“You are married with no kids? Do you intend to have kids in the near future?”
I was flabbergasted when I was asked this question in a job interview in Singapore. Is it even legal for the interviewer to ask me? Yes. It apparently is. Recruiters also asked me this question because prospective employers would like to do if having babies is going to interrupt my contribution of productive hours. One of my friend’s job offer was rescinded after she told the company that she was pregnant. Did the company do anything wrong? No, not legally. Ethnically? I let you decide.
Singapore does not have labour laws for the “protected class”, e.g., female workers, or any legislation against pregnancy discrimination. Protected class is a legal term in US used to describe groups of people (due to their race, gender, national origin, etc.) who are protected under non-discrimination law.
It is illegal in the US and UK to discriminate against a woman because she is pregnant or being suspect of pregnant.
Singapore is generally pro-business and does not have many labours laws to protect her workers, especially her white-collar workers. The Employment Act in Singapore does not cover “any person employed in a managerial or executive position” and any person employed by “a Statutory Board or the Government”. (I always wonder why latter is the case? The Government set legislations that they themselves do not abide by?)
The part of the Act covering for rest days and hours of work does not cover employees who are earning more than S$2,000 in monthly basic pay. Maybe white-collar workers are deemed to be able to take care of themselves? These are not new news in Singapore. Why do I talk about it today?
In Sunday Times last week, there is an article (“Work on bosses’ flexi-work attitude” by Jane Ng, July 22, 2012) on what can be done to increase Singapore’s birth rate. It currently stands at 1.2, way under the replacement rate of 2.1.
I have always been curious about the low birth rate of Singapore. When you look around, there are so many things in Singapore that are pro-family. Just to name a few: affordable domestic help, grandparents who are open to help in childcare (vs. other culture), government subsidized childcare, small geographical footprint, etc.
For me, the affordable domestic help is probably the number one reason why Singapore has so many female working professional in mid to senior level, beating even the United States. 99.9% of Americans do not have stay-in domestic help. That means, when you need to leave office by 5:30pm to pick up your kid, it means 5:30pm sharp! Not to forget making dinner immediately after. Singaporean professionals have a choice to hire help at home and avoid the “I-really-need-to-go” timeline. Even the availability of cheap hawker food helps as well. No one is going to starve as you typed another email, finished up another report. This is a luxury that is not available in many western countries when the cost of eating out is equivalent to a few weeks’ worth of grocery money!
So tell me, why is the birth rate is Singapore so low?
One theory is that, it is precisely because the professional playing fields between the sexes are made more equal by the attributes mentioned above. Singaporean women really though that they have a chance at it. At what? At building a successful career and making the income that had probably defined their identity and lifestyle for a long time.
There was a speaker on TED talk that suggests that education is the best contraceptive. Educate the women and watch the birth rate plummets! (I could not find the link to this talk; I will post the link here once I do.) This is probably linked to the point mentioned above. Education provides women a chance to build their own career, to be good at it and put child bearing in the second page of her to-do list.
Ok, this argument is one sided, leaning towards professional women. Women with limited or no income probably face different set of challenges. Maybe that’s the way to view the low birth rate issue in Singapore: to examine the issues facing women in different demographic segments, instead of coming out with a blanket solution.
So why are women not giving birth to more babies in the professional career women segment?
I don’t mean what NTUC assistant secretary-general Cham Hui Fong said in the same article. She said, “ Our challenge is that we can’t legislate mind set.”
Actually, the fact that she allegedly said “legislate mind set”scares me. “Brainwash” you mean, Ms Cham? Possible. That’s probably what a lot of people in power do or attempt to do. But this is not the key point here. That’s for another blog.
What I suggest is to put into law anti-discriminatory legislations for women. Women cannot be fired or penalised or sidelined purely by the fact that she is pregnant or planning to get pregnant. In short, pregnant women cannot be discriminated against. It’s time to lift this pressure off the shoulders of professional women and give them the go-ahead for babies.
So, why didn’t I have children earlier? I have delayed motherhood due to career:
I didn’t want to be pregnant when I’m interviewing for jobs.
I didn’t want to be pregnant in my first 1 year of work.
I didn’t want to be pregnant when I’m working on important projects.
Enough said. Like what every parent likes to repeat, “there is never a good time”. But perhaps, it’s time for MOM* to do something here.
(*MOM = Ministry of Manpower of Singapore)