I don’t think Jo Teo’s comments are offensive. In fact, I think she raises an important question about what kind of society we ought to be, and what kind of policies we need, to make child-bearing and parenthood a lot easier for Singaporeans.

What I found disturbing about her comments though is her representation of the Nordics and French. She suggests that unlike the pragmatic and constantly worrying Singaporeans, the Northern Europeans and the French are a lot more “relaxed” or carefree about making babies. And she implies that Singaporeans could be a bit more like them. What, you may ask, is wrong with these comments? After all, they are well-meaning.

Her characterization of French and Nordic couples is obviously a stereotype. But assuming the stereotype is partly true, the more serious objection to the comments is that they fail to address the underlying question of WHY the French and Nordics are a lot more willing to take the plunge to have children without the worrying and extensive preparations that Singaporeans seem to undertake.

The short answer is that the French and the Nordics all can rely on comprehensive welfare states that guarantee them cheap healthcare, long maternity (of up to two years) and paternity leave, very affordable childcare, affordable rental housing, and much else.

Now, it may well be the case that Singaporeans are not willing to pay for such a welfare state (through higher taxes), or that Singapore cannot afford it (because we’d be a lot less competitive economically if we have such a welfare state). If so, that’s the choice Singapore has made – rightly or wrongly. But you cannot bemoan the fact that Singaporean couples aren’t more like the French or Nordics AND at the same time not provide the comprehensive, state-financed welfare services to children and parents.

To do so is to engage in cherry-picking: you wish for Singaporeans to behave a bit more like the Europeans, but you refuse to contemplate a Nordic or French welfare state. I’m sorry- you can’t have your cake and eat it too, i.e. for rich countries, you simply can’t have babies on the cheap.

Second, the Nordics have much higher levels of gender equality, income equality and social justice than Singapore. What does this have to do with having children? Everything. Their higher levels of equality and egalitarianism build social capital (i.e. social trust) and reduce (the sense of) competition and conflict between social classes. That the Nordics have much higher levels of social trust than Singaporeans is borne out by the World Values Survey (in which Singapore scores very poorly on social trust). Higher social trust also translates into higher levels of well-being – which in turn gives people confidence in the future and encourages child-bearing.

Compared to the Nordic countries, Singapore is a lot more ambivalent about inequality, i.e. both government and society care less about inequality than the Nordics do. The price we pay for our ambivalence about inequality is lower social trust, and lower fertility rates. Again this is a choice we have made as a society. I’m not suggesting that we should be like the Nordics – all I’m saying is that we pay a price for our choice to accept a level of inequality higher than most developed countries. And once again, the government can’t say that our level of inequality isn’t a big problem AND at the same time hope that Singaporeans would have more children.

So the problem with Jo Teo’s comments isn’t that they are offensive; it’s that they’re incoherent and inconsistent. They represent a kind of wishful thinking – of wanting your cake and eating it too, of wanting to see social change without engaging in the necessarily far-reaching policy changes needed to bring about that change. They also represent a kind of denial- a denial of the fact that our economic inequality, the state’s paternalism and its overwhelming emphasis on individual responsibility are, in fact, major causes of our low fertility.

Finally, they reflect a refusal to accept that it’s only by embracing liberal values – of equality, individual autonomy, social justice and gender equality – and jettisoning the conservative paternalism that currently characterizes much of Singapore’s family policies that we begin to address our fertility woes comprehensively.

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