Created on Saturday, 24 September 2011 00:00
Written by Amos Seah
A recent comment made by Minister Mentor Lee Kwan Yew to a female student at the ministerial forum, at Nanyang Technological University, drew some criticism from the Association of Women for Action and Research (Aware).
Nicole Tan, president of Aware, wrote in to The Straits Times criticizing Mr. Lee’s comment for its sexist implications, which also happened to conflict with statements made by Minister Halimah Yacob to the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (Cedaw).
During the question and answer dialogue session at Nanyang Technological University, a female student raised a question on how we can foster a sense of belonging and social cohesiveness in Singapore despite a large number of foreigners introduced into the country in the recent years.
In response, Mr. Lee expressed his worry on the despondent aging population in Singapore and concluded her question by saying that we would "shrink and grow old" if we let in a politically digestible amount of immigrants every year. He then followed up casually by asking her what her age was, and if she had a boyfriend.
“Please don’t waste time. Its (starting a family) more important and more satisfying than your PHD”, Mr. Lee then jokingly advised, after finding out that she was single and pursuing a degree in her late twenties.
In my opinion, Mr. Lee might have been a little too "kaypoh" in asking her some of these personal questions. Perhaps his advice to her was given half jokingly. I’m sure he won’t want her to quit her studies immediately and start searching for a boyfriend to get married to, but he wanted to get a point across.
However, what I found interesting about this dialogue was how he created, intentionally or unintentionally, a debate out of a living example relating to the topic of discussion. And this example was this single 27-year-old student pursuing her PHD. So the question is, is the rise of independent and educated females the real issue pertaining to the aging problem here in Singapore? I sure don’t think so.
It is an accepted fact that developed or developing nations worldwide have a much lower fertility rate as compared to third world countries due to greater education and urbanization. However, a low fertility rate only becomes a problem when it threatens an aging population. For example, countries like Japan and Taiwan suffer from it too.
Locally, this seems to be the case too. Couples tend to think twice about getting married or even starting a family in Singapore due to several factors such as cultural influences and financial difficulties.
Culturally, Singapore has become more westernized over the years. We are no longer pressured to get married at a young age and start a family like our parents or grandparents did. Furthermore, women are earning as much as man do, and we have accepted the association of women with domesticated housewives as a not so common one today.
The next factor is a common one most of us would agree to: The high standard of living. Raising a family is not cheap with the current prices of housing, education and living expenses. Even if you have a child, most likely both parents would have to work.
On the other hand, one thing Mr. Lee said, which I couldn’t disagree with, was the part when he mentioned "more satisfying", referring to starting a family as compared to earning a PHD. Although I am not a parent and am not planning to be one anytime soon, I would agree with the fact that growing a family can be one of the most rewarding achievement in the world. It is also a natural process, which sustains the human race. This desire to start a family, however, would be diminished if we ourselves are not comfortable or happy living in our own local environment – one with a stressful education system and a high standard of living.
Perhaps it’s also our competitive cultural mindset that affects our lifestyle choice. It is natural for citizens in a competitive developed country like Singapore to prioritize education and career over anything else. In other words, we spend our twenties earning a PHD, getting a job and climbing up the corporate ladder. What we want at the end of the day would be to enjoy the fruits of our labor, and that rarely associates with getting up in the middle of the night to change your baby’s diapers.
As practical as it sounds, all of us have the right and reason to desire the best grades in school, secure a job and a steady income. However, the big question is: What would make a fresh grad choose starting a family over career? What would make a working female in Singapore sacrifice her career over family? This is something that we would all have to ask ourselves in order to solve the population problem.