Space, sex and babies in Singapore
"You need a very small space to have sex,” Senior Minister of State Josephine Teo declared – with the straight face, the journalist took pains to add – when asked about whether young Singaporean couples are getting their own homes early enough to have children.
Cue the collective Singaporean jaw drop.
It’s been carried by international outlets like Reuters and the BBC, and no wonder; it’s a story that writes itself, an eye-catching soundbite, obviously meant as a joke (or so we hope) yet still so emblematic of how the state has approached the issue of a declining birth rate.
What strikes me the most about Teo’s comments in the article is how disconnected they are from reality. It’s not just that her description of relationships in the West is actually the plot of Bridget Jones’s Baby (as opposed to real life); it’s that there appears to be a lack of understanding of the things that people consider when they’re thinking of having kids.
Sure, you don’t need a lot of space to have sex; human creativity knows no bounds when it comes to finding ways to get it on. But space for sexytime isn't all there is to growing a family.
In crafting policies to encourage Singaporeans to have (more) babies we need to question the assumptions we're making. There seems to be an expectation that couples should have children, and that they merely need to be given a kick up the butt to get them to stop making excuses – like wanting a home of their own first, can you imagine?! – and start pumping out those infants. Policies, like those related to public housing and taxation, are thus created to provide that kick, or are dangled as carrots to get young people to fulfil particular state goals.
But maybe Singaporeans don't need to be kicked. Firstly, no one owes anyone a baby, least of all to the state. Secondly, it isn't unreasonable for young Singaporeans to want certain things in place before they think about having children; it's not selfish or shallow, it's responsible.
We live in a world where there is less job security than before, yet increasing gentrification with rising costs. Things that our parents could do at our age - like buying their own home or even a car - seem a little out of reach now. Even renting a flat can be a painful drain on monthly income. It's doesn't take much of a leap to understand why many young Singaporeans would like to have the basics figured out before they think of adding more dependents to the mix.
The best way for the government to help would be to respect that people make their own journeys to arrive at where they want to end up. Some might be all right with getting married and living with their parents, and to have children in a multi-generational household. Some might choose to buy their own home before they think about having children. Some might prefer to live on their own as singles for some time before settling down. Some might never want to settle down at all, and are happy on their own.
It's important to provide support for couples who want children – such as affordable childcare and flexi-work – but policies that directly target married and/or expecting couples while excluding others fails to acknowledge the variety of ways in which people can choose to live their lives, and the different ways in which things can be prioritised.
Excluding single people from buying public housing (until they're 35 and we've presumably given up on their reproductive potential) will not send singles running out to immediately tie the knot and have children. The lack of equality in support and acceptance for same-sex couples, transnational couples and single parents also sends the signal that while we want to raise the birth rate, not all families (and babies) are equally precious to us.
Moralising about the wonders of parenthood and extorting young people not to delay – lest those ovaries age and shrivel – is not the place of a government. It's the behaviour of a naggy auntie at Chinese New Year, and even then we could do without it.
Singaporeans don't need more space to have sex. We need more space, period.