New Internationalist

Birth Rights

Issue 088

When is coercion not coercion? New Internationalist Australian editor Bob Hawkins reports on Singapore’s successful efforts to reduce family size.

In Singapore you don’t have to be sterilised if you don’t want to be. In fact, you are quite free to keep your fertility till the day it finally ebbs from your body of its own accord. But there are many residents of this tiny island who still feel there is no alternative but to be sterilised.

Imagine that you want to marry but your spouse-to-be is not a Singaporean. To have your marriage application accepted one of you must agree to sterilisation immediately after having your second child.

Or suppose you are already married. You have three children. You are under 40. Neither you nor your spouse is sterilised. The chances of any of your children being able to go to the primary school of your choice are remote.

On the other hand, if you have only two children and you or your spouse is sterilised, your children will be eligible for top priority in primary schooling.

In the cubicled world of Singapore, a country with a population density nearing 4000 to the square kilometre, it is understandable that the government devotes much time to its family planning programme. Singapore’s population, now more than two million, is expected to approach 3.5 million by the year 2030, the target date for zero population growth.

But there’s family planning and family planning. And there’s something very brave new world-ish about a society which achieves a two-child (average) family five years ahead of schedule.

In fact, long before Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew’s government turned family planning into a surgical science, Singaporeans were cutting their baby output of their own accord. Birth control advice in the sixties, sans scalpel, saw Singapore’s crude birth and natural increase rates drop from 42.7 and 35.2 per thousand respectively in 1957 to 22.1 and 17.0 by 1970.

On March 20, 1970, the Voluntary Sterilisation Act was passed and a Eugenics Board was set up to approve applications for sterilisation under prescribed conditions.

Myriad other laws, regulations and administrative policies and attitudes add to the confusion and the persuasion. And obedient Singaporeans, whether by choice or fear for the future of their children, have toed the line. Singapore’s family planning programme, in simple statistical terms, has been an unparallelled success.

At the time sterilisation became a fact of life - or lack of it — in Singapore, there was an angry response from some church areas and a pained, troubled silence from others. An ‘open letter’ from ‘concerned priests’ talked of inhuman and unjust deprivation of human rights. And in a public statement they summed it up this way: ‘It is an infringement of human and religious freedom to pressurise a woman, by persistent inducements, to adopt a course of action which in conscience she cannot take; to penalise a parent by demoting his child in the priority list for entry into a school because the parent has not done what in conscience she cannot do; and to penalise a person by refusing a licence to marry because he will not do what in conscience he cannot do.’

It is evident, from the dramatic drop in birth rate in the sixties, that Singapore’s parents had already made up their minds that two children, or thereabouts in statistical terms, were quite enough for any family aspiring to a comfortable living within the confines of their limited world.

Possibly, the modern Singaporean couple’s attitudes, had they been allowed to develop naturally, may have obviated the need for legislation which could not be disregarded by human rights advocates, wherever they might be. Abortion and sterilisation on request? Perhaps. Coerced sterilisation, bordering on the compulsory? No. But Singapore’s government is not known for its sensitivity to human rights.

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