|By Mavis Toh|
The umbrella fit two nicely. Three would have been a crowd.
This was among a range of iconic posters that popped up everywhere in the 1970s as the Government embarked on its two-child policy.
Madam Margaret Chua was a young mother then. She had her fallopian tubes tied in 1976 after giving birth to her second child at the then Kandang Kerbau Hospital (KKH), now known as the KK Women's and Children's Hospital.
She was 23 at the time and came from a family of 10 children. She, too, wanted a big family of her own.
But the disincentives made her change her mind and she decided to get ligated - that is, have her tubes tied to prevent further pregnancies.
'The pressure was high. The Government clearly didn't want us to have more than two,' said Madam Chua, who is now 55. 'Now, more than 30 years later, I wish I had more.'
Singapore's procreation policy has come full circle. From discouraging its citizens to have children, the Government's preoccupation over the past two decades has been to get couples to marry early and have more babies.
At the National Day Rally last week, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong unveiled a basket of generous perks.
Referring to the 'Two Is Enough' policy, he admitted it had been 'fabulously successful, in fact over-successful'.
'We had a poster, you remember this: 'Girl or boy, two is enough',' said Mr Lee. 'We achieved the target, we over-fulfilled our plan.'
He added that the Government became alarmed as the birth rate plummeted. It changed the message to 'Have three, if you can afford it' in the 1980s.
He showed a graph depicting the slide in Singapore's total fertility rate (TFR) from six children per woman in 1960 to about 1.3 today.
Singapore's current TFR is 1.29, or about 40,000 babies last year. In 1973, each family had 4.3 children and in 1975, a rate of 2.1 was recorded. A country needs a TFR of 2.1 - the so-called replacement level - just to keep its current population from sliding.
Housewife Susan Teo, 56, cannot help but wonder if Singapore would be facing its population crisis now had the two-child policy not been pushed so hard in the 1970s.
She reasoned that if that trend had not been curbed, each of the extra two children or so would have gone on to have an average of two kids of their own.
'Singapore might not have prospered so fast but at least we won't have a population shortage now.'
Despite the policy, she had three children. All are in their early 30s now, and still single.
A necessary move
Population experts pointed out that the campaign was necessary at the time.
Newly independent and resource-poor, Singapore needed to plug into the global economy and aiming for a replacement-level TFR made sense.
Professor Saw Swee Hock, 77, a statistician and demographic expert, said it took less than 20 years for Singapore's population to move from its peak in 1965 to replacement level.
'It was rapid because of the Government's strong population control measures,' said Prof Saw, a professorial fellow at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies.
He said that even without the Stop At Two policy, the TFR would have gone below 2.1 due to modernisation and women's changing attitudes towards marriage and having children.
'The measures were comprehensive and strong, but they weren't reversed quickly enough,' he said.
Mr Basskaran Nair, 60, was press section head at the then Ministry of Culture from 1970 to 1976, which managed the publicity for government campaigns.
Now property group CapitaLand's senior vice-president for group communications, he agreed with Prof Saw.
'We never anticipated the change in attitudes of the working women and couples. By the late 1970s, they had become more career-minded and that attitude change suddenly led to Singapore being hit by a low replacement birth rate,' he said.
Dr Paul Cheung, 55, Singapore's former chief statistician - now director of the United Nations Statistics Division - also felt that the two-child policy was a 'totally rational' decision back then.
Former minister for social affairs Othman Wok, 83, noted that at that time, families were living in squatter areas, people were unemployed and houses, schools and medical facilities were insufficient. 'If we didn't have the policy, Singapore would be overpopulated and where would people stay?' he said.
Was it too harsh?
The Family Planning and Population Board was set up in 1966 to reduce Singapore's birth rate.
The Stop At Two campaign was launched in 1972 and quickly became controversial, not least because it came with tough measures to discourage couples from having more than two children.
Couples who did not stop at two enjoyed less income tax relief, paid more in hospitalisation fees and had maternity leave reduced.
Women were encouraged to go for ligation and children with two or more older siblings did not get priority in school registration. Such families also had lower priority in allocation of Housing Board flats.
Mr Robert Tan, 62, then a public health assistant, recalled teams going to antenatal clinics in kampungs to educate mothers on various methods of contraception.
'Knowledge was very low then; many did not even know how to use a condom,' he said. 'We were trying to promote sterilisation more than anything else.'
One policy decision caused a lot of grief, though it worked: linking sterilisation to school policy.
'If you did not undergo sterilisation after your third child, he would not get priority in school,' recalled gynaecologist Paul Tan, 68. 'That was when people stopped reproducing.'
Working in KKH then, Dr Tan said sterilisation rates 'went sky- high' as doctors there performed up to nine operations a day. 'Pregnant women came in saying 'Doctor, I think I'm pregnant again' like they committed a crime,' he said.
One such woman was Madam Teo Gek Eng. In 1976, she found herself pregnant with her third child. The doctors and nurses chided her when she went for a check-up at a clinic, she said.
'They said, 'Your kids are so young and you're pregnant again',' said Madam Teo, 55, a housewife. 'They asked if I wanted an abortion.'
She kept her child but got ligated to ensure that her son would get priority in school. 'I had the sterilisation certification, which had to be shown as proof to the school,' she said. 'All but one of my five sisters tied their tubes.'
Saleswoman Mary Koh, 56, went one step further: She had an abortion in 1976 when she became pregnant with her third child. To have the child, she and her technician husband would have had to pay a $150 delivery fee, which was called the accouchement fee.
'It was a lot of money back then,' she said. 'It was a painful decision.' Those fees were waived if the woman or her husband underwent sterilisation. The more children they had, the higher the fee.
Sociologist Paulin Straughan, 45, said the Stop At Two policy created a generation of small families less likely to go against that trend.
The Government's new incentives will help those who want to have children, but are unlikely to convert those undecided, she said.
'Unless we're able to change the impact of paid work and its dominance in our lives, it's unlikely more would be willing to take a step back from work and put family first,' she said.
Asked for his views on the new measures, former top civil servant Ngiam Tong Dow, 70, told The Sunday Times: 'We need to learn to fine-tune to the emotions rather than to the dollars and cents. It should appeal more to the sense of fulfilment of having children.'
What do you remember most about the Stop At Two policy? Send your views to [email protected]
DDB: Children have the ability to humble us and make us see the world in a better, kinder and more compassionate light. For Singapore - with its work ethic - children make each of us a better person, worker, leader, even a better CEO.
Leo Burnett: We should poke a bit of fun at ourselves by doing this campaign in a way that twists the typical language/messaging that is prevalent in most government releases we see.
Ogilvy & Mather: We wanted to highlight what parents could lose by not having another child: the incredible potential of a human being. Thomas Edison was a seventh child.
The Sunday Times: The headline and that cute baby say it all, we think. So Singaporeans, go make babies.