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Singapore needs shift in societal mindset to boost low fertility rates

Policymakers will have to deal with Singaporeans' unrealistic, unattainable expectations of marriage and children
A staff member shows a mock-up of work being done on women's eggs in the laboratory at the KL Fertility Centre in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.

A staff member shows a mock-up of work being done on women's eggs in the laboratory at the KL Fertility Centre in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. (Photo: AFP/ UCAN files)

Published: March 14, 2024 03:59 AM GMT
Updated: March 14, 2024 10:12 AM GMT

Recently, it was announced that Singapore’s total fertility rate (TFR) hit new lows of 1.04 and 0.97 children per woman for two consecutive years in 2022 and 2023 respectively.

The existential threat that such ultra-low fertility rates pose to the country's future economic growth and survival as a nation-state has in turn sparked much soul-searching and debate among government policymakers and society at large.

Over the years, various factors have been pinpointed as causes of Singapore's low birth rate, ranging from the high costs of living and busy work schedule to the stressful education system and lack of good and affordable childcare and preschool facilities.

While all these aforementioned factors certainly have their part in depressing the country’s fertility rate, what has largely been overlooked are the unrealistic and almost unattainable expectations of Singaporean residents on their future marriage partner and offspring.

Mismatched marriage expectations

A book published by Yale University Professor Marcia Inhorn entitled, Motherhood on Ice: The Mating Gap and Why Women Freeze Their Eggs, outlined that in most countries, women graduate from universities at significantly higher rates than men.

This has resulted in difficulties for university-educated women finding compatible men that match their expectations in terms of income and academic qualifications, which is the underlying motivation for freezing their eggs, to give them more time to seek and find their "Mr. Right."

Singapore is no different, with the Singapore Department of Statistics reporting that in 2021, 64 percent of women aged 25-34 years have a university degree compared to just 56 percent of men.

This is similar to other East Asian countries with ultra-low fertility rates such as South Korea, where 74.6 percent of young women graduated from universities compared to 67.6 percent of young men in 2015.

Women also dominate higher education in mainland China, outnumbering men at both the undergraduate and postgraduate levels, despite a deeply unbalanced sex ratio with significantly more men than women in the overall population.

The fact remains that female hypergamy is deeply ingrained in our culture. In virtually almost all human cultures and societies, women expect to marry men who are richer, smarter and taller than themselves, as attested by numerous psychological and sociological studies. This is also obviously evident in various dating agencies and online romance websites. Hence the current mismatch in marriage expectations due to the gender gap in higher education. 

Some sociologists and anthropologists might argue that this makes perfect sense from the scientific viewpoint of evolutionary biology. Given that a woman is obliged to invest so much time and effort in her offspring, enduring the hassles and pain of pregnancy and childbirth, and shouldering the brunt of childcare, she must therefore seek a mate that ensures her survival by providing the best available resources, and contribute the best possible genes for her offspring. Income, status, and education are thus prime considerations in finding a husband and partner for child-rearing.

A 2021 survey revealed that 8 in 10 young singles in Singapore want to marry, the problem is that there are simply not enough eligible “good men” to go around for every female university graduate.

Indeed, statistical data compiled in Singapore confirmed that the higher a woman’s education is, the more likely she will remain single.

Hence, in attempting to boost fertility rates, Singapore should also address the mismatch in educated women’s marriage expectations due to the gender gap in higher education.

Unrealistic quest for the ‘perfect child’

Yet another likely factor that contributes to Singapore's low fertility rate is the heavy financial investment required of prospective parents in the quest for their "perfect child," which often deters them from contemplating having more children.

Similar to other affluent East Asian societies, Singapore has a hyper-competitive culture with a prevalent kiasu (afraid to lose) mentality in society. In a predominantly Confucian society such as Singapore, how well a child does academically in school determines his or her family's honor. Children who do badly in their examinations are deemed to have caused their parents to "lose face" in front of their relatives and friends. 

As a result, the phenomenon of “tiger-parenting” is commonplace in Singaporean society, with parents often pushing their children into the educational rat race at a very young age, typically spending a large proportion of their income on after-school tuition fees.

Indeed, many high-income prospective parents compete to get their children into the best schools even before they are born, through expensive purchases of residential properties near prestigious elementary schools.

Such heavy investment in time, money and effort required to have the “perfect child” in Singaporean society, would indeed be a daunting prospect for any would-be parent contemplating adding more kids to their family.

Misuse of new assisted reproduction technologies

Looking to the future, Singapore Government policymakers should be far-sighted and identify new risk factors that could further depress Singapore’s already low fertility rate.

Lurking on the horizon is the misuse of new assisted reproduction technologies purportedly for health optimization and genetic enhancement of offspring.

For example, the controversial use of predictive genetic tests to select the “best” IVF embryos for optimal health and intelligence, in what is known as preimplantation genetic testing with polygenic risk scoring (PGT-P).

Then, there is also gene editing of human embryos to amplify non-disease-related socially-desirable traits such as high IQ, athletic prowess and physical characteristics linked to beauty standards such as height, complexion, eye and hair color.

Many scientific experts have pointed out that such techniques will not work very well for the selection or genetic engineering of complex traits such as intelligence, height and complexion. Because such traits are determined by the complex interaction of multiple genes with the environment.

Moreover, the usefulness of predictive genetic tests such as PGT-P in selecting such complex traits is severely reduced by the small number and limited genetic variability of IVF embryos produced by the same pair of parents.

Nevertheless, it is not the real effectiveness that is important. Because parents naturally and instinctively want the best for their children, especially in a hyper-competitive society such as Singapore, these thus represent a particularly lucrative business model for fertility clinics.

Social pressure may make it difficult for prospective parents to resist such new reproductive technologies, if this becomes a trend and fashion in society, which could be further exacerbated by the aggressive sales pitch and marketing gimmicks of profit-driven private fertility clinics. A sense of "guilt" might be instilled in prospective parents for not utilizing such new technologies to give their offspring the best start in life,

These will certainly not come cheap, so many prospective parents desiring two or more children, may eventually settle on having just one “genetically superior” child due to the high costs involved.

Conclusion

In conclusion, Singapore Government policymakers should also attempt to initiate a broad shift in societal mindset on the unrealistic and almost unattainable expectations of Singaporean residents regarding marriage and children, as part of a comprehensive strategy to boost the country's low fertility rate. They should also be particularly wary about the potential misuse of new assisted reproduction technologies for optimizing the health and genetics of offspring.

*Dr. Alexis Heng Boon Chin, an expert in Biomedical Science, had previously worked in the field of human clinically assisted reproduction research in Singapore and has authored 50 international journal publications on ethical and legal issues relating to new reproductive technologies. The article expresses his personal opinion, which is not connected to any institutions that he is affiliated with. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official editorial position of UCA News.

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