Economic Man” who knows what he wants; his predilection can be expressed mathematically in terms of a “utility function.” And his choices in life are driven by rational calculations about how to maximize that function: whether couples eventually decide to start a family of one, two, three or more or not at all is based on comparisons of the marginal utility, or that added benefit that comes from making those decisions. If we consider the facts: no point in our history, are we richer, healthier and safer than ever before (so the tome of statistics tell us again and again). Why then are couples shelving the whole idea of starting a family?

It’s easy to make fun of homo economicus and say, that sort of theory smacks of zoo keeping and poke it full of holes by suggesting: that model only holds true if human beings are numbers who can easily be reconciled, manipulated and coaxed into yielding a desirable value – fair enough, but it still doesn’t explain, despite the flaws of economic man albeit people do have preferences. Even if those preferences can’t really be expressed by a precise utility function; they still can be counted to make sensible decisions, even if they don’t maximize utility! Sociological pundits would of course say, “Aha! There you have it Harphoon, the smoking gun!: economic man no longer sees the utility or benefit of raising kids, apart from being a perfect ball and chain, it’s a liability these days. After all Harphoon every industrialize country in the world is experiencing the same phenomenon. It’s not just Singapore who has this problem, its endemic! Duhhh!”

OK, but that argument only holds water if you didn’t realize that both France and Finland are exceptions to this general “Phillips curve” rule. That’s the cue for policymakers to step in and say,

“Well that’s obvious Harphoon, those Scandinavians have a comprehensive welfare systems, Economic Man isn’t dumb! He knows that by having babies, he is going to get goodies in the form of day care centers in his work place not to mention tax breaks and parental holidays, which I might add, we don’t half get in Singapore because all those things cost money and the electorate just isn’t going to pay for it! Geez you must really be dumb Harphoon!”

Well, if that’s such a truism then why is there such a “big contradiction” in that argument vis-à-vis baby birthrates are proportional to the quantity and quality of the welfare. Why then are the poorest countries in the world (and don’t tell me its because poor countries are predominantly culturally agrarian, because you would be hard pressed to even find one inch of square footage greenery in either inner cities of Buenos Aries and Dhaka) experiencing the highest birthrates in the world, when they don’t even have the basic structural framework of a welfare state?

See what I mean, it’s a tough nut to crack. One clue that may provide an insight into this problem may reside in the contextual framework of how economist and subject matter experts have traditionally defined economic man and more important codified what he traditionally aspires towards – by doing so economist have modeled Economic Man as a money guy, that’s to say when economist talk of the money supply, (it’s a bit like watching a continental movie, what you hear is not as important as what you read), it doesn’t half mean quite the same thing in English as it does in Economese. Economist only refer to money as in the traditional sense of the word i.e paper money, currency, checks, credit cards, you know the stuff that makes the world go round and that’s where I suspect the calculations may have gone awry straying off the mark. Just as economic theory attempts to explain the abstraction of life by imposing some intellectual order on events and phenomenon, it also means it will always continue to remain blind to the other dimensions of life which defy quantification such as health, peace of mind, quality of life or whether you have the opportunity cost to luxuriate in the privacy of your little room hunching over your computer reading this while picking off dead skin from your big toe.

Nor does the model of Economic Man take into account the phenomenon called “downshifting.” As the word implies, it’s the direct opposite of not having a choice rather it emerges from the full consciousness, one is reconciling a lesser utility or return in exchange for another equivalent utility, only its one that cannot be possibly recognized by the formulaic economic approach.

Downshifting is the stuff of irrationality, it would appear: opting for being less busy, taking time off, getting off the treadmill of life to do something which Economic Man cannot possibly even fathom, such as smelling the roses. The whole idea of attaching the word “deliberate” to earning less – may sound nonsensical and even sacrilegious to those who still cling to the infallible model of economic man, but it’s a notion that is fast gaining currency in the age of globalization. Even sociologist have recognized an emerging phenomenon of downshifting in Western countries, as many of 15% of Americans have already made the decision to opt out of the rat race preferring a slower paced life. Neither does it take much conceptual acuity to understand why either: as the pace of life increases exponentially with Moore’s law, new levels of complexities brought forth by the new paradigm management such a multi-tasking, strategic rotation and having to understand the entire length and breadth of the business process – brings into stark focus Thoreau’s dictum that:

“The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.”

Against this bleak world, downshifting is a reversal from the idea that we are somehow only alive during rigorous leisure time stolen from “dead” time of work. Yes, I do not discount there are those who may find comfort and joy and even eventually discover the meaning of life from work, but for the mass majority of well balanced workers, work fortunately is still perceived as a poor substitute of life – it’s a means to an end. There are moments granted when the hair at the back of neck does stand up along with other body parts, but the vast majority of time. It can at best be described as a tedium or repetitive litany. That’s the reason why 76.8% of heart attacks in the Western world occur on Mondays in between the hours of nine and ten in the morning. (so that’s a career tip, lay the bad news thick and furious on your manager early on a Monday, when his eyes start rolling over and he begins to turn slightly bluish, it simply means you are going to get that promotion over his dead body!).

Contrary to popular myth neither are only white collar workers the ones necessarily opting out of the rat race, presumably because they no longer see the merit of living the a battery chicken existence. Even professionals such as lawyers are downshifting en mass as they give up legal practice preferring an in-house counsel job that takes them out of the mind dumbing long hours and dead days. Again these decisions are usually made with foreknowledge of cost penalties which translates into a lower salary, but it is a decision that obviously has pay outs.

The trend of downshifting goes a long way to explain why couples these days are not only deferring their plans to start a family, but they are consciously making decisions to say, “no.” To posit the factorial money, cost of living, time and opportunity cost lies at the root of the baby crisis is at best an oversimplification of a very complex problem. Yes these factors do certainly feature in the decision nexus, but if the solution were that simple then how can on account for the paltry baby birthrates of most EU countries after having addressed all these structural shortcomings?

In short, the real problem is one that goes beyond the structural and even the notion of Economic or Pre-Edenic man. It’s one that is firmly rooted in uncertainty which invariably breeds fear for our inability to exert full control over our destinies. Our own fears, refracted and enhanced by ever increasing demands to work smarter, faster and harder is simply reaching a point of diminishing returns when its no longer perceived as an enduring utility that’s even worth chasing. One where it may even be argued our level of fear is no longer a reflection of the actual risk level. As 9/11 as shown us what constitutes “fear” and “loathing” is largely a matter of perception and has very little to do with perceived truth and even less to do with reality. Rather much of what constitutes reality is in fact – imagined.

Downshifting offers to bring these divisions of life back into perspective and harmony – work and leisure, work and family and much more – its not simply about escaping the cacophony of modern life, that may be possible in America or Canada, but in a city state like Singapore, that form of escapism just isn’t possible – if anything it is a deliberate choice to live with less in the belief that more of life can be reclaimed in the process and since nothing else can be severed, not work if one simply doesn’t have the qualifications that firms are willing to pay to break out from the rut. And even if one did have the right qualification perhaps age is a militating factor that cancels out even such a thing resembling a choice, leaving perhaps only one possible option – stalling the stork permanently.

To suggest the dismal baby births can be arrested or even reversed by “more education, day care centers, monetary incentives, parental holidays and medical provisions without first addressing the root cause: fear brought forth by an age of uncertainty is to miss the point entirely.

The cost of living in fear is huge, people don’t start businesses, they don’t speak out, preferring to tow the line, they look down when others challenge them, they don’t make eye contact preferring to avoid conflict. Above all is it such a wonder when people fear as they often do – they don’t make babies.

(By Harphoon, Astroboy & Pumpman / Socio / Politics / EP 99037739 -2007 – The Brotherhood Press 2007)

[This article has been retrieved from the Intelligent Singaporean and APICS / Preliminary birth figures from the birth registry at Immigration and Checkpoints Authority put the number of babies born in 2007 at just under 40,000.Even by the most forgiving metrics sociologist say the marginal increase in newborns would do little to lift Singapore’s total fertility rate to allow it effectively replenish its population in the long term.
Besides aggressive immigration policies, bolder changes in family policies have been discussed of late; one of which is the idea of emulating the Swedish model to help Singapore replace its rapidly ageing and dwindling population.

This article once posted in APICS discusses in considerable detail the various drivers which may be militating against couples deciding against starting families. What’s interesting about it is the idea put across by the authors that it’s a conscious decision – the phenomenon of downshifting is discussed for the very first time. And this throws a spanner into the traditional three aces that’s always forwarded as the reason why couples are not having babies; stress, work demands and the cost of living.
Another thing we picked up when we researched this piece was the way in which many in the writers guild in the BP brain stormed bfr they write an article; this article contained the most comprehensive record (unlike other articles) the method is known as “machine” or “Toyota” writing; it was apparently invented by Darkness when he once worked on a project in Japan. The gist of it involves reducing writing into the sum of its parts very much like breaking down an automobile into aggregates of drive train, electric, chassis etc. Here every writer assumes a speciality and writes his area mutually exclusively from the other; when the job is done; the final product is assembled  together seamlessly.
Below is one e.g of a discussion thread on one area that I considered very interesting. For some strange reason the point raised by Harphoon wasn’t taken onboard. IMO it would have made for a better read. The theme of “home,” based on my short stay in Primus (the virtual home of the brotherhood) resonates very powerful with them (I shall write abt this on another occasion) and it seemed curious that Harphoon should suddenly link it to the whole baby debate. However, based on my reading, I am certain my of the things the lead writer said (Harphoon) led to the team looking seriously at the phenomenon of Downsizing.  Along with questioning many of the assumptions accounting for the dismal birthrates. 
“All this baby talk begs the question. How is it that we have allowed this most remarkable agency, the family, to become devalued in our time? How is it that we have allowed this role to be relegated, to be even denigrated?
If you say money, stress and a handful of constrains is the primary cause; then I say to you these conditions have always existed in every age in perhaps just different forms; the well is too far; the cow is not producing enough milk; the chickens are not laying enough eggs.

There has to be an underlying reason, we have not uncovered. A substrate that we have even missed out on. Gentlemen the analysis is incomplete.

What we have here is a deep yearning that accounts for a diaspora in the heart and mind; I cannot put my finger on it just yet, but I know the yearning for “home” is part of the human condition and will inevitably confront all of us during our life.

Whether it is to “balik Kampung” or something as cinematic as jin-yi-huan-xiang; the feeling, the yearning for a sense of belonging must be very real in the decision to have or not have kids.

Look here, you don’t have to be a super brain like Darkness to understand what I am saying here. When my great grand daddy came to Malaya in a banana boat. He made the great journey all the way from Yunan alone, he left my great grandmother back home in China, but the moment he settled down and bought land. He considered this his home, he sent for her and my Dad was promptly born.

So what can we say about this: it suggest a conscious choice; a decision has been made…that is the whole idea of jin-yi-huan-xiang. It depicts the conclusion of a life journey, like the idea something has come full circle.

So when we ask ourselves why the baby numbers are so low? We really cannot escape asking ourselves what accounts for this “disconnected” feelings for which people no longer see themselves as being able to close the circle of life?

In the final analysis, the idea of starting a family is not only the biggest step any man can make but it is also a plainest declaration: this is home; this is where I belong: this is where I will fight for. It is not so different from how we see ourselves in the virtual or the Jews see themselves; when they talk no end about Bais Hamkdash.

I think this may be too philosophical for the readers to understand, but between all of us, let us be clear, this is only the tip of the iceberg. But we cannot just look at the numbers, that’s just a brain dead approach. If we do that we will only discover stress, work load and no money. Tell me where is the learning outcome there. Waste of time only.” Harphoon correspondence to Astroboy during the pre-write discussion.

This article has been brought to you by the FILB – The Brotherhood Press 2008

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