SINGAPORE, August 8, 2013 ( – Founding prime minister Lee Kuan Yew, considered the founding of Singapore has addressed the city-state’s troublingly low birth rate in his new memoir, dismissing as “absurd” the idea that his government’s 1970’s effort to reduce the number of pregnancies with the “Stop at Two” campaign led to today’s demographic crisis, in which birth rates are at only about half replacement level.

In the 1970s, Lee’s government legalized abortion, offered cash incentives for sterilization, and began a campaign of institutional discrimination against larger families. Workers in the public sector were denied maternity leave after their second child, and hospitals were required to increase their fees for each additional child after the second. Income tax deductions were only given for the first two children, and large families were given less desirable public housing.

Even children were penalized under the system, with a couple's third, fourth or later child being given lower priority in schools and top placement being reserved for first or second children of parents who had been sterilized before the age of 40.


Gynecologist Paul Tan told Singaporean journalist Mavis Toh that the school placement policy made the difference. “That was when people stopped reproducing,” he said. Tan recalled that sterilization rates “went sky-high,” with doctors at his hospital performing up to nine procedures a day.

The strategy worked. The birth rate fell from 4.3 children per family in 1973 to only 1.44 by 1987 – when the government realized they had a demographic disaster on their hands.

Down came the propaganda posters urging citizens to “Stop at Two,” replaced by signs saying “Have Three or More (if you can afford it).”

But the birth rate never recovered. Its decline has been steady, despite government incentives to have more babies.

Today, the average Singaporean family has only 1.2 children.

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Surveying his country's situation today, Lee denies it is his fault. He says that modernization led to the demographic shift, and that women today are more career-minded and families more luxury-oriented, working to enjoy a lifestyle that is difficult to maintain with many children.

“I cannot solve the problem, and I have given up,” he wrote in his book. “I have given the job to another generation of leaders. Hopefully, they or their successors will eventually find a way out.”

Lee said that while monetary incentives may have been a powerful tool for behavior modification in the impoverished 1970s, in the wealthy 21st century, it’s harder to influence people with payouts and penalties.

If Lee were still Prime Minister, he wrote, he would offer a baby bonus equal to two years of the average Singaporean’s salary – just to prove that it would not work.

“Super-sized monetary incentives would only have a marginal effect on fertility rates,” Lee predicted, “prov[ing] beyond any doubt that our low birth rates have nothing to do with economic or financial factors, such as high cost of living or lack of government help for parents.”

Instead, according to Lee, today’s demographic crisis is due to a sea change in culture and values, which the government can do little about.

As to whether his government played a role in that transformation, Lee dismisses the idea as “absurd.”


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