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Research Project on

Intergenerational Relationships, Fertility and the Family in Singapore
Researchers: Peggy Teo
Department of Geography
National University of Singapore

Elspeth Graham
School of Geography and Geosciences
University of St. Andrews, UK

Brenda S.A. Yeoh
Asian MetaCentre for Population and Sustainable Development Analysis and
Department of Geography, National University of Singapore

Funded by: National University of Singapore and
ESRC (Economic and Social Research Council), UK


Both trends in fertility and the future of the ‘Asian’ family are important topics of current debate in Singapore. As in many European countries, fertility remains below generational replacement level and the continuing ageing of the population raises worries about the future of the workforce and the support of the elderly. Yet, while demographic trends appear to replicate those in many Western countries, the Singapore Government has reacted much more pro-actively by instituting a raft of policy measures designed to increase the birth rate. These include the controversial Graduate Mother’s Scheme, the ‘Have 3 or More if you can Afford it’ policy and the Baby Bonus Scheme (Graham, 1995).

Besides managing Singapore’s demographic future, there is also a concern to create a ‘home’ for Singaporeans that is free from the perceived ills of Western societies. Thus the Government emphasizes the need to retain the nation’s identity as an Asian society with Asian values, ensuring its distinctiveness within the group of First World nations (Pyle, 1997). Since the ‘Asian family’ lies at the heart of this identity, the Government has taken steps to avoid any erosion of the traditional intergenerational relationships that are seen to characterise this ideal.

Given the ambitions of PAP to preserve Asian values and promote a national identity grounded in the importance of the family and filial responsibility, the reproductive decision-making of individuals – and hence fertility - must take into account how tradition is selectively (re)constructed how women’s identities are (re)defined. The tensions at the national level between further improving the education of the workforce and reversing the fertility decline are thus echoes of much more personally-felt and contradictory pressures as women negotiate their roles as ‘workers’, ‘mothers’, ‘daughters’ and ‘citizens’ (Davidson, 1999). Pro-family programmes simultaneously position women as cultural bearers and defenders of the family (Yeoh et al, 2000). Yet the labour force participation rate for females is currently 55.5% and women workers are clearly crucial to continuing economic prosperity. Educational attainment and career have thus become part of ‘good citizenship’ for women as well as men. Is it possible that educated Singaporean women, influenced by the state’s nation building project, will react differently?

Aims and Objectives

It is within this complex context that the study investigates a set of relationships among the generations, fertility and the family in Singapore. The changing status and role of women has dampened the effect of the new population policy in its first decade. Now in the second policy decade, responses to the most recent pro-natalist measure – the Baby Bonus scheme launched in April 2001 – cannot be divorced from the wider narrative about ‘Asian’ values and the ways in which the public perception of women’s roles is being redefined in line with the current planning agenda. Private and public spheres interpenetrate when it comes to fertility decision-making (Teo and Yeoh, 1999). Singaporean women face multiple demands and are sometimes seen as the victims of discriminatory policies. As Davidson (1999: 80) argues, ‘(w)ithout recognition of their multiple realities, women become silenced and invisible and, therefore, further removed from the achievement of equal status and rights’. This study deliberately focuses on the ‘multiple realities’ of women in the reproductive age groups in order to understand how they negotiate the tensions of their multiple identities and the demands placed on them when making decisions about their own fertility.

The project asks four key questions:
1 In what ways do the views of the grandparent generation (themselves subject to anti-natalist state policies) influence the fertility decisions of the parent generation (subject to current pro-natalist incentives)?

2 How do patriarchal attitudes/values impact on fertility decisions?

3 In what ways have views of the ‘ideal Asian family’ changed over time, between the grandparent and parent generations and how are these related to the living arrangements of family members?

4 What difference does educational attainment make to views about the family and to women’s fertility decisions?

• Graham, E., Teo, P., Yeoh, B.S.A. and Levy, S. (2002) Reproducing the Asian family across the generations: ‘Tradition’, gender and expectations in Singapore, Asia Pacific Population Journal, 17(2): 61-86.

• Teo, P., Graham, E., Yeoh, B.S.A. and Levy, S. (2003) Values, change and intergenerational ties between two generations of women in Singapore, accepted by Ageing and Society.

Davidson, G. (1999) The gender inequalities of planning in Singapore. In T. Fensten (ed), Gender, Planning and Human Rights, Routledge: London, 74-89

Graham, E. (1995) Singapore in the 1990s. Can population policies reverse the demographic transition?, Applied Geography, 15: 219-232

Pyle, J.L. (1997) Women, the family, and economic restructuring: The Singapore model?, Review of Social Economics, 55: 215-223

Teo, P, & Yeoh, B.S.A. (1999) Interweaving the public and the private: women’s responses to population policy shifts in Singapore, International Journal of Population Geography, 5: 79-96

Yeoh, B.S.A., Huang, S. & Willis, K. (2000) Global cities, transnational flows and gender dimensions, the view from Singapore, Tijdschrift voor Economische en Sociale Geografie, 91:147-158




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