HK's one-child problem

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 10 April, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 10 April, 2012, 12:00am


'I still think that having siblings is the best for children, but we decided against it,' said Joyce Ho Mei-yee, the mother of a five-year-old daughter.

Ho is also a full-time manager for the Hong Kong Federation of Women's Centres, which provides counselling and support for women.

Raising a child is hard work wherever you are, but despite having a full-time job she finds Hong Kong's sky-high cost of living and lack of child-raising support are daunting.

'We struggled for the longest time to decide whether we should [have another child], but the truth is we cannot really afford it - both in terms of time and money,' she said.

Ho, now 36, was married at 28, which among her peers is considered early. She gave birth to her daughter, Cherry Ma Cheuk-yin, in 2007. At the time she and her husband wanted a second child, but have not done so after seeing how the first took up their time and finances.

In Hong Kong, she said, it was becoming increasingly difficult to raise a child, given the long hours that had to be worked. Most often, this was necessary just to earn enough to feed the family. But more importantly, Ho feared that she would not be able to be a good mother.

Parenthood is about being able to provide for one's children, but also to be able to support them emotionally, she said. Having one child and a full-time job she cannot quit meant that all her free time was spoken for.

Ho observed that Hong Kong's population was greying rapidly and understood the importance of a population whose growth rate at least matched the replacement rate. But she admitted that could not afford to have another child.

'If I can afford to give up my job and become a stay-at-home mother, I'd be more than willing to have a child. Or even if I had a more flexible job or a part-time job, I'd more positive about have a second child,' she said.

Raising a child was expensive, especially when it came to education and schooling, she said. And to be able to afford giving their next generation the best, both parents would have to work, which left little time to spend spending with the children.

Ho quit her job soon after giving birth and went back to university to complete a master's degree. This move had given her time to raise her child. But she said it came with financial pressures, as her husband was the family's only income-earner.

'It was really great being able to basically take care of the baby myself, but there was a lot of pressure financially. I remember how my husband was under so much pressure,' Ho said. Her husband, who works in the IT industry, would worry a lot about the stretched finances and had to work extra hard to ensure he did not lose his job.

'He only had an hour at most with our daughter every day, which was also tough for him because he had to focus on work,' she said.

Ho rejoined the workforce after two years as a student and full-time mother.

'I already feel guilty sometimes when I have to work and leave my daughter with the maid,' she said. 'The most heart-wrenching time is when my daughter would call and ask: 'Mama, when are you coming back? I have to sleep but can I see you first?' or 'Mama, can I go to work with you?' I'd always feel so bad at leaving her at home.'

The second-most common factor cited in a survey on having children commissioned by the South China Morning Post was 'a good education system', with 67 per cent of respondents ranking it in their top five, while 12 per cent of them named it 'most important' factor.

However, most of the respondents were not happy with Hong Kong's education system and government support when it comes to child-raising.

Education has consistently taken up the largest share of the government's spending, with nearly HK$60 billion allocated in the 2012/13 financial year, about one-fifth of its total recurrent expenditure.

But despite hefty sums the government spends on education each year, the Post's survey indicated that over half of the respondents thought it was not enough.

Education was thought to be the aspect lacking support the most, with over 60 per cent of the respondents selecting education as one of their choices when asked what aspects of child-raising support are in want. Among respondents with children, almost 70 per cent think Hong Kong lacks education support.

Forty per cent of respondents - half of whom are already parents - think that there is no adequate and affordable education available for children in the city.

In response to the Post's inquiry about the lack of education support, a spokesman for the Education Bureau said Hong Kong did well in international education benchmarking studies, including being named one of the 'sustained improvers in education systems' in a 2010 report by management consulting firm McKinsey & Company, where the system was great within the 'great to excellent' category.

Free education was extended from nine years to 12 years in 2008, for progressively smaller classes since 2009. But for many parents such as Ho, this is inadequate and she wants her enrol her daughter at a direct-subsidy school, where costs can easily reach HK$60,000 for primary school and HK$100,000 for secondary.

On kindergarten education, the spokesman said the pre-primary Education Voucher Scheme was launched in 2007, providing subsidies for parents enrolling children into pre-primary institutions. Other subsidies are also available for pupils and parents in various stages of education, from kindergarten to post-secondary.

'The first two years are tough because you have to take care of the child at all hours, but the third year is when the nightmare starts - the schooling nightmare,' said Ho.

She spoke of the thick stack of forms she had to fill out when applying for kindergarten and later on primary schools.

'There were piles of them - I had to write essay-long answers for some! It's almost like they are choosing parents, not children,' said Ho of the application forms. Some primary schools even interviewed the parents, she said.

'It's unbelievably competitive getting into the good schools. Many of my friends started thinking about primary school applications when their children just got into kindergarten,' she said. Reluctance in having more children may also stem from the lack of faith in the education system and the future in general in Hong Kong.

Then all the children have extra-curricular activities, like sports, piano and other instruments, drawing class, Putonghua lessons and more.

Ho said she considered herself a pretty easy-going parent already.

'I don't force my daughter to learn thing - I'd rather spend time with her in the park or at the beach. But many parents want their children to pick up musical instruments, foreign languages and sports or other things. And we are talking about upper kindergarten and primary schoolers,' she said.

Ho admitted that Hong Kong parents tend to become 'monster parents' - parents who are overly protective and over concerned with 'getting the best' for their children - but said there were reasons for it.

'I think most people do not have faith in the local education system,' she said. This is why parents scramble for the few spaces at prestigious education institutes and cram their children's free time with more lessons.

'We're not sure how positive the future will be, so as parents, we'd want to equip our children the best we can so they can somehow make a way for themselves. And as I mentioned already - it's about time and money. It always comes back to this,' she said.

'Hong Kong's education system is just not child-friendly. It's hard work; it doesn't really encourage creativity nor does it develop a child's personality. This is why parents strive so hard to find their children good schools and why parents make their children take up more after school,' Ho said.

Being able to get into a good school makes a big difference. The exposure, the networking and the resources a child can access can be totally different, she said, which is why top-tiered schools and international schools - if affordable - were looked upon as the first ticket to success in life by many parents.

Ho said having adequate maternity leave was also incentive for her to have her baby. She was working at Oxfam at the time, and was entitled to 20 weeks' maternity leave.

'Most of my friends have decided to not have children or only have one child.'

Among her friends, only about 30 per cent have children, she said. But the percentage was greater among her Christian church friends - around half to 60 per cent of her married friends have children.

Ho said many friends were deterred from having children because it jeopardised their careers.

'For many employers getting pregnant is not a good thing. My friends' bosses and colleagues would try to get rid of them when they got pregnant,' Ho said, arguing that discrimination against pregnant women in the workplace was still severe.

She said that raising a child is about having time and money to 'give them the best'.

'If I have one child, I can give her everything - the best of the best. But if I have two, I'll have no choice but to divide resources and time between them.

'It wouldn't be fair when the older child gets to go to a private school, while the younger one couldn't,' she said.


The annual cost, in HK dollars, of sending a child to a direct-subsidy secondary school. Parents cite the burden as a deterrent to having larger families