SINGAPORE'S Prime Minister, Lee Hsien Loong, is cranking up a national debate on babies this month, with proposals to parliament that would attempt to stem the country's slumping birth rate. Penelope Sim isn't listening.
''My mother-in-law hates me and she says I'm selfish, but I don't really care,'' said Ms Sim, a human resources consultant who has been married for six years. ''Everything's crazy expensive and life's already stressful enough here without kids. If there's no one to carry on the family name, then so be it.''
Ms Sim, 33, embodies Mr Lee's challenge to convince Singaporeans to marry younger and procreate more, four decades after concern about overcrowding prompted his father to urge citizens to delay nuptials and have smaller families.
Mr Lee is caught between a rock and a hard place. While the birth rate was about 1.3 children per woman in 2012 - barely enough to replace one parent - a backlash against soaring immigration forced the government to curb the influx of foreigners, leading to labour shortages and slower economic growth.
Measures since 1987 to reverse declining fertility, including handouts of as much as $S18,000 ($A13,900) and extended maternity leave, haven't worked. The nation's birth rates in 2010 and 2011 were the lowest in 47 years of independence. About 36,000 babies were born to residents in 2011, compared with nearly 50,000 in 1990.
The failure to encourage more births means the country will have to contend with a shrinking pool of workers and consumers, a deterrent to future investment. It will increase the burden on younger employees to pay for an ageing population.
Singapore resorted to immigration in recent years to raise numbers. The population has increased by 1.1 million in the past decade to 5.3 million. At the height of the influx, in the year to June 2008, the nation added 251,000 people.
In measures announced on Monday on a government website called ''Hey Baby'', Singapore said it would boost its annual budget on marriage and parenthood to $S2 billion from $S1.6 billion, including spending on matchmaking, housing grants, subsidised childcare and fertility treatments, and cash gifts for babies. In 2001, the budget was $S500 million.
The Prime Minister, who has four children, is encouraging couples to start a family earlier by giving priority public housing to those with children below 16. With some of the most expensive real estate in Asia, government-subsidised homes are the only affordable option for most young couples. The government will make a $S3000 contribution to childhood medical expenses and will announce measures on Thursday to make childcare more affordable.
Social-policy experts aren't optimistic the measures will reverse the trend. ''No pro-natalist policy can bring the fertility rate back to replacement level,'' said Theresa Devasahayam, a researcher at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies in Singapore. ''The government is in a fix … it has little choice but to keep importing labour and keep the country's doors open to foreigners.''
The new measures come before a January 26 byelection in which all four candidates for the Punggol East parliamentary seat have highlighted the cost or availability of childcare.
Singapore has few natural resources and the government relies on a skilled workforce for growth. Gross domestic product per capita climbed to $50,123 in 2011 from $516 in 1965. Back then, the country boasted a fertility rate of 4.7 and so many women gave birth in 1966 that it entered The Guinness Book of Records.
The so-called birthquake raised concern that the economy would be overburdened, and Lee's father, Lee Kuan Yew, promoted family planning and sterilisation, and legalised abortion. A ''Stop at Two'' campaign in the 1970s and the natural decline in childbirth as the economy developed brought the fertility rate down to 1.82 by the end of the decade.
Last August, Lee Kuan Yew lamented that the number of births in the city had halved since he came to power in 1959, even with twice as many people. ''If we go on like that, this place would fold up because there will be no original citizens left to form the majority,'' Mr Lee, 89, said in a speech published in the Straits Times newspaper.