Sun, 21 May 2000

Low birthrate feared to bring disaster to Singapore

By Rita A. Widiadana

SINGAPORE (JP): When Susan Lee turned 38 last October, she and her husband James decided to start a family.

Susan has a thriving career as a communications director at a multinational level and James is an event organizer at one of the country's top entertainment firms.

After five years of happy marriage, they feel they have everything to offer a child -- a cozy three-bedroom apartment in a quiet and elite area, a luxury sedan and savings.

"A career has always been crucial to me. I didn't want a baby until I was sure we had enough money and a harmonious environment for our future children," Susan said.

But just as the time seems right, Susan could find it too late to have a baby. "Nothing has happened after seven months. Worst of all, my doctor says I'm infertile," sighed Susan.

Susan shares the feelings of thousands of Singaporean women who fail to have babies on account of their careers. Many women prefer to postpone or shun marriage and children.

Leading gynecologist at the Women's Medical Center at Mount Elizabeth Hospital Dr. Suresh Nair says infertility is a crisis of the deepest kind. It threatens every aspect of a person's life -- one's sense of self, one's dreams for the future and one's relationship with others.

He said that in other Asian countries such as Indonesia, China and India, such a decision may become an effective way to control their swelling populations. "But in this tiny country, it will certainly bring disaster to the nation sooner or later," said Dr. Nair.

A study by the Singapore Institute of Policy Studies reveals that declining fertility among Singaporean women will cause the country's population to slowly grow to only about 3.5 million by 2030 from 3.1 million in 2000 and then start to increasingly decline.

If this happens, Singapore will have a fast growing aging population and less younger citizens to look after the prosperous economy.

"Problems are not mainly because a large number of highly educated women remain single or delay marriage. It is the problems of the entire nation -- the fruit of successful policies in population control, education, health, politics and economy," explained the doctor.

He said it was ironic that one of the reasons behind the baby shortage was a successful past campaign by then prime minister Lee Kuan Yew in l972 to stop couples having more than two children.

The policy proved too successful, as fertility rates slipped below the replacement level of about two and plunged to the lowest rate of 1.4 in l986.

Alarmed by the lack of newborns, the Singaporean government changed gear and introduced a new policy l987 to encourage Singaporean couples to have three or more babies. Under the new population policy, at least 50,000 births a year were expected but in l998, the number of births came to only 43,664.

To persuade couples to have babies, Dr. Nair said, there should be major changes in male and female perceptions toward marital and parental lives.

"To tell you the truth, it is socially and biologically unwise for a woman to delay having babies," the doctor said.

Women and men are considered fit and healthy in their 20s. "If they get married at 25 to 29 years old, they will likely have healthy babies," he pointed out.

During these ages, the reproductive cycle of a woman is at its peak, while healthy men in their 20s and early 30s produce quality sperm in terms of number, motility and shape, the doctor maintained.


Unfortunately, women cannot buy time. Their bodies and reproductive system wind down as they age.

"You can't say you will get married at 39 and have a baby at 40. I am so sorry to say that your chances of achieving your dream are very slim indeed," he said.

For men, it is still possible for them to have babies at 50 or 60 as long as they are healthy.

"They should not be too happy, though. Busy and stressful jobs, promiscuity, pollution will endanger their fertility," he said.

He also warned that changing sex trends had greatly affected the quality of babies. More and more people in Singapore and other Asian countries have sex in their teens with more than one partner, he said.

This causes various sex-related diseases including sexually transmitted diseases, poor sperm as well as a low sperm count for men, vaginal thrush and other reproductive problems for women, he said.

"When people with various sex-related problems get married, they will produce ill babies and an unhealthy young generation for the nation," said Dr. Nair.

He added there were many clinics that treat sex-related diseases and infertility but the treatments are still very costly.

He says Singapore's infertility problem must be addressed immediately by the government. "The government cannot just say, 'Let's have babies' and do nothing. It should entirely change the social system and infrastructures," he said.

In a poll conducted by The Straits Times recently, Singaporean couples answered the government's plea to have children by demanding more money, tax breaks, education and health care subsidies to altering the work environment to make it more family friendly, including fighting job discrimination against pregnant women.

"Before the government makes a public policy, it should thoroughly study the possible impact on society," he warned.