Happy Family by Dad Bear (Adrian Tan)
Happy Family, a photo by Dad Bear (Adrian Tan) on Flickr.

The recent debate about the White Paper on Singapore’s population brought up a very pertinent problem that we Singaporeans face. Namely, we are just not replicating ourselves enough. Hence, the slew of measures that the government has introduced into legislation. All in a bid to entice couples to have more babies. Ok, sounds good in principle, but somehow I just feel that perhaps this whole thing has not been thought through. Perhaps, rather than throw money at young couples to entice them to make more babies, they should get feedback from those who are already parents, and seek to find out what is it that makes having children so difficult, and perhaps take pointers from the problems that parents of young children currently face in Singapore, and help make the whole process of family building a sweeter and rewarding experience.

I will be 45 on my next birthday and my wife 43. We have been married for almost 18 years and we started our family early. Our eldest Joshua, will be 17 next month, Matthew is 14, Isaac 13 and our little princess, Vivienne is 10. I guess we have had fairly ample experience on the topic of bringing kids up in Singapore. Back then when we first got married, having kids was as natural as breathing. Fine, we never really thought about having 4, but when they came about, we celebrated the each new addition to our family. We have had our ups and downs, but nothing insurmountable. We have been largely blessed with good God-fearing kids, whom we hope will one day be a credit to society. So without further ado, allow me to share my own experience and suggestions about having kids:

1) More leave. Maternity/Paternity/childcare. No complaints here. However, they end when the child reaches 7. Does it mean that kids do not fall sick after 7? Some companies and those in the civil service get enhanced family care leave, which applies to kids up to 12. This is unfortunately not universal, and at the cost of the companies.

On a side note, as an employer, I understand the implications to the bottom line when more leave is legislated out. We all want more leave when the kids arrive, but who is going to pay for the leave? Many SMEs run on a tight budget, and the government can help here in terms of more tax relief and subsidies to the companies. This should apply whenever mothers are employed or returned to the workforce. Currently when employers hire a lady, one of the things we will definitely look out for is whether the lady is of child-bearing age. Some ladies about to start their families, worry when they seek employment. SMEs with a smaller headcount, have to consider each candidate when hiring. The fact of the matter is once the probation period is over, should the newly hired employee become pregnant, the company has to grant maternity leave. No doubt the 3rd and 4th months are covered by the government in the case of Singapore citizens, but the main worry remains what happens when she is away. An SME being very lean on the manpower side, will likely have to hire a temp to cover the duties of the new mother, thereby incurring double the salary costs during the period of the maternity leave. This is also one of the many reasons, why sometimes hiring someone from overseas to do the job gives the employer peace of mind. As they are NOT allowed to get pregnant and even though we may have to pay a levy, there will NEVER be the ‘financial burden’ of maternity leave to consider.

So maybe one day, the Government will consider this point and ‘make it worth our while’ to keep our highly talented and educated mothers in the workforce. Be it in terms of tax relief and rebates. We too, want our mothers to feel reassured that when they are on maternity leave, their jobs are safe and waiting for them when they are done. However, the onus has to come from the powers above.

2) Education and schooling. Ok, this is a touchy topic. Being Asian, and in particular being Singaporean, we want to make sure that our kids do well in school. Not only just to pass, but to excel. The topic of the PSLE has been debated endlessly, so I won’t go there. Back to the basics. As a parent, one of the worries I will definitely have is which school my child will go to. A very significant reward that the government can give to parents with 3 or more kids, is to allow the parent to have first choice of whatever school they wish to go to. Namely, they can enter phase 1 for primary one registration if they have 3 or more births. Something along those lines. That will go a long way to make having more kids seem like a blessing than a burden. Another point is a review of our education system to see what is it that makes our system so much a pressure cooker. Is it the schools? The curriculum? The tuitions? What is it that many of our kids are not enjoying schools any more? It is rare to have children who succeed academically without having at least one or more tuitions in the various subjects. So much so that tuition centres and private tutors in Singapore have become a multi-million (if not billion) dollar industry. One big question here, are we teaching our kids things, which more often than not, will never see the light of day once they graduate? Surely we can re-look at other important life skills which will be used day in and day out in their working lives. Skills like presentation skills, public speaking, even basic skills like cooking etc. We find many new graduates lacking behind when compared to their western counterparts in the area of presentations and public speaking. We see our kids, while intellectually equal or even better, with multiple distinctions on their certificates, but often remaining quiet during group discussions and conferences, because they are afraid to speak up, afraid to make mistakes and afraid to look stupid amongst their peers/colleagues. Our schools should and must educate our children and prepare them for the global market. Our schools should cultivate a spirit of discovery and adventure, to dare to tread a path less often trodden, and to avoid buying into a herd mentality.

Next, re-visiting our values. Blessed is a school if they have teachers who constantly remind our children the importance of core values, like humility, honesty, compassion, honour, justice etc. So often are schools wrapped up in the paper chase, that scholastic grades become the sole and only yardstick a child’s worth is measured. We can only hope that our schools will also harness and develop the talents in each and every one of our kids. Be it in academics, sports, arts, music, leadership etc. Our children are each special and unique in their own different way. Few schools have the resources or will to help each and every child find his or her own niche. Such is the burden of the the immense workload placed on both teachers and students alike that there is sometimes hardly time for anything else. All we can hope is for them to be equipped with the right skills of life, so that when one day, we are not around, they are able to look after themselves and hopefully their families as well.

3) Cars and transportation. Anyone with kids, especially if you have 2 or more toddlers, will know that family outings, on public transport, is a logistical nightmare. You not only have to pack the stroller(s), a backpack for the kids spare change, plus extra diapers, clean wipes etc, and another backpack for the milk powder, thermos flasks, milk bottles and teats. Try loading that up onto a crowded MRT train, while carrying 2 screaming kids. You get the picture. So, while I wouldn’t go as far as to say that having a car is critical to having a family, having one will definitely go a long way towards planning to start a family. The obscene and exorbitant price of a COE aside (around 90k at last count), the scarcity of a COE is another issue. A positive step would be to move those with 2 kids or more up the queue for a COE, or even a special COE rebate. Sure, some might argue, this might lead to abuse from certain parties, but let it NOT be transferable. Certain kinks will definitely need be ironed out. The main idea is to make the transportation needs a of young family less daunting.

4) Children with special needs (SN). Not every child born is blessed with 4 functioning limbs, a functional brain and functional organs. While it is good and well to have a healthy bouncy baby, what happens if there was some asphyxia (oxygen cut-off) at birth, leading to a child with cerebral palsy? What if the new born child has Down’s syndrome, especially in the case of elderly mothers approaching their 40’s? A very likely scenario (viz a viz elderly mums) given the rising mean age of tying the knot nowadays. What if the child has a learning disability? From the very severe forms of autism to dyslexia? As parents of a child who has ADHD or Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, we are constantly plagued with decisions and situations which can, at best, be described as trying and exasperating. We face a constant uphill task in getting him acclimatised to school and his peers. We are fortunate that ever since the age of 2, we were made aware of his condition and have ploughed countless hours and financial resources to get him up to speed, so that he can integrate into the demanding Singapore school curriculum. While there are many programs to maximise the potential of gifted pupils, as a society, we still lag behind many western countries in that we still do not offer the same opportunities to help our children with learning disabilities and SN. Working as a family physician, my heart reaches out to the parents who are struggling to bring up their kids with SN. Waiting times to seek treatment at government institutions can be up to 6 months. And these treatments and diagnostic tests are not free. Some of the kids come from single income families, and very often, they are forced by circumstances to stop treatment halfway because they cannot afford it, or when parents are both working, no one is free to bring these kids for therapy and treatment. We appreciate that IRAS has made tax relief available for handicapped kids. However, their definition of handicapped kids encompasses only those who are physically handicapped and not able to do their own activities of daily living. Raising a child with SN can be an expensive experience. Many requiring either occupational therapy, speech therapy and periodic psychological testings etc, and sometimes all of the above, especially in the more complex cases.  As a rule of thumb, therapy sessions range north of $120 per hour and psychological testing can go in the thousand dollars range. More can be done to help these children and their parents, be it more public SN facilities to reduce waiting time, more tax rebates, more funding for needy families etc. Only when a society spends more time looking after its own disabled, along with its gifted, can it claim to have truly arrived.

5) Rising cost of living. I am thankful that the Singapore is a safe country, where my children can walk along the streets at night, with little fear of being mugged. However, it is becoming increasing expensive to eke out a living here. The newspapers recently published an article where Singapore is now the 6th (up from 9th) most expensive city in the world to live in. (http://business.asiaone.com/A1Business/News/Story/A1Story20130205-400064.html) but I doubt that apart from the very top-tier, our salaries and disposable incomes have kept pace with the inflation. A simple example of how things far things have changed. At my favourite Hill Street Mince Pork Noodles at Crawford Lane, the prices have gone up from $4-5-6 to $5-6-8-10. The $10 bowl (ok I admit, I tried it) is a true bak chor mee lover’s wet dream, the rest just represent a 20-33% price increase for the same bowl of noodles and ingredients. Hang on, I thought Singapore’s inflation was 4.3% in Jan 2013?(http://www.tradingeconomics.com/singapore/inflation-cpi) So is it the bak chor Mee uncle fleecing me? Or maybe the number reported is not showing me the whole truth? So if my little 286DX brain computes correctly, unless our salaries can increase by 10-20% year on year to offset inflation, sooner or later, I won’t be able to afford my occasional indulgences like a $10 bak chor mee much longer. Bottom line, I just feel that it is becoming increasingly expensive to bring up a family. As a professional, I am thankful that as long as I am able to work, there will be a bowl of rice on the table for wife and kids. However, the meat and veggies to go with it seem to be shrinking rapidly. Many people too find their disposable incomes shrinking and yet more retired and elderly, find that their CPF savings insufficient to sustain them. Fortunately, the government has implemented the Community Health Assist Scheme (CHAS) to assist the needy above 40 years of age, who earn below $1500 of family income per head. This is a positive step, but it is a palliative measure at best, it still has not addressed the problem of rocketing living costs.
In summary, I am proud to be a Singaporean. I have done and completed my national service and I have drummed it into my sons’ heads that they too, must do their part when their time comes. I love my country for what it is, the rich tapestry of different cultures, the ethnic diversities, the different cuisines available, and lastly, for the many friends that I have, from school, from work, from the army and from my leisure activities e.g. photography kakis etc. Like many others, we are here to stay, we have invested too much in our country to just pick up and go somewhere else. My parents are still here, and I want to look after them in their twilight years. It is only right after all they have done for me all these years. My practice is here and this is somewhere I feel that I CAN make a difference to the lives of my patients. Now all I ask is for God to guide our leaders and navigate our country through the uncharted and murky waters, beyond even 2030.