The Power To Have More Children

By TAN Kee Wee
(MediaCorp 938LIVE’s Money Talks, Thursday, 1 October 2009, 7.50 am and 7.20 pm)

When one thinks of China, the image that stands out is a vast sea of Chinese faces. And rightly so. Between 1949 and today, the population of China multiplied nearly three times to more than 1.3 billion.

If not for its one-child policy, China’s population would be far greater. One factor contributing to its large population is its backward economy.

Empirical studies have always linked backward economies with high fertility rates. This is defined as the number of children per woman. Likewise, advanced economies are linked with low fertility rates. There is a biological explanation for this.

Basically, there are two ways human beings reproduce themselves. If they live in a hostile environment, the best strategy is to produce children in large numbers, and hope that one or two will survive.

If humans live in a non-hostile environment, the best strategy is to have a few children and dote on them. This ensures that the few children will grow up with every possible advantage in the struggle for survival.

This explains why in poor countries, with its hostile environment, people have many children. And why in rich countries, with its non-hostile environment, people have fewer children.

But this linkage is bad news for rich countries. The overriding fear is that, if nothing is done about the low fertility, the rich economy will subsequently decline.

This fear may be misplaced, according to a team of researchers from the University of Pennsylvania and the University of Bocconi in Milan. Their research paper, published in the August issue of “Nature”, looked at about one hundred rich countries between 1975 and 2005.

They compared the countries’ fertility rate against an index of development, namely the Human Development Index. This index reflects the intellectual, medical and financial abundance of the people.

In a nutshell, the research found that the graph of fertility against development levels takes on a “V” shape. Initially, as development levels increase, fertility declines. But beyond a certain point, increasing the development levels lead to rising fertility. In many countries, the fertility rates rose to the ideal number of 2 children per woman.

The explanation is when a couple feels confident that the increasing abundance they enjoy will not compromise the children they already have, they will produce more children.

For Singapore, this research tells us that we may not need to resort to foreigners to boost our population numbers. One alternative is to increase the financial abundance enjoyed by Singapore couples so that they will produce more babies.

Of course, it does not just mean increasing wages. It is the net effect of rising wages and rising costs. In other words, the purchasing power, or the amount of things the Singapore couple can buy, must be increased before they produce more children.

On this score, according to the latest research by Swiss bank UBS, reprinted last Saturday in the local papers, the purchasing power of Singaporeans has been falling over the years relative to people in other cities of the world. This is reflected even in the shrinking size of the mooncakes we buy.

Perhaps this latest research from the two universities partly explains why policies to encourage young Singapore couples to produce more babies are not working as well as they should.

At least this research solves the age-old mystery of why older Singapore men, with their greater purchasing power, have this great desire to produce more children with women other than their wives.