Why did the populace resist hegemonic intervention with regard to procreation, in their lives?

© Edwin Ng 2001

The context of discourse

Central to any discussion of the state in Singapore is the now familiar definition of the state as authoritarian (Rodan, c1993), as Confucianist and as "Confucianising" (Chua, 1995). Moreover, Government intervention in the social space constituted by Singaporeans embodies the rationality of pragmatism, whose "economic instrumentality" operates on the contingencies of a particular situation rather than on the basis of any inviolate principles (Ibid: 1995). Therefore, the ideological orientation of the government constitutes a system of control that acts coercively not only on the mind, but also on the body of the population.
The Confucianist orientation engenders a specific role formation between the population and the state, and between the population itself and their children. The foremost consequence of a Confucianist ideology is the perpetuation of hierarchy, and more specifically the maintenance of patriarchy. The population itself is subjectivised; in the same manner that fealty is yielded by vassals to their feudal lord, constituting a sort of natural order that proceeds from the state's survivalist psyche. The state is tantamount to a superpatriarch (Wee in Stevens (ed.), c1995), with the power of life and death over the population. This mode of interpretation can be extended to children, whose very lives as it were, are at the mercy of their fathers, and by further extension to the state, as overlord. Confucius said: "If the father says the son must die, then the son must die. If the emperor says that the subject must die, then the subject must die." (Ibid, c1995:187).
Moreover the ethos of pragmatism permeates the law, such that the law becomes an instrument of social control and a rectifier of social behaviour - the government governs through the law rather than by the law (Chua, 1995). The juxtaposition of the law, Confucianism and pragmatism results in a matrix of relations that tends to privilege the state (and to a lesser extent the parents), over the child. And as such, the value that accrues to children is defined by the potential economic benefit of the child to the nation, as well as the parents. Children are thus valued as wealth creators (and consequently devalued as wealth consumers). The development agenda for a new nation-state such as Singapore is therefore, the ideology shaping the preconceived molds for the number and type of children to be born as "contributions to national progress" (Wee in Stevens (ed.), c1995).

Discursive practices in population planning

A pervasive ideology of the People's Action Party (PAP) leadership has been its continued self representation as a corruption-free bureaucracy. The stark all-white uniform is connotative of a lack of self-interest. The trust in this moral self representation has been efficacious in returning the Party to power, and since 1959 has constituted the government to the present day.
Not only have the ruling elite commanded the moral legitimacy to govern; its political dominance is daily reconstituted by the success they have achieved with the economy. The emphasis that the Party comprises moral managers with the technical expertise to manage the economy has not been lost on the nation.
One would be tempted to state that ideologically, there was consensus regarding the population policy spanning the years 1959 to 1983. The slew of slogans from the "Stop at Two"/"Boy or Girl - Two is Enough" campaign resonate even to the present day. Furthermore, the population has been unwilling or unable to replace itself since 1975. However, if the "Stop at Two" campaign proved as efficacious as it did in curbing population growth, its sister campaign, staged in recent years to encourage population growth should be just as successful in promoting population growth. As it turns out, the converse happens to be true.
Interestingly, "Stop at Two" signifies a command emanating from the centre. It assumes coerciveness in the various legislation governing the reproductive function of the population, particularly women. Abortion was legalized. Accouchement fees for hospital births were progressively pegged to birth order, such that the third child cost more than the first and home births were banned by law so that no one would escape the hospital net (Wee in Stevens (ed.), c1995). Paid maternity leave was allowed for the first two children only and priority in admissions to elite schools was also restricted to the first- and secondborn. And in the event that a woman births a third child, priority Primary One registration rights for that child is suspended unless the mother sterilizes herself (The Straits Times, 2000). Leave is still granted to civil servants who sterilize themselves.
Class distinctions figure importantly in the administration's strategy to curb the growth of the lower-classes after 1983. The Small Family Incentive Scheme (Ibid, c1995) would be awarded to women who satisfy the following criteria: (a) was sterilized on or after 1 June 1984 (b) below 30 years of age (c) no more than 2 children (d) neither she nor her husband must not possess any "O" level passes (e) neither she nor her husband should earn more than $750 a month.
In the event that the woman has a third child she is obliged to pay the $10 000 awarded to her in addition to the 10% compound interest per annum. The Scheme has since been renamed The Small Families Improvement Scheme and a broader range of benefits are paid out to women who satisfy the above criteria. The Ministry of Home Affairs, Community Development and Sports (MCDS) is silent on the $10 000 penalty (http://www.mcds.gov.sg/) but the educational bursaries paid out under the new scheme applies only to children who are studying in pre-universities, polytechnics and institutes of technical education. In addition, "The Small Families Improvement Scheme helps low income couples improve and upgrade themselves by keeping their families small" (Ibid.). The eugenic intent of this specific scheme is apparent.

Hegemony in fertility regulation

The shift in an anti-natalist policy to a class-biased pronatalist policy was the result of a culmination of a number of factors. Population decline was an immediate problem. More importantly, the perception that not only was the population not producing enough babies - they were also not producing the desired ones. Hence, the Graduate Mothers' Scheme. The backlash from the scheme however was sufficiently strong enough to provoke a complete about-turn on the scheme in the short time it was implemented.
Since the implementation of a class-biased pronatalist policy proved to be particularly problematic and highly politicised for the government, a generalized pronatalist policy was introduced. This "Baby Bonus" scheme is divided into two tiers: a flat deposit consisting of a $500 incentive for a second child at birth, and $1000 for a third child at birth. For the next five years, the same amount will be deposited for each child bringing the total cash incentive to $3000 for a secondborn and $6000 for a thirdborn child in the same family. The second tier consists of a cooperative savings scheme called the Children's Development Account. The state will contribute an equivalent amount for every deposit into this account, subject to a cap of $1000 for the second child and $2000 for the third child (http://gwbweb.wustl.edu/).
The Baby Bonus scheme has been the culmination of an ideological trajectory spanning almost two decades. From the beginning of the shift in the natalist policies, the population at large has been deluged with propaganda expounding the value of the family. Interestingly, the push for population growth contrasts vividly with the high-handed "Stop at Two" campaign. There exists a painstaking effort to represent the interest of the nation as the collective interest. Various survivalist arguments were disseminated via the news media, particularly the potential lack of manpower to sustain the economy (part of the wider "people is our resource" discourse), national defence considerations and the aging demography.
The state's attempts to mould the public consciousness, with the implementation of a pervasive, inundating media campaign can be said to constitute a discursive formation (Foucault, 1969). The various representations in the media are epistemic of a model, moral family i.e. heterosexual, legal, nuclear and reproducing. The representations themselves vary from time to time, reflecting a gradual ideological shift from a eugenic discourse to a superficially all-inclusive pronatalism. The various texts from the television and poster media advanced the appeal of marriage and married life, and furthermore of the advantages of having children. A selection of these texts is analyzed here:

a. A young man and a young lady exchange glances at a restaurant. A friend of the man happens to know the lady so the both of them move over to the lady and the man introduces himself to her. They then begin to sit and chat animatedly. The viewer receives the impression that they seem to be genuinely interested in each other.
b. Another TV advertisement shows a man hard at work in the office and there is an indication on his facial expression that he is stressed. The next scene shows the couple's empty home and the room they have prepared for their prospective baby. The wife is then shown giving birth to a child, and the husband hovers close over his wife and the new-born, smiling and holding her hand. "Children … life would be empty without them." echoes towards the end.
c. Posters showing an adolescent, attractive girl applying make-up. "She's having a date", the poster remarks, "but it's not with her boyfriend". The next half of the poster depicts the same girl hand in hand with her parents walking down a street.
d. The last advertisement to mention here shows a young 'uns soccer match in progress while the proud parents of the young protagonist looks on. The time comes for him to score a penalty goal and he manages to put the ball into the net. Next, we see the boy and his parents smiling as they walk behind him while he kicks the football around. 'Family … cherish the moments.' is the final resonance.

The advertisements utilizes an understated approach to represent the family as a romantic encounter that would be meaningless without the presence of significant others, particularly the child. The family as desired and desirable is sold to the general audience, who are expected to consume the family as they would a product. Moreover, material success and the ideologies of mass consumption are undermined when juxtaposed against the emotional wealth and fulfillment that a moral, happy family can bring.

Resistance and disengagement

The shift in the state's position regarding the present population policies was markedly different from its previous bureaucratic measures. Instead, the execution of ideological consensus with regard to state's goals appears to assume priority. Increasingly, the political repercussions from the administration of the Old Guard materialized through the ballot box (especially the elections of 1984/88). The new leadership lead by Goh Chock Tong promised greater consultation with the public regarding governmental policies with a progressive restructuring in the highly centralized decision-making process.
The state realizes the liberalizing effect of a nuanced and complex society moulded by higher education and varied life experiences. Ironically, the regime's economic success has spawned a middle class ready to contest the state's ideological intervention in their private space. While at the beginning of the state-initiated industrialization program, the interests of the population and the state was similarly aligned i.e. for survival, the stranglehold on the public consciousness that economic issues used to command has lost its power. Moreover, the memory of the harsh laws and disincentives applied to the body of the population remains vivid and therein arises the concomitant association with the current fertility campaign with the repressiveness of the past.
"You are mentally reversing a major policy. There is a lot of residual anger and frustration from the young adults today whose parents had to be sterilized and who could have had a sister or brother if only it was allowed," recounts Mr Basskaran Nair, the former government propagandist for the "Stop at Two" campaign (The Straits Times, 2000).
"They have been brainwashed for years and can no longer count or see beyond two. They still remember the embarrassment of mothers who had three or more. It may take another generation to overcome this," notes gynaecologist Paul Tan (The Straits Times, 2000).
The stigma of being bad citizen-parents has been inscribed into the psyche of the populace. The generation birthed during the period of the "Stop at Two" campaign remember the humiliation of their parents having to toe the government line and seek to avoid continued intervention in their own lives. Moreover, women continue to bear the brunt of the continued surveillance on their bodies and resent being told what to do and when to do it. Female labour was appropriated for the economy whenever a shortfall in manpower occurred, and female bodies were then again extorted to produce babies whenever population growth rates declined. When surplus labour occurs, women were the first to be retrenched - and told they were better off housewives and mothers. Then there was a time most women remember lucidly... they had produced too many babies.
At an Association of Women for Action and Research (AWARE) public forum on population matters in May, its president Dana Lam recalls that the question "What will make us start a family?" was posted. The short and sharp answer from the floor was, "Get off our backs." (The Straits Times, 2000)
Under the Confucianist discourse, the value of a child has been argued to be tied to her/her potential economic value. The child is not loved for who he/she is, marking the absence of a moral system that values the child intrinsically. The prevalence of love marriages and the gradual erosion of patriarchy indicate the reversal of traditional modes of valuing the child. The decision to procreate is no longer gender-biased but number specific.
Industrialization, globalization and the concomitant homogenization of culture dispersed values that undermined the Confucianist discourse. Individualism, mass consumption and commodity fetishism contributed a discursive limitation on family size. The creation of a prosperous capitalist economy, with a compulsory savings scheme (the Central Provident Fund) has removed the child as an essential insurance against old age. In a consumer culture, the child is seen more as a wealth consumer than a wealth creator, since there exists a variety of financial instruments to ensure viability in old age. The value of a child then consists in his/her emotional value, and how that value brings a sense of psychological well-being to the parents as well as recreate the moment and romance of marriage/married life.
"We still want to live in condominiums, buy our children toys without thinking twice and send them to university. It doesn't really mean that the kid will starve," remarks public relations manager Monica Tan, 30 (The Straits Times, 2000).
Lasch (1977) adds that the family did not simply evolve in response to industrialization, but was deliberately transformed by the intervention of policy planners. Public housing evolved to inhibit large families through space constraints. This served not only to nuclearized the family but to also to proletarianize it. The sale of wage-labour in the market meant that parents do not possess the time or the resources to indulge the care giving needed to support a large family. The constraints are felt most acutely since policy planners intended the creation of a class-based, achievement-oriented, neolocal workforce. Without the support of a broad-based kinship network to assist in care giving when parents are absent, large-sized families are no longer possible.
While the PAP has garnered a surplus of political legitimacy through its economic policies, its interference in the lives of the populace has provoked a degree of non-compliance and resistance that will however, not translate into a removal of the party from power. Middle class interests coincide with that of the state agenda, i.e. the advancement of economic interests. In the absence of alternative forms of state power, the populace can only disengage.
Frederick George Bailey (1993:8), "I am thinking not of explicit challenges, revolution or rebellion or constitutional challenge through the courts or through elections, but rather of disengagement, a convenient term for an unobtrusive or indirect way in which individuals protect themselves from organizational or institutional exploitation."
"A disengager is an active calculating guardian of his own space, protecting his identity against organizational trespassing. He lies and cheats and he steals; … can be a moral person but his morality does not always coincide with that of the organization that has him in chains." (Ibid: 9)
Collectively the populace is disengaging, out of a belief that their personal agenda takes precedence over state goals. They realize, perhaps not as explicitly as Bailey, that their space is theirs to govern and structural constraints imposed on them by existing social and political arrangements make it impossible to conform to state demands. Families may be willing to trade their freedom away if the price is right. But the price is not yet right; because for those families with two children, the Baby Bonus works out to $2 per child per day over a six-year period - at the end of which, a parent's duty is by no means done yet (The Straits Times, 2000).
With their continual resistance to the prevailing discourse, the populace is sabotaging the system. Reflexively, they know their oppression - and they will not bow. The cost is too high and therefore they will not yield. As Berger puts it neatly, "For a moment we see ourselves as puppets indeed. But then we grasp a decisive difference between the puppet theatre and our own drama. Unlike the puppets, we have the possibility of stopping in our movements, looking up and perceiving the machinery by which we have been moved. In this act lies the first step towards freedom." (1963)


1. Rodan, Garry (ed.) Singapore changes guard: social, political and economic directions in the 1990s Melbourne: Longman Cheshire; New York: St. Martin's Press, c1993

2. Chua, Beng Huat Communitarian ideology and democracy in Singapore London;
New York: Routledge, 1995.

3. Stevens, Sharon (ed.) Children and the politics of culture Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, c1995

4. Foucault, Michel The Archaeology of Knowledge Trans. A.M. Sheridan Smith. London: Tavostock, 1972.

5. The Great Baby Debate - Too loud, too little, too late? The Straits Times (Singapore) 22 September 2000.

6. Lasch, Christopher. Haven in a heartless world: the family besieged N.Y.: Basic Books, c1977.

7. Berger, Peter L. Invitation to sociology; a humanistic perspective. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1963.

8. Bailey, Frederick G. The kingdom of individuals: an essay on self-respect and social obligation. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1993.


1. http://www.mcds.gov/

2. http://gwbweb.wustl.edu/