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SEPTEMBER 18, 2000 VOL. 156 NO. 11

COVER: Seeing the Light
Laser eye surgery is helping thousands to see better, but the non-essential procedure poses risks. Is it worth it?
A Cautionary Tale: I'm still waiting for my miracle

TIME at the Olympics: Sydney 2000
TIMEasia, TIMEeurope, TIMEpacific and bring you our take on the first Olympics of the new millennium

On the eve of the Sydney Games, China suspends several athletes for, you got it, illegal drug use

INDONESIA: In Harm's Way
After the gruesome murder of three U.N. relief workers in West Timor, pressure mounts for Wahid to rein in the militias

BURMA: No Exit
The junta tightens its grip, calculating that the West won't care

CHINA: Cloak and Dagger
Missionary 007s are converting more and more Christians

SINGAPORE: Viewpoint
Philip Bowring praises efforts to lift the birth rate

INDIA: A Life Apart
Eunuchs are banding together to demand basic rights

MUSIC: Pretty Fly (For a White Guy)
Thailand's biggest country music star is a blue-eyed Swede

TRAVEL WATCH: Seeking Out Kunming's Hidden Charms

For Love of Country
Straitlaced Singapore has good reason to push for more babies

With its past bans on long hair and chewing gum, Singapore has earned a reputation for unsubtle attempts at social engineering. So at first glance the campaign, launched by Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong in his Aug. 20 National Day Rally speech, urging Singaporeans to "go forth and multiply," may seem another tedious Big Brother exercise. The government plans to unleash large dollops of tax money, as well as propaganda, to persuade Singaporeans to procreate more. The policy has already aroused negative reactions at home, as well as sniggers abroad.

Snicker if you will, but rather than fighting a rearguard action against modern mores, Singapore may be leading the developed world to a more realistic view of the relationship between economics and demography. The fertility rate, the number of children born per woman of reproductive age, has declined 35% in Singapore since 1970. The government's new financial inducements for third children, paid maternity leave and state-funded child-care centers may be just the beginning. Eventually we may see large tax and pension penalties for those who, voluntarily, do not reproduce. And why not?

This is not a question of forcing people to have or (as in the case of China's dangerous one-child policy) not to have children. The question is whether to create a link between costs and benefits for society as a whole. All economics is about making choices among scarce resources. Children are a short-term cost and a long-term benefit.

In most of the world over the past century, people have been in abundance. Now they are increasingly scarce in most affluent societies. Asian "family values" notwithstanding, Hong Kong and Singapore's fertility rates are among the lowest in the world, similar to Italy's, which is at the bottom of the West European fertility league. The average woman in Singapore has only 1.5 children, compared with the 2.1 needed to achieve a stable level of population. Taiwan and South Korea, too, are close to the European norm. Japan already has one of the world's oldest populations.

Despite the wonders of technology, there is no escaping that people are—or should be—the most important factor of production. That is even more the case in advanced societies than in developing ones. However much money we save today, our standard of living in retirement will be primarily determined by the productivity of our individual national economies. And that is directly related to availability of the human factor of production. If you deliberately do not bear—and invest in—offspring who will create wealth when you are past working age, you should not expect the same pension or health care in old age as those who do. (Liberal immigration policies could help change the equation. But most Asian nations would find it difficult, at least politically, to absorb large numbers from other cultures.)

There is, of course, much more to having children than just brutal economics. But let us not imagine that economics doesn't enter frequently into government consideration of family size and birth rates. For half a century the West has, rightly, been advocating family planning programs to reduce birth rates in developing countries. The World Bank and other agencies have long promoted policies on family planning aimed at cutting birth rates. Nations that saw the wisdom of encouraging (but not forcing) family planning prospered because fewer children meant there was more money to invest in schools, health services, roads and industries. East Asia generally did well, particularly Thailand, South Korea and Singapore. Laggards Vietnam, the Philippines and Burma continued to have excessive birth rates.

But that was yesterday. In much of East Asia, as in Europe, birth rates have collapsed to well below the replacement rate. Pro-natal policies are now as needed in some countries as birth control is in others. Yet self-styled "liberals" who were once at the forefront of family-planning campaigns now suggest that government measures to raise birth rates are an attack on individual liberty.

Later retirement is a partial answer to the problems of aging populations and increased longevity. Immigration is a partial answer to low birth rates. But given their responsibilities for ensuring minimum standards of health and welfare and for creating conditions for economic stability, governments do have reason to ensure that there is some link between able-bodied peoples' input and output. The issue is not just one of having children who, one hopes, will take some responsibility for their parents' care in old age. The essential point is that governments should have policies on demography, as they do on education, that consider the long-term needs of their society and nation. Let us hope that Singapore's petty-minded approach to chewing gum does not blind others to the wisdom of its policy on this vital question.

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