Bringing Up Family

asian family
The Population in Brief Report 2013 released by the National Population and Talent Division in September makes for an interesting read.
It revealed that Singapore’s birth rate had gone up somewhat in 2012 - from 1.20 in 2011 to 1.29 last year. Some have attributed this to the Chinese zodiac’s ‘dragon’ year which historically has ushered in more babies for the Chinese, and pushed up the Total Fertility Rate (TfR).
Indeed, the Chinese saw the largest increase in the fertility rate last year, while the Malays continue to occupy pole position as the group with the highest number of births. 
Also worth noting is the increase in the number of marriages involving at least one citizen. This increased to 23,192 in 2012 from 22,712 in 2011.
In the context of an ageing population, such news are indeed good news although it must be recognised that our TfR is still far from the replacement level of 2.1. The Government will undoubtedly continue to try and improve the situation, as it has been attempting to do the last 3 decades or so.
While the aim may be to increase the marriage and birth rate, we should also not forget another matter which is just as important – the plight of those who already are parents.
The familial responsibilities of Singaporeans have taken a more onerous dimension in today’s context. They now include caring for ageing or aged parents as well, on top of having to bring home the bacon. More and more Singaporeans will have to take on such responsibilities as our population ages into one of the oldest in the world by 2030.
It is thus perhaps time for us to relook and rethink who and how such familial responsibilities could be shared or shouldered, and if the State should not play a bigger role. Indeed, it is inevitable that as our demographics change, the government will have to have a bigger hand in helping to alleviate the heavy load which some carry. 
In essence, a mindset change is needed – that raising children and caring for the aged are no longer the sole responsibilities of the individual or a couple. The State too has a responsibility to carry, and one would argue, an increasingly bigger one too.
Of course, one would not and must not expect the State to raise one’s child or care for one’s aged parents in a hands-on manner. In any case, we would truly need to have an army of social workers if we expect the State to do this, given that there will be close to a million Singaporeans aged 65-and above in 17 years’ time.
What the government could do is to help in a more long-term manner by providing more substantial financial assistance to families, especially those who are starting out with new families.
While the focus, over the years, has been on using monetary incentives to coax young couples to marry and start families, what in fact the government should be doing is to focus its assistance on existing families. 
And truth be told, one of the most onerous burden facing couples is the financial aspect of parenting. There is no shortage of anecdotes from parents about the strain they face in this area. 
New citizen Sanjeev Ganthani, writing to the TODAY newspaper on 18 October, said, “The cost of home ownership, the medical costs of raising children and other related expenses for the average young couple would make them ponder for a long time about having children.
“The best platform for encouraging child-bearing must be based on affordable housing, childcare and medical assistance for families with children.”
These are not new concerns, as indeed the government itself has spoken of these things facing young couples through the years. The problem, however, seems to be one of not being bold enough in addressing these. 
Let’s take the example of housing, an aspect of Singaporean life which has increasingly become a matter of grave concern because of recent sustained spikes in prices. 
While new measures have been introduced and prices seem to have stabilised, the cost of housing eats up a substantial part of one’s income every month, even if its money from our Central Provident Fund (CPF) savings.
They still are hard-earned money which could be channelled elsewhere for better use.
For example, the recent introduction of 3-Generation (3-G) flats by the Housing and Development Board (HDB), targeted at extended families, is a good idea which however has fallen short of expectations. 
For a start, the size of the flats - at 115sqm and consisting of 4 bedrooms, 3 toilets, a living hall, a kitchen and a bomb shelter – makes for rather cramped living. Perhaps this could be improved in future offerings of such flats.
What is also not too attractive is the price of such flats. At S$410,000 each, some have been put off by it. One wonders if it is prudent for anyone with small children and ageing parents to take up such flats at such prices (keeping in mind that these are BTO flats at BTO prices).
Going back to the purpose of HDB reintroducing such flats, the Ministry of National Development (MND) said, “The 3Gen flat will provide an additional option for multi-generation families who want to live together for mutual care and support.”
The purpose seems to be a social one – for families to be in close proximity so as to be able to lend “mutual care and support” to each other. It is indeed a welcome and commendable aim. 
But at the same time, if the flats are to serve such social goals which, by the way, are completely in line with our aim to attend to the ageing population situation and to encourage more births, then why don’t we remove the financial burden from families of paying such high prices?
An almost half a million price tag for a flat is a very very heavy responsibility for couples to bear, long term.
And this is where the government’s responsibility of helping to raise families and alleviate the financial burden of caring for the aged comes in. It could sell these flats to couples at a heavier discount or subsidy, removing the need for these families to be financially burdened for the next 20 years, at least, in having to pay for the flat.
The money saved could then be channelled to caring for the children or the aged parents, both of which can be quite substantial over the years.
In short, if you were a couple with small children and elderly parents to care for, you would be better off if you didn’t have to use up so much of your income (even if it’s CPF monies) to pay for a flat. 
You would be able to use the funds for your family instead.
Couple this with the government’s other subsidies for childcare and the like, choosing to be parents may become more attractive and be seen as less of a “burden”, a sentiment which many feel at the moment.
Of course, there are many other things which could be done to really help make family life more enjoyable and less stressful. It is not possible to lay these out in one article. The point here is that there is a need to rethink who should shoulder the responsibilities of raising and caring for families.
I would say that given the times we are living in, and going forward – with all the social and demographic changes we will see and live in – it is time for us to be more bold in our thinking on the matter.
The State, in fact, must step up to the plate more and extend a bigger hand to those already with families, and not be stuck in only looking at encouraging the young to get married and have kids. 
Help existing families and let them be the visible and real-life ambassadors of the joy of family life.

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