SINGAPORE: Minister in the Prime Minister’s Office Grace Fu said the government is prepared to look at providing additional support to help employers offset the cost of worklife balance initiatives.
Ms Fu was recently tasked with helping Minister—in—Charge of population policies Teo Chee Hean on population matters.
In an exclusive interview with Channel NewsAsia, she said she also wants to see all stakeholders — employers, neighbours or even friends — encouraging singles to think about marriage as an important life goal.
At the National Day Rally, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong listed a host of measures the government is looking into to boost the country’s dwindling fertility rate which currently stands at a historic low of 1.2 — well below the replace rate of 2.1.
One of the measures is enhanced parental or paternity leave.
Employers have voiced concerns that this may affect company productivity and business costs and have asked for some form of government support, much like the government co—payment for the four—month maternity leave.
Ms Fu said: "We recognise that not all companies or all sectors have that flexibility. If you are in a service industry, if you are running a hospital for example, it’s more difficult to have flexi—work arrangement.
"So the government is in the process of engaging employers and to think about how we can have that discussion, that discourse on what would be the right support from employers as well as from the government.
"The government has been supporting employers, for example, through sharing of maternity leave, co—paying for parental leave. So we are prepared to look at some of these initiatives where it is applicable."
Ms Fu also explained why employers should care about worklife balance.
"If you have a market that’s stagnating or is getting smaller, it’s actually not good for business because your market is smaller, your business will shrink and your pool of labour also will shrink over time. So they have to see that in the context that it is important for us to also look at the future as an employer."
She added: "It is good HR practice if you have that flexibility, if you are able to meet the needs of your employees through the various stages of their life better and then your chances of retaining them, cultivating them in the company will be better."
For Singapore, making babies is as much a personal issue as it is a national problem for the government. There are larger issues at play.
The government is worried that fewer babies will mean a shrinking labour pool in the future. And of course, there’s the problem of an ageing population where more young people will find themselves having to support a larger pool of elderly Singaporeans.
One key strategy is to get Singaporeans to think about starting a family earlier and not put it off till it’s too late.
Ms Fu said: "When I talk to some of the young university students, they are now setting their ideal marriage age at 35 (that’s worrying right?) Yes! Yes! And somehow there’s a notion that technology advancement will help them get the children that they want, as and when they want them.
"So I am trying to send the message that ’look, it’s not so easy and please have an earlier date because sometimes things just don’t work out as you want it to be’."
So the government is trying hard to create an environment that encourages young Singaporeans to think about life goals, even as they pursue their career aspirations.
This means roping in all stakeholders such as employers, the community, friends and family members in promoting work—life balance.
Ms Fu said: "Usually they find it hard to make those choices. The pursuit of career aspiration, for example, would mean that sometimes decision on family is being pushed back.
"It’s very hard, I understand. If you aspire to be a successful lawyer, you want to be at every major deal that the firm is having. You want to put in 24 hours a day. It’s very hard to say ’okay, I need to find some time to date’.
"But if you continue to think along that line, if you are 32 or 35, it’s still difficult to find time. So where does family fit into your goals, or do you only have career as your single goal in life?
"So I am trying to convince Singaporeans to include family, and maybe family should feature higher up at a certain stage in life, earlier?"
Hence, a change in mindset is needed to get Singaporeans to marry and start a family earlier in life as a step towards reversing the country’s dwindling birth rate.
And if the country does not reset its priorities, "it’s not a pretty picture", said Ms Fu.
"I think as a community we need to see that our future is being placed in the next generation and we need to have the next generation here to carry our dreams and our hopes forward," she said.
Ms Fu went on to say: "I was attending a funeral and my friend was telling me that her late mother had four or five children but two grandchildren because there are several siblings who are not married. So the family structure, instead of a pyramidal shape, it’s now bulging in the centre.
"If all the families are going through the same experience, then you see society is going to be quite different. Demographically, we’re going to have a much more ageing population than a young one and that will change the outlook of society.
"Industries that will be thriving will probably be the silver industries and not the others, not the consumer business, not the automobile business.
"Whether our young people will find enough opportunities for them in such an economic structure, such a demographic structure; whether they see that perhaps opportunities are outside Singapore, there are more exciting economies that are outside...it’s very important for us to see the future that we would like to see Singapore in.
"The kind of family structure, the kind of demographic, economic structure, that’s really the kind of discussion that we should be having with Singaporeans now."
There have also been calls for Singapore to re—look the idea of a family unit.
Ms Fu, though, said that most people still want to have a strong family nucleus with support and care from both parents.
"We need to listen to what the majority of voices are and provide the necessary incentives to help them achieve their aspirations," she said. "I think it’s not just about getting the number of children."
"I think we also want children to be brought up in an intact family with the kind of values that society places on. That’s important for us. So, how the children will be brought up and raised is also a very important consideration of the government and right now, we see that an intact family, with good support from both parents, is probably key to bringing up well balanced, well grounded children," Ms Fu said.
The National Population and Talent Division is expected to issue a White Paper by January 2013, outlining Singapore’s population and immigration strategies.
You can give your feedback on the issue at
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